San Quentin, California's oldest correctional institution was established in July, 1852 at Point Quentin in Marin county. At the time, lawlessness was rampant in the area, and a place was needed to house the many offenders. While the prison was being built, prisoners slept on the prison ship, The Waban, at night and worked on building the prison during the day. The name for the prison came from an Indian warrior named Quentin. He was a sub-chief of Chief Marin. Quentin led the Licatuit Indians in their last stand against the Mexican troops at the spot now occupied by San Quentin. The San (Saint) was added because at that time the local population was zealously Catholic. San Quentin housed both male and female prisoners until 1933 when a nearby women's prison was built at Tehachapi. The state's only gas chamber is located at San Quentin, and Death Row for the state of California is housed here. All the men condemned to death by California are at San Quentin. There are currently over 560 men on Death Row here.

San Quentin was designed to house 3,417 prisoners. It currently has around 6,000 inmates. It employs 1548 people, 915 of them guards and other custody staff. The rest are support and clerical workers. The 1999-2000 operating budget for San Quentin was $120 million dollars.

Furniture and mattresses are manufactured inside San Quentin by the prisoners. Also performed inside the walls by inmates is dry cleaning, electrical engineering, graphic arts & printing, landscaping, machine shop, plumbing, sheet metal. These are considered vocational programs, teaching the inmates skills to be used when they are released.

Escape has not been a big problem at San Quentin for quite awhile. In the beginning the escape attempts were often mass attempts, 50 men or more trying to make a break. The local citizens, using deer rifles would come out and help capture the escapees. They shot to kill. The last mass escape attempt, however, was in 1864. After that, the attempts were lone and desperate. One man jumped into a milk truck, swimming around, waiting for an unguarded moment that never came. Another man attempted to walk away from the prison underwater, using a homemade snorkel. He drowned. A few attempts have been made in recent years, even fewer successful.

The prison at San Quentin sits on some of the world's most valuable real estate. Developers covet the State Prison's 432 prime acres in a well-heeled Marin County. Rising upkeep on the aging buildings, the huge costs associated with bringing the facility up to earthquake code, and the upcoming completion of new prisons nearby, make it quite possible that San Quentin State Prison will become a thing of the past.