Marin County Genealogy

San Quentin, More memories from Jim Price - Escapes

Hosted by permission of Cathy Gowdy of the Marin County Genealogical Society.

Escapes ~ by Jim Price

Aaaaaaaawwwww went the big red siren on top of San Quentin Prison interrupting our evening television.  The siren was almost immediately joined by the on and off wailing of another siren at the salt-water pump house down by the ferry pier.  Soon all of the neighborhood dogs were howling as if answering some primeval call.  I ran to the kitchen window of our house, looked to the west and saw that the light on the pole above the east block of prison.  It had turned from green to red. The big siren continued it’s steady scream for almost a minute before it began its long coast to silence.

These were the signals for an escape. It was 1955 and my grandfather Zubler was over at Fort Miley Hospital in San Francisco being treated for cancer. My responsibility was to go and check the basement and make sure the keys are out of the cars.”  San Quentin was normally a very safe place.  What criminal would go to a prison to commit a crime?  We didn’t worry much about locking things up but this was no time to take chances.  It was scary waking down the dark back stairs of our house.  When I opened the basement door and turned on the light, I half expected to see an inmate crouched in a corner.

The next night I visited my girlfriend Cathy Metzler out in the valley. The valley was a section of guard housing at the west side of the prison property.  It was where our school was located and where most of the kids lived.  After visiting her and playing with my friends, I had to walk back home on a dark stretch of road.  That was the scariest part of an escape.  Above the road was a rock quarry and sometimes the wind coming over it sharp edges would make a moaning sound.  I would think of the nearby “boot hill” where the unclaimed bodies of inmates were buried in unmarked graves. It was as if they were crying out for someone to come and take them home.  On the road leading to the quarry was a pair of floodlights.  From an angle, they looked like eyes of a giant cat ready to pounce on me.  As I looked over and saw the red light above the prison, I would walk a little faster and whistle a tune.

Fortunately this wasn’t an escape, but a “hideout”.  A hideout was when an inmate would hide somewhere inside the prison walls or prison grounds hoping for an opportunity to escape later.  The fact that it would be almost impossible to escape with the increase in security during a hideout seemed to be lost on them.  The next day, the inmate was found.  I never heard exactly where, but it was probably in a false ceiling, ventilation duct, or in the back of a storage area.

San Quentin is the oldest California State Prison.  It began as a sailing ship converted into a makeshift prison.  The old “Spanish Cell Block was built by the Mexican government before California became part of the United States.  San Quentin is located in Marin County on a peninsula.  It has a beautiful view of San Francisco Bay that belies its sinister purpose.  The front of the prison resembles a medieval fortress and inside there are long rows of cells, steel bars, high walls and chain link fences.  Every direction you look leaves no doubt as to where you are.  Some 160 families live in state supplied housing on the prison grounds and about 40 more families in San Quentin Village, just outside the prison’s east gate. In 1946, when I was six years old, I moved with my grandparents from a house inside the gate to a house outside the gate when my grandfather retired as superintendent of the Jute Mill.

Originally there were many guard towers around the prison.  The towers were within earshot of one another so that whistle signals could be used between the towers.  Several times a day, while at school, we would hear the sounds of whistles traveling from tower to tower all around the prison.  In this manner it could be determined that all was well in each tower.  If the whistle signal didn’t get passed, there was a problem.  In the late 1940’s radio “prowl cars” came into increasing use.  Telephones were added to the key towers and the remaining ones were left unused.  We kids used to sneak up and play in them but eventually they were torn down.  Every afternoon at 3:30, a bell on top of the prison was rung.  This “first bell” signaled all of the inmates in the yard and the trustees working on the prison grounds that it was time to return to their cells for the count.  When all the inmates were counted, a short “all clear bell” was rung at 4:00 PM.  This signaled the guards that it was OK to go off duty. That night the light on the prison would be green.

Early 1940’s when my grandmother’s brother Clinton Duffy became warden. He immediately adopted many humane changes in the way the prisoners were treated.  He fired the 6 most abusive guards, closed the dungeons,  forbade the uses of rubber hoses for corporal punishment and ordered that the inmates be addressed by their first names rather than by numbers.  He earned the respect of most of the inmates and could even walk unescorted in the prison yard. 

In his book The San Quentin Story he talks about several escapes and escape attempts.  One of these was about an inmate, named George McRae, who worked on the garden crew.  After all of the routine search procedures and notifications of law enforcement agencies, my great uncle was advised during the evening that the only place not yet searched was a portion of the garden adjacent to the warden’s Victorian mansion. While waiting for help, he decided to grab a flashlight and check the garden himself.  While looking up and an ivy covered arbor nearby he decided to put his hand in his pocket (as if he had a gun there) and called out: “Come out, Mac, or I’ll shoot.”  A very soggy McRae plopped out of the arbor right at his feet.  Fortunately he didn’t know that my great uncle didn’t have a gun.

Another story was about my great grandfather William Duffy.  He had moved from San Pablo to San Quentin in 1893 to accept employment as a guard and brought the family over a year later.  He was on the trail of two runaways in the hills behind the prison.  This was an area used for cattle grazing.  He heard a rustling in the bushes and thinking the noise came from a calf he called out playfully, “Come out or I’ll shoot.” He was surprised when the missing prisoners stepped out with their hands in the air, and was caught with his gun down.

Sometime in the mid 1950’s they quit using the siren to signal escapes.  By then most everyone had telephones and the thinking was that if they just called the guards on the phone, they could alert them without letting the escapee know he had been missed.

One evening my friend Larry Cory’s mother heard someone running by the side of her house.  Thinking that Larry was outside playing and noting the late hour, she went to the back door and called “Larry, Larry, it’s time to come in” but heard no response.  When her husband was came home from work that evening, she learned that there had been an escape.  The next day they found a hole in the fence up behind their house and figured that the unknown runner was the escapee.

We don’t seem to hear as much about escapes as we used to.  I don’t know if it’s just because I don’t live at the prison, or because there isn’t as much publicity, or maybe prisons are more secure with all of the high tech surveillance equipment around.  In any case, it is very rare for an escapee to remain free for long.  The police just stake out his girlfriend’s house and eventually he shows up.

Fortunately over the years I never found an inmate crouching in the basement and nothing bad ever happened to any of us children at the prison. Maybe that built my confidence or faith that although bad things happen, they don’t happen very often—at least they didn’t to me.  I think the experience helped me improve my ability to deal with fear.  Walking on the long dark road certainly taught me how to whistle a happy tune.

Jim Price @ 2002

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