Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Prisons That Float

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I was interested to note this BBC report on England’s use of prison ships — more here on a so-called “Tory mutiny” over the issue (pun intended?). The BBC article notes that the UK’s last floating jail, the HMP Weare, which was sold in 2005, “was originally a troop ship in the Falklands War and then a floating jail in the US.” I wonder how prevalent floating jails have been in U.S. history and where they were used? California’s famed San Quentin Prison, of course, began life as a ship. The young California Legislature approved the construction of a state prison in 1851, and leased the prison operation (and the prisoners’ labor) to two Mexican-American War heroes, Guadalupe Vallejo and James Madison Estell. But county jails started sending prisoners Estell’s way a bit prematurely, before a site for the new prison had even been chosen, so in the meantime, the prisoners were put on a ship, the Waban. Here’s a description from Shelley Bookspan’s history of the California prison system, A Germ of Goodness:

The ship had a capacity of perhaps fifty, but soon more than three times that many convicts languished there. According to a popular account, the prisonkeepers discovered the point at San Quentin accidentally. The ship, moored in the Sacramento River, was so burdened with bodies that it drifted uncontrollably until landing at Quentin Point, across the bay from San Francisco, whereupon the overseers discovered brick clay and declared the site acceptable for a permanent position. Other, more reliable accounts indicate that the location provided easy access to an existing quarry on Angel Island, and a tug pulled the ship across the San Francisco Bay to be harbored there.

(pp. 3-4) The first cell block at the San Quentin Prison opened in 1854.


Written by sara

January 23, 2010 at 3:32 pm

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