Clinton Truman Duffy was born on August 4, 1898 in the town of San Quentin. His father had been a guard at San Quentin Prison since 1894. Duffy went to San Quentin Grammar School and completed his high school education at San Rafael High School. Throughout these school years, he had a long relationship with Gladys Carpenter whose father was the Captain of the Yard. In December of 1921, the two were married.
Throughout World War I, Duffy served in the Marine Corps. When he was discharged, he worked for Northwestern Pacific Railroad and after, a construction company. Later, he even became a Notary Public. In 1929, Duffy had to go to the Warden’s office at San Quentin Prison to get a document notarized. While there, he overheard Warden Holohan say that he was in need of an assistant. Duffy took this as an opportunity to take a chance to get a job there. The Warden told him that if he wanted the job, he could have it. He worked hard for Warden Holohan and relieved him of many tedious duties.
In 1935, Warden Holohan was nearly killed during a prison break. Several prisoners had gained access to guns and went to the Warden’s home while he and the Prison Board were eating lunch. The prisoners beat Holohan unconscious and took the Prison Board hostage. With the board members as hostages, the prisoners were allowed to drive through the prison gates.
Shortly after that incident, Warden Holohan retired and was replaced by the Warden at Folsom Prison, Court Smith. Smith had his own assistant at Folsom Prison and wanted to bring him to San Quentin with him. Since he was no longer needed as the Warden’s assistant, Duffy was moved up to the Parole Board as assistant to Mark Noon, Secretary of the Board of Prison Directors.
During Smith’s time as Warden, things at San Quentin didn’t improve. There were several hearings about bad food, killings, and overall brutality to the prisoners. Due to the large number of investigations, Smith was dismissed. The Prison Board decided that since Duffy had been born and raised in San Quentin and had over 11 years of work experience in prison administration, he knew something about prison management. They offered him a 30-day temporary position as warden while they looked for a replacement. He was honored to have this position.
During this 30-day position as warden, Duffy did more than just make sure the prison stayed operational. He saw this as an opportunity to make a difference in the way prisoners were treated. The first change he made was to remove all forms of corporal punishment. He even fired all the staff who had beaten prisoners and participated in dealing out corporal punishment. Duffy did such a great job as warden that the Board of Directors gave him a regular four-year appointment.
During his appointment, Duffy continued making progress in San Quentin Prison. He immediately began working on an educational program for the inmates. He believed they needed actual teachers to come in instead of having the inmates teaching each other. He wanted to ensure that each of the inmates would be released a better man than they were when they got there.
Several other reforms were made during his time as warden. Duffy changed the inmates’ showers from sea water to fresh water. He even stopped the practice of shaving inmates’ heads and making them wear numbered uniforms. Duffy also instituted a new food program in the cafeteria and hired a dietitian.
Duffy believed the inmates could be rehabilitated and should be treated fairly. He would even walk throughout the prison yard unarmed and talk to the inmates regularly. His staff couldn’t believe his ease with these prisoners. He would treat these men with fairness while keeping in mind that the prison was there to punish but also rehabilitate.
Duffy created a vocational training program at the prison and let the inmates sell belts and wallets. Duffy was also the first warden to allow prisoners to listen to radios in their cells. Duffy even established the first prison chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. His wife, Gladys, put on a weekly program for the inmates. She was known as “Mom” Duffy to the inmates because of her words of wisdom and encouragement.
After 11 years as warden, Duffy turned over San Quentin to his first assistant, Harley Oliver Teets. Duffy went on to work for the Adult Authority and later became national president of the Seven Steps Foundation. This program was created by a former San Quentin inmate, Bill Sands, to help ex-convicts after they get out of prison.
Clinton Truman Duffy was one of the most admired prison administrators in U.S. penal history because of his accomplishments at San Quentin Prison. Duffy went on to write several books on his experiences at San Quentin Prison and even lectured against capital punishment on several occasions. Clinton Duffy passed away at the age of 84 in Walnut Creek, California.