Source Information

California State Archive
Ancestry.com. California, Prison and Correctional Records, 1851-1950 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014.
Original data:

Department of Corrections. Folsom State Prison Records, 1879–1949. ID #R136, California State Archives, Office of the Secretary of State, Sacramento, California.

Department of Corrections. San Quentin State Prison Records, 1850–1950. ID #R135, California State Archives, Office of the Secretary of State, Sacramento, California.

Department of Corrections. Youth Authority Dept. Records, 1872–1950. ID #R233, California State Archives, Office of the Secretary of State, Sacramento, California .

About California, Prison and Correctional Records, 1851-1950

When California became a state in 1850, the waves of prospectors rushing to the gold fields included those seeking opportunity and a criminal element as well. The need for a place to incarcerate criminals was at first met by prison ships, but that proved inadequate. Point San Quentin was chosen as the site for California's oldest prison, San Quentin, which was built by prisoners held on the prison ship Waban and opened in 1852. It originally held men, women, and, since there was no reform school for youth, some boys as young as 12. In 1860, a reform school opened that took in boys up to age 18, but it wasn't until 1933 that California's first women's prison would open at Tehachapi.

Another state prison was proposed in 1858, but it would be 20 years before construction began on the bank of the American River. Folsom State Prison opened in 1880, the first prison in the world with electric power and one of the earliest maximum security prisons in the U.S. Its first prisoners were transfers from San Quentin.

This collection includes a variety of records from state prisons and reform schools, including inmate registers, photo albums, photo identification cards, mug shots, and descriptive lists.

Details will vary depending on the type of record, but the registers often include the following items:

  • date and number of commitment
  • name
  • nativity
  • occupation
  • crime
  • sentence date and term
  • conviction date
  • county sent from
  • age
  • occupation
  • physical description
  • discharge dates
  • prison number

Photographic and identification records include many of these same details, as well as photographs and more detailed descriptions, sometimes with Bertillon measurements. The Bertillon System of Criminal Identification was an anthropometric measurement system that used precise measurements of various parts of the body, particularly facial elements, to identify criminals.

Following is a list of the types of records available for each institution:

Folsom State Prison

  • Folsom State Prison, Prison Registers, 1880–1950
  • Folsom State Prison, Inmate Photographs
  • Folsom State Prison, Mug Books
  • Folsom State Prison, Descriptive List of Convicts, 1880–1896
  • Folsom State Prison, Identification Cards

San Quentin State Prison

  • San Quentin State Prison, Prison Registers, 1851–1947
  • San Quentin State Prison, Inmate Photographs
  • San Quentin State Prison, Mug Books (1926–1956)
  • San Quentin State Prison, Bertillon Books
  • San Quentin State Prison, Convicts Received at San Quentin
  • San Quentin State Prison, Identification Cards
  • San Quentin State Prison, Descriptive List of Convicts, 1884–1886

California Youth Authority

  • California School for Girls, Register
  • Ventura School for Girls, Inmate History Register, 1908–1933
  • Whittier State School, Inmate Registry, 1910–1912

Miscellaneous

  • Record of Name Changes, 1866–1883