- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 7, 2002

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. (AP) John Whearty was 22 when San Quentin State Prison officials gave him a .38-caliber revolver, a 12-gauge shotgun and a crash course in being a prison guard.
"The officer I relieved was kind enough to stay half an hour to train me when I relieved the third watch," says Mr. Whearty, 78, with a wry smile.
These days, correctional officers go to a 16-week academy, a 40-hour orientation, and a two-year apprenticeship followed by on-the-job training.
San Quentin marked 150 years as a state prison yesterday. Mr. Whearty, still on the job and a sergeant, has been there for 56 of them.
"There were good days and bad days," he says. "I guess most of them were good or I wouldn't have stayed."
San Quentin began as a prison barge in the bay in 1852; the nascent state of California got its first prisoners before its first prison. As the barge became too crowded, the convicts were put to work building a facility on shore.
The prison was privately run at first, but in 1864, inmates revolted against conditions and marched the warden out of the gate with knives to his neck, only to be defeated by a group of farmers.
Punishments in those early years included the "dungeon," a dank, airless hole, and a straitjacket of sorts in which men were suspended from the ceiling for hours.
The first state execution, by hanging, was held at San Quentin in 1893. The condemned walked up 13 steps, one for each of the jurors and one for the judge, and the hangman had to judge the length of the rope correctly. The hanging was noted as "very successful" if the inmate's neck broke the first time he was dropped.
The prison initially held men and women, but a separate women's prison was opened in 1933 after a number of scandals and pregnancies.
San Quentin was an embarrassment throughout the 1930s. In 1935, four inmates took over the warden's house, injuring him and briefly escaping. Shortly after it was discovered that inmates were making counterfeit money with the prison's photoengraving machine.
By 1937 with the advent of the gas chamber, San Quentin had become the official site of all state executions. Today, with more than 600 condemned inmates, it is home to the nation's largest death row.
Major reforms began at San Quentin with the arrival of Clinton Duffy as warden in 1940. He put an end to beatings and the "dungeon." He improved the food and initiated the "San Quentin on the Air" radio show with its tongue-in-cheek theme song "Time on My Hands."
Whether San Quentin should continue as a prison has been debated for years.
Some critics believe its prisoners should be moved to new facilities and that the prime San Francisco Bay waterfront property be used more constructively, but their proposals haven't gone very far. State prison officials are looking at building additional prison-related facilities on the 432-acre site.
San Quentin has seldom been home to the rich, but it has housed the famous during its 150 years.
Stagecoach robber Black Bart served time there, as did boxer Kid "the Real" McCoy and James "Bluebeard" Watson, who was suspected of killing a number of his wives. Bluebeard was a trouble-free prisoner and above-average orderly at the prison hospital. But, wrote Duffy in his memoir "88 Men & 2 Women," Bluebeard had a curious habit of strangling finches that landed on a hospital windowsill.
Singer Merle Haggard served two years in San Quentin for a botched burglary attempt. He was released in 1960 and later received a gubernatorial pardon.
In 1992 the execution of Robert Alton Harris, the first man put to death in California since the 1960s, brought hundreds of protesters to its gates.
In 1971, "Soledad Brother" George Jackson was killed with two other inmates and three guards in an escape attempt that authorities said started when Jackson pulled a smuggled gun.
Mr. Whearty remembers being in an office that day. He was ordered to lock the door and stay put.
"Only one guy quit" afterward, he recalls. "Everybody else stayed and went on doing their jobs."

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