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What I Saw at San Quentin

SanQuentin.jpgIn late April, a few members of our Foundation's Board and I toured San Quentin, the oldest prison in California and home to the state's death row.  While I have been through some other state prisons, San Quentin was different.  It was opened in 1852 as the state's first prison.  It was located on a 432 acre point facing the San Francisco Bay because, at the time, the city was overrun with crime.   Although it's obvious that the prison has been expanded over the years,  walking through the main gate into the actual prison compound is like stepping back in time.  The gate itself is original and large enough to accommodate a stagecoach.  Inside the compound is a grassy quad flanked by the gate wall, a cell block, a hospital and a building housing several small churches.  In addition to death row, which is isolated from the rest of the prison, roughly 4,500 inmates are housed inside the main prison.
The cell block we saw was identical to those portrayed in the movies: long rows of 5 x 9 foot cells, each with sliding bar doors, a metal toilet, sink, and two bunks, stacked five stories high.  Inmates who are able to get along with their colleagues share cells in the largest cell block.  There is a fairly large building called the adjustment center for inmates, including about 200 condemned murderers who are either too violent or too vulnerable to mix with other inmates.  Richard Allan Davis, for example, lives in the adjustment center because the other inmates hate child killers.  We did not tour the adjustment center but we saw inmates from that block being escorted by two guards to other locations wearing handcuffs and ankle chains. 

We visited the relatively new five-story hospital located in the compound.  On the treatment floor, there were dozens of inmates waiting for treatment with guards watching them.  There was an entire floor devoted to psychiatric care and we saw inmates in sessions with counselors.  As we walked by some treatment rooms we saw an occasional inmate sitting in a locked cage about twice the size of a phone booth, presumably waiting for a counselor.  Apparently many inmates have mental health problems.  Behind the hospital is the main yard.  It appeared to be about the size of two city blocks and contained a baseball field, tennis courts, basketball courts and a 1/4 mile track.  There were about five hundred inmates in the yard when our group of perhaps twenty, including five women, walked into it with our tour guide, an unarmed lieutenant.   The inmates in the yard self segregate by race and gang affiliation.  The main groups are the Black Guerrilla Family, the Aryan Brotherhood, and the Mexican gangs; La Nuestra Family and the Mexican Mafia. The gang members congregate in specific areas of the yard.  Security in the yard is handled by three guards on the ground, armed only with a nightstick and mace, and guards with rifles in the towers. 

SanQMural.jpgThere is a modest furniture factory, where desks, tables and chairs are made for state agencies and a small mattress factory where mattresses are made for college dorm rooms.  Roughly 300 inmates were working in these facilities when we toured them.  We also visited two large dining rooms separated by a common wall which appeared able accommodate at least 300 inmates each.  Instead of the long rows of tables seen in prison movies, these rooms were filled with four-foot square metal tables with four round stools attached to the frame.  The four side walls for these dinning halls were painted with huge murals roughly 100 feet long and 13 feet high.  They depicted a kind of streaming imagery of different periods of US and California history, and the artist, Alfredo Santos' life.  Santos painted the murals between 1951 and 1955 while serving time for transporting heroin. 

Death row is a large enclosed cell block inside the prison compound which can only be entered through a security point.  On the West side of death row are 8 by 10 foot cages with heavy bars and locks where inmates from the adjustment center spend time outside their cells.  On the East side of death row are tennis court sized compounds separated by high cement walls with razor wire on top and a catwalk with armed guards above. These are where death row inmates who can interact safely spend time out of their cells.  Each compound is designated for inmates belonging to the same prison gang.  A fourth compound is for unaffiliated death row inmates. 

The main death row cell block is a long dark line of 4 by 9 foot cells five stories high rimmed by catwalks with armed guards.   On the wall dividing each cell is the name and photo of its occupant.  I knew some of those names. They stay in these cells most of time.  Their meals are delivered to them.  They are let out to bathe in the one-man open showers built in between groups of cells on each side of the block.  They are led out to the exercise compounds for five hours each day.  One inmate, we were told, has never left his cell because he is afraid of the other murderers on the block.  Many inmates have sheets or towels covering part of the bars for privacy.  Some have televisions, books and computers.  One of the women in our group commented on how large most of the death row inmates appeared.  I noticed that many seemed overweight and old.  As we walked along the corridor outside the cells, staying on the left side of a big yellow line, some inmates yelled things like "we're being held hostage" or "I didn't do it." 

We were shown the gas chamber, which we learned was originally a diving bell, but we were not shown the state's new lethal injection facility.  Our tour guide told us it looks like an operating room.


Everywhere we went in San Quentin, including the factories and the main cell block, there were many inmates just hanging around doing nothing.  Clearly there is not enough work to keep the bulk of the criminals at San Quentin busy.  Why not? 

Early in our tour we met with a group of about eight inmates who told us how programs at the prison had changed their lives.  I don't think that there was anyone under 30 in this group, and most were over 40. They seemed sincere but when I asked why there weren't any younger inmates among them they had no ready answer.  I suspect this is because as young inmates themselves, they thought education and treatment programs were for suckers.  Programs are clearly a waste of money for the vast majority of criminals who simply aren't interested. 

Anyone who believes that murderers in California are living comfortably on death row should take this tour.  It is a miserable existence.  I now understand why we receive letters from death row inmates asking for our help in expediting their executions.  Legislators, bleeding hearts and judges who think that they are helping these murderers by preventing executions are hopelessly naive. Those who think we should improve their living conditions are missing a critical point: these murderers have been sentenced to death for murdering innocent people.  Keeping them alive any longer than necessary to confirm their guilt is an injustice. 

Finally,  San Quentin is a very old, dilapidated facility sitting on 442 acres of the most valuable real estate in California.  It should be torn down and the property sold off.  Some fraction of the profit should be used to built a modern prison in a less expensive part of California.

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