October 18, 2007

and I ain't seen sunshine since I don't know when

Notes from my visit to San Quentin State Prison last month:

Take the 101 North across the Golden Gate Bridge, follow the signs for the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge onto Sir Francis Drake Blvd, keep going until you reach the LAST MARIN COUNTY EXIT sign, bear right, and you'll find yourself in the tiny, quaint little hamlet of San Quentin, a few dozen houses and a post office in search of a village, entirely dwarfed by its most famous residence.

I drove through the open VISITOR PARKING gates, and readied myself in my rental car. I'd already dressed appropriately: no denim, no blue or orange, no open-toed shoes, nothing "provocative", and above all, no cell phones or recording devices. Carrying only wallet and car keys, I walked back up to the main gate, where the guard on duty was opening and checking the trunks of all of the many cars filing out of the grounds.

We congregated near the entrance - "we" being myself and a group of Corrections students from Pittsburg; I'd talked the prison's Public Information Officer into letting me tag along. We handed our ID to the gate guard. There was some drama regarding the acceptability of one woman's capri pants; then, it turned out I and one of the students were not "cleared" - our names weren't on the computer. The students' professor, a former San Quentin CO named Eric, really nice guy, turned up, all the problems were soon resolved, and we entered through the vehicle gate, signed in on a clipboard, and walked past the Golden 1 Credit Union ATM onto the grounds of perhaps the most infamous prison in the United States.

The first view was anticlimactic. Just more houses to the right, and a strip of old colonial-style buildings along main street, parking to the left. San Quentin Village On The Grounds: some of the prison employees actually live inside the gates. To the left, a spectacular view over the northern arm of the San Francisco Bay, past the gracefully arching bridge towards Richmond. And dead ahead of us, looming, the pale beige battlements of what looks very much like a medieval castle, complete with crenellated battlements atop the main entrance; San Quentin Prison.

Sergeant Luna, our guide, outlined a few protocols. "If you hear a buzzer going on and off, stop and stay close to me. If you hear a whistle, same thing. If we get into a hostage situation, I want to make perfectly clear, under no circumstances will we release an inmate, but we have trained CRT teams" (aka SWAT) "and hostage negotiators on the grounds, so just stay cool and follow their instructions. And mine. I'll probably be with you if that happens."

About thirty seconds later, as we approach the battlements, we hear a buzzer going on and off.

Not an emergency, it turns out: rather, part of the Weapons Transfer protocol, as guns are transferred from an incoming van into the extremely secure armory just outside the wall. There are no guns whatsoever permitted inside the wall (other than on the gun-walks, as explained below.) While the weapons are transferred we stand motionless below Tower #1, which kind of looks like an enormous chess rook, right opposite the main gate. "Used to be a gas-cooled machine gun on that tower," Eric reminisces, "they'd fire into the bay every so often, make sure it was still working. Took it down a few years ago." He nods sadly.

From here we can see a red brick building seemingly inset into the massive prison walls. The initial prison building, but not the initial prison here - that was a ship anchored offshore during the 1849 gold rush, holding eighty of the worst of the worst. It was soon overcrowded, and the red brick building built. The numbers 1890 are set into the stone above the castle gates. The castle is built with arched windows, all now barred with green-painted metal set into the stone; the doorways are covered by hinged shutter-like grids of solid metal.

At the main entrance we sign in again at a desk in an antechamber, our hands are stamped, and the stamps are checked to be sure that the word PASS now glows on our hands under ultraviolet light. We continue into an airlock-like structure, barred on both ends, which according to its signs is called a "sallyport" and fits 10 people. One door closes and locks, the other unlocks and opens. This happens automatically, which is unusual for San Quentin: modern prisons are fully computer-controlled, but almost all of SQ's many bars and locks are manually operated.

We walk through the walls and into a big, bright, open grassy plaza, with a memorial to COs killed in the line of duty, surrounded by buildings: the wall behind us, chapels (Catholic, Protestant, American Indian, Muslim, Jewish) to our right, a gazebo-like administration post and the hospital - an ancient brick building that looks like it belongs in the Old West, and indeed was built in 1885, and is scheduled for demolition and replacement later this year - dead ahead, and to our left, a low, squat building labelled "Adjustment Centre" in a kind of Olde English font. (Which is used pretty much everywhere.) The buildings and especially the wall are draped in copious amounts of razor and barbed wire.

The "Adjustment Centre" (or AC) is where they keep the worst of the worst; 68? 83? or something like that of the most hardened, violent, and evil of their 638 inmates who have been condemned to death. (16 of whom are women.) These are the men (and women?) who they believe would kill a CO if given even half a chance. The AC has its own exercise yards behind it, fully covered, referred to as "dog cages."

Behind us, and two stories above us, a razor-wired metal catwalk hangs from the inside of the wall. This is the "gun walk"; a series of walkways and catwalks runs through almost the entire prison, providing overhead, inaccessible-from-below vantage points manned by men with guns, although none are in sight right now. Above the battlements hang the bells that ring ceremonially at 1600 hours, the time when all the inmates - in California, not just San Quentin - are checked and counted. (There are other count times too.)

We can see our first inmates, hanging around near the chapel; these are "mainline" prisoners, here for awhile, as opposed to "reception" prisoners who have been taken to San Quentin from one of 17 county jails for sorting and processing. The mainliners wear blue jeans, light blue button-down shirts (short or long-sleeved), white or dark blue T-shirts, and a variety of different kinds of shoes. They don't pay much attention to us, which is not surprising; there is a constant stream of people in civilian clothes moving back and forth. San Quentin is blessed by virtue of its liberal Bay Area location with 6,000 civilian volunteers (many other prisons tend to have like 20 or 30) who help with a cornucopia of programs. There are also the "free staff," who commute to work in the prison but are not COs.

(In case you were curious, when you finally leave, you don't go out in prison garb; "breakout clothes" are either those you wore when arrested, which theoretically transfer with you as part of your property; clothes brought by family or friends; or clothes donated by the volunteer group Friends Outside.)

We turn left at the hospital and continue down a paved road. To our left is a wall covered by an enormous mural, two arms reaching out from a globe, holding all manner of people and symbols of civilization; to our right, through a fifteen-foot chainlink fence, we can see the prison stretched out below us on lower ground, housing units, prefab buildings used for education and medical care, and the "lower yard" - a baseball diamond (donated by the SF Giants), a tennis court, a basketball court, even an American Indian sweat lodge. Seagulls and pelicans wander the empty outfield. Sergeant Luna explains that there are two prison baseball teams, the Giants and Pirates; a prison tennis team, and a prison soccer team. They even compete in Marin County leagues, and do quite well. Of course, they have an unfair advantage in that all their games are home games.

Beyond the wall there is another wall; and between inner and outer wall we see the aluminum roofs of San Quentin Industries, where the prisoners work, building mattresses and pillows, furniture (which, coming as I do from a family tightly associated with a furniture factory, I find kind of disconcerting - how are we supposed to compete against prison labour?), dry cleaning ("I pay a dime to get my clothes dry cleaned. It's twelve bucks in town," Sergeant Luna remarks), serving as plumbers, electricians, working in a machine shop, etc. SQ Industries made a profit of $2.5 million dollars last year.

This is all part of the program. "Program" is a word used very often in prisons; it basically describes what prisoners do with their time, both short- and long-term. A prisoner's "program" can include yard time, education, shop work, canteen, counselling, etcetera. Modern prisons are run in large part on programs - and on the threat of having them taken away.

We keep going, into the "upper yard" aka the "shed"; a vast paved space, nothing green in sight, covered by a huge triangular hangar-like metal (aluminum?) roof. A gun-walk runs directly along the peak of the roof, which is riddled by dozens and dozens of holes and clusters of holes. Once upon a time, twenty or thirty years ago, this yard was a hyper-violent place, where COs were supposed to walk only in pairs; the holes are from the many rifle and shotgun warning shots fired by men on the gun-walk.

Of course, COs didn't always follow orders; Eric relates a game they used to play called "parting the Red Sea," where the goal was for the CO to walk from one end of the Shed to the other without once deviating from a straight line. It was a test of inmate respect, whether or not they would step out of your path.

Today, half the upper yard is devoted to dog cages, which will soon become medical buildings. The Investigative Services Unit - "the squad" - is in a prefab building in one corner. By all accounts, the upper yard is a much more peaceful place than it once was. So sayeth Eric, Sgt. Luna, and an inmate named Munch who stops to tell us his story.

He came to San Quentin 33 years ago, when he was eighteen. On his fifth day, he was in the upper yard when he saw one man sitting on another and stabbing him with a foot-long shiv, stabbing so hard that Munch could hear the blade hitting the concrete below, and the victim cried out, "Stop, you killed me already!" Shortly afterwards, some guy made a move on Munch in the shower; he stabbed him with a shiv, got 18 months in the hole. That guy's friends came after Munch when he was released; he stabbed another one, got another 11 months.

"The hardest thing I ever had to do was stab that guy," he says. "It sounds like it would be easy, but it isn't, not when it's against your nature. But the thing about prison is, it becomes your nature ... It's better now." Maybe not that much better; he points to the building behind him, the chow halls, and says "There are still fights there every week." He talks about Ronald Reagan giving the prisoners televisions, which apparently made a big difference.

Munch walks with a cane, with a little box full of papers, books and a poster tube under his arm. He has become a prisoner's advocate, the official voice of the prisoners who carries their grievances to the COs. His moustached face and body are soft and slack, but his eyes remain sharp and hard. After he leaves Eric tells us that Munch is up for parole and his hearing is tomorrow.

The Shed stretches from the original Death Row - 63 cells atop a five-story building - to the canteen building on the other end. "You can tell a lot from the canteen," Sergeant Luna confides. "The currency here is soups and stamps, now that they don't sell smokes any more. You see a guy saying, hey, give me some soups, you know he's got respect. You see a whole group buying everything they can, that tells you something bad, it means they're storing up for a lockdown."

Outside the canteen a hugely muscled CO describes what the dining halls are like. "I don't want to talk about them like they're animals," he begins, but the words "feeding" and "zoo" appear frequently in his following description. Breakfast is supposed to start at 6:15 and run until 9:00 but usually is more like 6:45-10:00 or even longer. If there is some kind of tension between groups, they'll feed one race at a time, eg white prisoners and then blacks.

Inmates get a bag lunch with their morning meal, then come back out for their PM meal. If they haven't had yard time this is their only other expedition of the day, so they tend to be pretty keyed up and aggressive. "Blind feeding" - giving everyone identical trays, rather than scooping out food for each person as they pass - has reduced aggression considerably, but fights still break out over food, especially on chicken day, hamburger day, hot links day.

There's also a kosher kitchen for the 31 Jewish inmates; apparently their breakfasts are good, but their dinners crappy. All the food is basically crappy - unsurprisingly, given its cost of $2.63 per prisoner per day - but the COs shrug, "They bellyache, but they eat it."

From the canteen we turn right, and cross through a kind of hallway which has the chow halls to the right, and half the prison to the left: infirmary, SNI (special needs inmates, such as gang desertees, rapists, child molesters, etc; the kind who must be escorted at all times because they will be murdered by other prisoners on sight, basically. San Quentin has some 800 SNIs), mentally ill patients (another 800 or so), etc. There is an orange plastic shell-thing hanging on the wall, presumably used as a stretcher to transport the sick or injured.

Onwards into West Block yard, perhaps the most famous stretch of pavement around: this is where Metallica had their San Quentin concert. It is an L-shaped expanse of concrete surrounded by high walls with barred or screened windows (come to think of it, I didn't notice any gun-walks here, but I expect they must exist.) There are a couple of water fountains and two steel tables set into the ground, stools connected to their trunks like stalks. Not much else.

And to my great surprise we are actually taken into a housing unit. Reception, to be precise; not the most secure unit, but perhaps the most volatile, it's where inmates go before they are classified as Level 1 (not dangerous) to 4 (very dangerous) and sent to their eventual destinations. This process can take up to eight months. The prisoners in Reception wear orange jumpsuits as opposed to blue denim.

Like all the housing units, it is constructed as a building inside a building. The outer shell houses gun-walks, and here, for the first and only time, I do indeed see men with guns on duty. The inner building, with a good fifteen feet of empty space between it and the shell, is like a kind of beehive, five huge tiers of cells, each tier holding fifty cells facing north and fifty facing south, with stairs on either end. At the ground floor beneath the stares there are two big cages, one red, one black.

The place is regularly cleaned but smells of cramped humanity. And it is loud - some 900 people, few of whom are inclined to be quiet, in a closed, echoey space - though we are assured this is as nothing compared to when it really gets rocking. There is a little mini-truck thing parked on the ground beneath the shell and the tiers. The gun-walks are covered with wire fencing on either end of the building, but the long sides of its rectangles have only railing, and it looks like it would be at least theoretically feasible to jump from the railing outside the highest tier to the railing on a lower gun-walk, at least if you were Jackie Chan.

We were only allowed to go into the corner of the building, not to walk in front of the cells: there have been issues with inmates throwing things - and substances - at visitors. (In related news, they're only allowed to flush their toilets every half hour, to prevent them from working en masse to flood the plumbing.) It was hard to tell with the dizzying perspective but I guessed there were approximately 45 cells on either side of a tier, five tiers, two inmates to a cell. The first cell on the ground floor on each side was used by COs for storage. Each cell was about six feet wide and maybe eight feet long, fronted by big inch-thick metal bars, mostly vertical with a few horizontal cross-hatches, and massive door hinges. COs can lock or unlock all the doors in a given tier by pulling a lever on the end, or they can lock/unlock individual cell doors with a key. (Such keys are known as "spikes" and look a bit like a small pair of scissors with a spiky metallic growth in place of blades.)

After our brief visit we headed back out to the dining facilities. Each of the four "chow halls" contained something like ninety 4-person tables, like squares with the corners cut off, divided by a wide aisle into 2 groups, with queue space down one wall demarcated by a waist-high metal fence. But the most notable thing about the San Quentin chow halls, by far, are the truly amazing murals that hang above them, on both sides of each hall, eight canvases, each about 100 foot by 12, covered with magnificent grayscale characters and scenes that symbolize the history of California. All these were painted by a single prisoner, Alfredo Santos - see article - and feature hidden crimes and demonic faces along with the glorification of the Golden State. They're really kind of amazing.

Prisoners queue beneath this art, collect drinks and food trays, and go to their tables as directed by traffic-cop COS. In each dining hall during chow time there are 5 COs, with no guns (and no gun-walks above), just stab vests (not to be confused with bulletproof vests, which do not stop knives), pepper spray, batons and whistles ... and 370 inmates. You do the math.

A CO working there that night explained to us: you read the tension, the body language, the mood of the crowd, the way people are arranged - if it's all whites on one side, all blacks on the other, that's a bad sign. "It happens like this," the CO said, and dropped a pen. And it's noisy, rowdy, echo-y, easy to miss anything happening. Sometimes it's one group against another; he's also seen "shot callers" taken out by their own gang. "Kitchen is the second most dangerous job you can have as a CO, after the AC." (Adjustment Centre.) On our way out Eric shakes his head. "Man, I'd rather work AC than kitchen any day." Those in the AC, like all condemned, are cell-fed.

We pass three guys in white jumpsuits and handcuffs, each escorted by a CO, gang tattoos climbing up their necks and arms, on their way past us in the other direction. "Off to Ad Seg," Eric says casually - "Administrative Segregation," no contact with other prisoners. They've probably just been transferred from a county jail.

A little later he says to one of the students "They won't usually come after COs. They'll come after you if they're crazy. Or if they have some reason like you're giving special favours to black inmates. Or if you get in the way. That's the most common. They mean to go after another inmate, and you just get in the way."

Going outside the wall is pretty easy; back through the sallyport, show the UV-light PASS on your hand, sign out, and poof, you're gone. We stop near the Employee of the Month parking slot, at the plaque dedicated to COs killed in the line of duty. Eric looks at the last name on it, died 1985, and turns grim. "I investigated that death," he says softly. "Indicted three guys, two got life, one's on death row. I wanted to indict twelve, but they wouldn't let me. There were twelve involved. His body was there overnight, still there when I got there, the inmates were spitting on it, shouting epithets."

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