"Evil and vicious indeed is our American Prison System. It permits of all sorts of abuses. Instead of being constructive and curative, it becomes but a destructive agency. It is retributive and criminally vicious in every sense of the word, vomiting forth a spawn, stigmatized as ex-convicts to go out and poison the social stream, having been trained to commit worse criminal acts than those for which they were first apprehended".
Even today, San Quentin State Prison has a notorious reputation but things were far worse in the opening years of the 20th century. As one of the "Folsom transfers", Ed Morrell was a marked man from the very beginning of his time there. Not only for being implicated as one of the ringleaders of the Folsom "riot" plot but for being part of the California Outlaws. Within days of his arrival at San Quentin, Morrell was charged with misconducts and sentenced to the "dungeon"- being chained to a wall in solitary confinement with a bread and water diet. It would become very familiar punishment for him as he became an informal leader of the other inmates in protesting prison conditions. He had nothing to lose, after all.
One of the chief grievances of prisoners was the horrendous graft that occurred throughout the prison. Those inmates who could afford better treatment and food were far better off than the ones at the bottom who were singled out for whatever abuses the prison guards could inflict on them. Rumours spread of privileged inmates being allowed to gamble, break rules, and (it was whispered) even engage in "opium parties". Whether or not the rumours were true, prisoner morale sank even lower. Of course, every inmate was expected to work in the prison Jute Mill making rope so, following a work shutdown by the inmates, Morrell read a list of complaints to the warden. After the shutdown came a full riot (which Morrell would later claim had been instigated by the hard-nosed prison guards). Soldiers were called in to restore order and the inmates surrendered after fourteen days. Morrell was branded as the leader of the rioters although there was little evidence beyond the word of the prison administration.
After rumours surfaced about guns being smuggled into the prison, Morrell was subjected to a harsh interrogation. Despite his protests of innocence, Ed Morrell was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement. When later writing about his "dungeon cell", Morrell would describe it as "four and a half feet wide by eight feet long. It allowed me but three short steps and a turn on the fourth as exercise, I had an old straw tick on the floor and two blankets." The cell was kept dimly lit and there were no other inmates within speaking distance of his cell. Not even the guards were allowed to talk to him except for occasional orders. After working out a tapping code, he was able to communicate with another prisoner twelve cells away although they needed to be cautious around the suspicious guards.
With the coming of a new warden came a new torture in Morrell's life: the jacket. After being again accused of having concealed firearms in the prison, Morrell was punished by being secured in a cell with a coarse heavy straitjacket, a canvas cloth with brass eyelets in the side. Laced tightly around his body, Morrell was subjected to exruciating pain while left secured in his jacket for four days and fourteen hours. He would later write, "For nearly half an hour my heart pounded incessantly. The cords in my neck were bulging out ready to burst. My breath left my body, forced grudgingly through my throat in sharp, hot gasps. My eyes were emitting sparks of fire. Now, I had a strange sensation in my feet. I was obsessed with an hallucination that my toes were crumpling into hard knots."
Morrell would write detailed descriptions of what he experienced during his ordeal in the straitjacket - he called it the "little death". The intense hallucinations of his consciousness leaving his body and exploring the world around him would make him a firm believer in "astral projection" (as out-of-body experiences were then called). It also kept him from cracking under the strain of his repeated sessions in the jacket, which confounded the warden and guards. He later described a vision that he saw of what he would eventually refer to as "the new Penology": "First I saw the criminal court of the future, concerned only with proving the innocence or guilt of a man. When his guilt was determined I saw him remanded to a central station for examination both mental and physical. Next I saw him in the vocational training department. In all or some of the tests he might be found wanting--very often illiterate, and a man who would never get anywhere if left to himself".
The sessions with the jacket continued as the prison staff insisted he knew where guns were hidden. Fearing that Morrell would die in custody, the warden ordered him to be released from his final session. He was so weak that he collapsed and gashed his forehead against the wall but he refused to break. His sessions with the jacket had been ended but he continued in solitary confinement as before. Conditions improved somewhat and Morrell continued working on his "new system of Penology". He was also surprised to find that his "astral journeys" had ended since he was no longer wearing the jacket. Following a Senate committee investigating conditions at the prison, a new warden was appointed who informed Morrell that he was being taken out of solitary confinement.
Returning to regular association with other inmates after five years in the dungeon was surreal. Morrell needed a bandage over his eyes at first until he could adjust to sunlight again and he suffered from bouts of agoraphobia due to being removed from his tiny cell. He weighed only ninety-six pounds at first and was regarded as a curiosity by staff and inmates (they called him "the Dungeon Man"). Despite his ordeal, he returned to full health and, despite the protest of the prison guards, was appointed Head Trustee a few months later. In 1909, after four years of being a model inmate, Ed Morrell was given a full pardon by California's Lieutenant Governor, Warren Porter (who presented the pardon in person).
As Morrell would later write: "There are just two great highlights in the convicted one's disgrace, the day of his incarceration and the day of his release. The first is marked by confusion and humiliation combined with a strong feeling of horror and dread as he attempts to adjust his stunned nerves and mind to the drab surroundings of a prison cell, while the approach of his time of release produces a confused mental excitement over the thought of freedom". Leaving the prison would be the start of a new life and a new crusade.