San Quentin Dungeon Preserved For History’s Sake


An old dungeon at California’s San Quentin prison bore witness to “an enormous amount of human history, pain, misery and atonement,” Kevin Starr, California state historian, told the New York Times. Under a federal court-ordered overhaul of California's prison medical system, San Quentin is tearing down several outmoded buildings on the 432-acre property, including the original 1885 hospital built in the institutional Italianate style. A $146 million, state-of-the-art primary care health services complex will open in 2010.

The dungeon will be preserved. It was completed by prisoners in 1854, four years after statehood. “It was the state's first public work, before the Capitol building, the roadways, the public colleges and universities,” Starr said. “Its preservation is not trivial. Like the catacombs in Rome, it's where people suffered.” Intended to house 45 inmates, it was built out of local rock and clay brick quarried by convicts living aboard a prison ship anchored in San Francisco Bay. More than 150 men were piled into the cells, which were sealed off with iron doors with a small slit known as a “Judas hole.” Floggings with a rawhide strap were standard punishment, along with “shower baths” – a precursor of water-boarding – in which naked prisoners were tied to ladders and then sprayed in the face, chest, and genitals with a high-pressure stream of cold water. Federal historic preservation law requires surveying potentially historic structures on state or federally owned property and saving those deemed very significant. The facade of the 1885 hospital will be incorporated into the new medical facility.


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