Prison Jewelry: Is it or isn't it?
By: Jacqueline Rehmann9/18/2009 -by Jacqueline Rehmann
“Confinement need not be without hope or the chance to remake shattered lives”
Clinton T. Duffy, former warden at San Quentin
A few years ago I was browsing through an antique shop, looking at what else? Costume jewelry of course!
I found an interesting wire bracelet with plastic inserts. At first glance I thought the plastic might be Bakelite. When I asked the shop owner if I could see the bracelet, she said, “Oh, that’s prison jewelry.” The dealer spoke with such authority that I asked her to tell me more. She told me a spell-binding tale about her grandmother who made loads of wire jewelry while she was in prison. She further boasted that her grandmother “knew where every still was buried in the county.” I bought the bracelet and matching earrings, as well as a wire ring that she had while thinking that this jewelry had some interesting provenance!
Now that wire jewelry had caught my attention I began noticing it more often and I bought several more pieces . I must say I never heard another such story but it was enough to pique my interest. I began to see references to prison jewelry and prison art on various websites and in books on plastic jewelry. Most often the jewelry was rings, crafted of some plastic, usually celluloid, and sometimes with a picture or initial on the front of the ring. Some were crudely made; others very well made .
My experienced jewelry friends were skeptical. Where was the documentation for such jewelry, they asked? Indeed, it seemed to be virtually nonexistent. Thus began my research.
I found an article in the Saturday Evening Post that looked promising. It described reforms at San Quentin, put into place by a visionary warden named Clinton T. Duffy during the late 1930’s. Skeptics and old-timers called it “Duffy’s Folly” as he installed a hobby shop, radio network, and movies for inmates, even those on Condemned Row, as it was then called. When Duffy took over as warden, the situation was out of control in the country’s most notorious prison. The article led me to Duffy’s book entitled “The San Quentin Story.” In this book, the routine use of whips and solitary confinement in ancient dungeons was described. Meanwhile, the convicts were printing money on prison presses while serving their time and trying to smuggle in machine guns hidden in barrels of photographers hypo. What a place!
Duffy’s landmark reforms included providing toothbrushes for convicts. He describes a young man in solitary “who was doing his time hard.” The man’s record wasn’t good; since his incarceration for robbery he had cursed the guards, slugged another inmate, was caught gambling, and had refused to work. In solitary, he had flooded his cell, torn up a mattress, and thrown food through the bars. Duffy asked the young man, named Bill, why he didn’t “take it easy.”
“…they’re trying to break me, see? I wasn’t doin’ a damn thing this time except foolin’ around with my toothbrush.”
When Duffy asked him what he was doing with the toothbrush the man said he was trying to mold the handle. “I found out I could soften it up and bend it. A guy’s gotta do somethin.”
“What were you making?” asked Duffy. “A ring, warden. Nuthin’ else. For that, they gimme five days up here in the hole, and they squawk because I blow my top.”
Duffy’s response was to collect shoeboxes of discarded toothbrushes from hotels in San Francisco, most of which had colored handles. He bought a pamphlet on plastics in a secondhand book store, and he bought some acetone, a few small tools, and some other harmless chemicals. He gave the supplies to Bill in his solitary cell and he issued the young man a permit so there would be no more trouble. Bill’s first attempts at jewelry making were crude, but during the next six months he made hundreds of rings, which he gave to the warden in handfuls. The warden gave them out as souvenirs when he did talks to various civic groups on the reforms at San Quentin. After Bill had perfected the process, he took orders for the rings, and also for brooches and bracelets that he was making as his skills improved and his inventory expanded. During World War II, Bill worked tirelessly without pay to fill orders for servicemen who wanted his plastic jewelry for trading in the South Pacific . The story had a happy ending. Bill managed to save $2000 from his sales to civilians. When he was released from prison, he used the money to start a small plastics business and in his spare time he taught his art to wounded soldiers in Army hospitals.
The program at San Quentin continued to expand under Mr. Duffy’s leadership and inmates made fine belts, wallets, picture frames, other types of jewelry, greeting cards, toys, and other goods. In a wry twist, Duffy noted that the men found particular delight in the fact that some of their best customers included policemen, deputy sheriffs, and detectives, “who have paid fancy prices for hand-tooled gun holsters made by the men they had sent to prison.”
By the 1960’s 25% of the inmates were engaged in some form of cultural activity. In 1968, the New York Times featured an article describing items being made and sold at San Quentin, including men’s and women’s jewelry, (including cuff links, earrings, necklace pendants, pins in the forms of animals and birds, and bracelets) which were being made with metals and stones. Inmates would pay for their own materials from sales during the annual arts and crafts show, which was open to the public, and through year round handicraft-store sales to prison visitors. Inmates, not convicts (that label was dropped during Duffy’s tenure) had 65% of the proceeds deposited to his spending account, 10% to his parole retention fund, and 25% to the Inmate Welfare Fund which would help pay for new library books, recreational equipment, and weekly movie rentals.
Duffy’s story is compelling; indeed his book was one that I could not put down until I finished it. But additional research revealed that prison arts and crafts first made their debut in the early 1930’s. In a movement that “deserves nationwide response” artwork and crafts from inmates at Sing Sing, Clinton Prison, Rhode Island State Prison, Michigan State Prison, the Pennsylvania Industrial School at Hunting, PA. and the Reformatory for Women at Framingham, Massachusetts were exhibited at the Sargent gallery in New York. Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt headed the list of patrons for this landmark exhibit.
Today, prisons continue to offer arts and crafts for inmates even while much work is spent bringing facilities up to basic federal and state standards. In New Jersey, inmates are supported by a nonprofit organization called New Jersey People for Prisoners Art, Inc. The group is one of a handful of such groups throughout the country which support artists and artisans who are behind bars. Administration officials note that research supports the fact that inmates involved in artistic activity are not as prone to violent confrontations.
So are all those great plastic rings really prison jewelry? Not so fast, cautions plastic historians Keith Lauer and Julie Robinson in their excellent book entitled “Celluloid: Collector’s Reference and Value Guide” (Collector Books, 1999). The book features a collection of rings manufactured from a variety of techniques including laminated celluloid in ivory graining layered with solid colors; also celluloid covered photos and initials imbedded in clear celluloid. The authors state that rings of the quality featured in their photographs would not have been made from recycled toothbrushes. Various molding machinery and volatile chemical preparations are necessary when making such items. They also note that precise combinations of laminated and opalescence effects could not have been done successfully by an amateur. Such exacting work requires the talents of an expert.
My research in prison jewelry is just beginning. There is a museum at San Quentin and I have spoken with an official about their prison jewelry. He noted in our conversation that “the inmates here have made some amazing things.” Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to visit the museum yet, nor has he sent me photographs. As friends of mine who worked in the federal prison system have told me, “officials’ time is limited and we can be notoriously bad at record-keeping.” When I do visit San Quentin, I plan to take plenty of photographs to share with VFCJ members.
If you have any information or sources on prison jewelry, Jacqueline would love to hear from you (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Jacqueline Rehmann is the author of “Classic American Costume Jewelry” published by Collector Books in 2009.
Adler, Nancy J. Arts Take Root at San Quentin. The New York Times, January 11, 1968.
Bennet, Beverley. Perspex Jewelry. Plastiquarian, No. 15, Winter, 1995-96.
Duffy, Clinton N. “I’m Going Stir Crazy, Warden!” Saturday Evening Post, April 29, 1950.
Duffy, Warden Clinton T. The San Quentin Story. Pocket Books, Inc. New York, 1950.
Harrington, C. Lee. Time to Piddle: Death row Incarceration, craftwork, and the meaning of time. Journal of Arts Management, Law & Society, Spring 1997, Vol. 27, Issue 1.
Izard, Mary Jo. Wooden Jewelry and Novelties. Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. 1998.
Jevell, Edward Alden. Prison Art Work Shown at Exhibit. New York Times, April 3, 1934.
Kelly, Lyngerda and Schiffer, Nancy. Plastic Jewelry. Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. 2001 (4th edition)
Lauer, Keith and Robinson, Julie. Celluloid: Collector’s Reference and Value Guide. Collector Books, 1999.
Lesner, Leigh. Collecting Art Plastic Jewelry, Krause Publications, 2005.
Patterson, Dick. “Memories of World War II,” Historical News, Adams County Historical Society, Hastings, NE, Vol. 28, No. 4, 1995.
Simmons, Joyce Zakierski. Wire Jewelry. VFCJ, Volume 15, No. 2, Spring 2005.
Taft, Philip B. Art Behind Bars: A Creative Outlet. New York Times, April 13, 1980.
This article will appear in the Journal of Vintage Fashion and Costume Jewelry, Vol. 19, #4 December 2009.