January 31, 2010

they're trying to build a prison, for you and me to live in

In 2007, while researching my novel Cannibals & Thieves, I interviewed a San Quentin inmate and then visited the prison myself. I dug this research out for a friend of late, and decided to clean it up and post it here. I also decided to remove details which could identify J., the subject of the first part. Which is kind of a shame, as they're very colourful, but it seems only polite.

Part I

Discussions with J., who did ten years at San Quentin. For what it's worth, while the proverbial grain of salt is probably a useful spice here, I didn't get the sense he was prevaricating about anything much, if at all.

J. doesn't look like a ex-con. He's a wiry guy, about five foot six, with the sides of his head shaved and bangs dangling from what remains. He's laid-back, laughs easily, very sharp, I liked him immediately. Only his slightly uneven teeth, and the edges of solid-colour tattoos visible beneath the collar and above the cuff of his blue, short-sleeved shirt, hint at his colourful past.

When he was nineteen, J., then an L.A. gangbanger, was charged with murder and convicted of manslaughter. (He was lucky to get that; he later learned the initial jury vote was nine to three in favour of murder one - but one passionate juror convinced the others to give him a second chance.) He was released three months ago, after serving time in a variety of California prisons including San Quentin.

What follows is expanded from the notes I took while we were talking, with no attempt (yet) to put them in any coherent order. I didn't ask about the crime, only about the time.

Inmates due for patrol are supposed to begin the paperwork 90 days beforehand and sign the paper saying they agree to parole. In some cases, though, it doesn't happen until a couple of days before release. They're often paroled with specific conditions, eg no alcohol, they have to remain within a certain location, they must stay X miles from their victim's (if any's) family. Some conditions are universal: no knife longer than 4 inches, drug test once/month, you can't leave the county in which you were paroled without a travel order, and you must report to your parole officer within 24 hours of leaving prison. Then you must continue to report once a month, and you get a surprise inspection ("Hello! Take a piss!") once a month too.

There's an organization called PAC which allegedly helps parolees by providing them lists of resources, helping them put resumes together, etc. J. doesn't think they're any good - "a program for the people the created the program", rather than for parolees - and what good is a resume going to do if you haven't got the skills, when people already don't want to hire convicts?

Inmates are almost always paroled to the county where they committed the crime. As J. points out, this is a terrible policy: suppose you live in L.A., went to San Francisco for a weekend, got drunk and committed a crime - then you get paroled to an area where you have no support system. Parolees are put in a homeless shelter, which often have special sections devoted to parolees, paid for by the state. Every morning they leave to look for a job. The state pays for their meals, too, and they can apply for General Assistance. Those guys you see standing around the Tenderloin all day, doing nothing? Most are parolees: they can't go back to the shelter by day, and nobody wants to hire them.

Friday, 5AM, San Quentin. J. is woken by a loud metal-on-metal knock on his door (or maybe it was his bunk) - maybe it was the big Maglite flashlight some COs (Correctional Officers) carry, maybe it was one of their telescoping batons that replaced the famous L-shaped nightsticks some years ago. He was being "released" - and then immediately rearrested by the INS - so he was taken to a room, did his release paperwork, was transitioned to INS custody, and then driven to the San Francisco county jail, which the INS pays to hold deportees.

Soon afterwards he went to immigration court, where J. gladly declined any attempt to fight his deportation. He knew, you see, that government policy is that all foreign nationals who commit a crime must be deported; but after a famous court case in 2000, where Cubans held by the INS for several years seized guards as hostages and threatened them with death if their demand - that they finally be deported - was not met, the Supreme Court dictated that if such inmates couldn't be deported, after 90 days they must be released.

90 days crawled past. His phone book had been taken away, he'd forgotten most of his friends' addresses and couldn't write to them to tell them where he was. Day 91. 92. 93. It was getting harder and harder for J. to sleep. He didn't know what was happening. He was up every morning when the COs came by at 4.30, wondering "am I going home?" Finally, on day 96, he was released from the cell, the property he'd brought with him from San Quentin was given back to him, he was taken to the immigration courthouse for paperwork. He stayed all day, among a big group, as their numbers dwindled, as his name was not called. They officially closed at 5PM. Finally, at 7PM, he was officially discharged, he was given a check for the money he'd been paid by the county and state while in jail (not much, on prisoners are paid circa $10/month, although there are various joint-venture projects that pay minimum wage minus 40% to the state - and as you'll see, there's also a whole different economy at work).

So he had a check made out to him - but nowhere to go, and no ID. When he'd first been arrested, ten years earlier, his property then had been taken by the L.A. county jail, who don't transfer it to state prison, so he'd had it sent to his father. All he'd brought from San Quentin was soap, a few clothes, and his phone book. He couldn't cash his check. "Call someone to pick you up," shrugged the sergeant, "we're closed."

J. dug out his phone book and eventually reached a friend of a friend in San Francisco. A woman in the same situation had no reachable contacts in SF at all, her only friend had a number that couldn't be dialled collect. They stuck together, J.'s friend's friend eventually drove up in an SUV to pick him up, and let her use his cell phone. J. had never seen an SUV before. But though cell phones are highly illegal in prison, this wasn't his first encounter with one.

J. went to stay with his friend. The first few days of freedom were weird, surreal, intense, is heart was pounding, he didn't want to go outside, all he could manage was to walk around the block.

But he faced a major problem. He was supposed to report to a parole officer within 24 hours. (And to the INS once each month, in case the consulate had changed its mind.) J.'s crime had been committed in L.A. His parole was supposed to have been remanded to San Francisco, but, in a not-atypical clusterfuck, his parole paperwork hadn't been processed.

By this time J., with the help of Project Rebound, had been accepted to SFSU, had his financial aid lined up, a support network in place, a friend's mother had lent him a thousand dollars for rent before the aid came in. He reported to the main San Francisco parole office, where he found a parole officer who would listen to him, and tried to kickstart the paperwork. Then he called the parole office in Los Angeles and tried to explain. The office there said, in essence: "Too fucking bad. You need to report here in Pasadena by 5PM tomorrow or you're guilty of violating parole. Here's the address of the homeless shelter where you'll be living."

J., shaking with stress, called again a couple of hours later, hoping against hope. "Your paperwork came through," the officer said. "You're staying in San Francisco."

He's been studying business administration since. Next week he's going to a real dentist for the first time in twelve years. Prison dentists have one solution: tooth hurts? Pull it. They might do fillings - but only if you know the dentist's inmate clerk. Life in prison, it seems, even more than life ourside, is all about is all about who you know.

At San Quentin, J. worked in the machine shop by day (building parts for eg the Exploratorium) and went to the college program by night (garnering 81 credits by the time he was released. And he also had, let's say, another job.

SQ stopped selling tobacco long after most other prisons in the system, in 2005. At least J. thinks that was the year. Dates are really blurry in prison. (Especially in the Bay Area, which has no seasons.) You'll notice one day "Hey, it's 5PM and it's already dark!" and on another day "Hey, it's 8PM and it's still light!" - and that's pretty much your only cue that half a year has gone by.

Anyway, J. had a second job outside the machine shop: selling black-market tobacco. Sometimes other stuff, too. DVD players. Cell phones. You know that bit in King's Shawshank Redemption, "Every prison has someone like me. I'm the guy who can get you stuff." Well, J. was like that in SQ, but he wasn't the only one. Smuggling is rampant.

How? Well, the easiest is via the "free staff": civilians like electricians, cooks, etc. who work in prison, who make money (sometimes a lot of money) on the side bringing in contraband and selling them to prisoners for cash. (I'm not sure on the penalties for this, but it would be ironic if some of them thus landed among their former customers.)

There are plenty of other ways. For example, a guy J. knew who was in the minimum-security area at SQ - "the Ranch" - worked at the visitors' centre in the prison proper, which means he passed through the fence regularly. There's a trash can between the gate and the visitors' area where he got searched; he'd put tobacco pouches into a McDonald's bag and throw them into that trash can. Then the guy who cleaned out the trash can would smuggle them in deeper. He might be searched coming in too, though, so he had to wait for the right COs to be on duty, the ones who don't strip-search, but let the prisoner wear boxer shorts and/or T-shirts for a half-assed search. (There's also a metal detector, but this particular prisoner had a metal leg.) He'd walk through with tobacco pouches - or DVDs, or cell phones - Saran Wrapped to his midriff, and get them to J.'s, contact, who would get them to J. J. could sell three pouches of "boogaloo" for up to $50.

The first time he saw a cell phone he tried to use it, but was mystified by it, until it was explained that one turns it on by pushing and holding a particular button. We've probably all been there.

Sometimes COs bring things in themselves.

And sometimes, of course, J. got busted.

J. spent a long time in SQ, and he was a good-behaviour prisoner, worked in the shop, took college courses, cleaned up his shit and his cell, never approached a CO except for mail, etc, so he got certain unspoken privileges: for example, he was allowed to drape a towel over his bunk like a curtain and get some privacy. One day, though, when he was watching a DVD on his smuggled DVD player behind his curtain, a CO who didn't even work in that unit happened to be coming by, came in, pulled back the curtain, maybe just to say hi, he and J. got along pretty well -

- Freeze frame for a few seconds: then the CO was on his radio, calling in "905!" (which I gather is the code for illicit non-narcotic goods;). Exit DVD player and DVD. His locker was opened, and the other DVD player sitting on top of his stuff was taken. He didn't search the locker, though - "I gotta do mail" being the excuse, real reason presumably being they liked J. - so the tobacco hidden at the bottom, which would have meant the hole, went undiscovered.

The Goon Squad - Investigative Service Unit - showed up soon enough to find out where the contraband DVD players had come from. By then J. had passed out the tobacco to others (he soon learned to hold none of it himself, but to spread it around to his people, who held it in exchange for a few smokes.) He made up a story about an inmate who had been at the Ranch, got fired, moved back to H block, and thus was no longer smuggling. "Who was it?" "C'mon, man, I can't do that." A long spiel about how he's taking classes, in the Standup Program - otherwise known as the Success Dorm - how he's learned to take responsibility for his actions followed, "and I'm taking responsibility for this." It worked. No hole.

Sealed pouches of tobacco were more valuable than loose - he bought those 12 for $100, from a guy on the free staff, and sold 4 or even 3 for $100. (I'm not clear on what happened to all the money he made inside, or where the cash supply came from, or even if it was paid for in cash. Questions I forgot to ask.)

In addition to inmates, COs, and free staff, there are also "green card volunteers" - who are technically employees, but don't get paid, like those who run the college program - and "brown card volunteers", regulars who can come and go from the prison as they wish.

As far as COs: A few talk to inmates like they're people. A few treat them like scum. Most just don't care. They tend to turn a blind eye to weed and tobacco. When some COs see tattoos, they say, "Nice work!"; others shout "909!" into their radios and write the inmate up. One time someone in the Goon Squad saw a tattoo in-progress, but admired the sterility of the needles - the guy used liquid bleach, powdered bleach, and detergent - and said, "I'm not gonna write you up," because of it.

Another time, J. was toasting bread on his hotplate, locker open to cover it up, when his bunkie said "J.!" J.: "What's up?" Bunkie: dead silence. J. closed the locker and a CO was there in the cell. J. went into his I'm-a-model-responsible-inmate spiel, pointed out he'd had it for 3 years, "I been down 8 years here. Why you gotta take this shit from me now?" and when that didn't seem to work, "Can I just finish?" "Finish?" the CO replied incredulously, but something he said worked - he left the hot plate (but took the can he used to cook.)

Shortly after, his free staff electrician smuggling contact got snitched on, and J. got used to his "house" (cell) being searched twice a week, often with no warning.

Some fellow inmates in the machine shop found a way to hide things in the space behind the lights, even though they were attached with security screws - then again, it was a machine shop. J. was once asked to make someone an aluminum shank. "Hell no!" he replied - that means the hole/shoe (Special Housing Unit, SHU) and a year added on to your EPRD (earliest possible release date.) He thought it was an ingenious idea, though; an aluminum shank made of small, inch-long components that screwed together, that wouldn't set off the metal detector when he left the shop.

That happened a few times - another guy was cheeking out parts for the miniature motorcycle he was building, got busted, but his "punishment" was bringing the motorcycle to the machine shop and working on in there. "Cheeking" is carrying things between your butt cheeks while you walk, not to be confused with "keestering," which is carrying things up your rectum.

You develop a rapport with COs, or at least some of them, which is why J. could get away with half of this shit. Plus the machine-shop's boss, the "vocational instructor," was free staff, not a CO. There was a microwave and a fridge at the machine shop, they brought in food from the food cellar, it was a pretty good crew who worked there, a kind of community.

He hastened to point out: yes, there are some bad, bad people in prison. But a lot aren't.

Prisons built since 1990, and there have been a lot in California, have pretty decent cells, about 6 feet by 12 feet: two stacked bunks, a steel mirror above a sink and toilet, a small chair and table, enough room left over to to a push-up (if you're J.) Doors in state prisons are hollow steel with strips of chicken-wired glass; maybe they have one of those access ports, maybe they're remote-controlled, maybe not. SQ is older and hence the cells are smaller.

"First time you hear the door slam on you in prison - you never forget that sound."

In CMC, the doors were reinforced wood, a small access hole, name taped on over top. CMC's cells were designed for 1 person, in the shape of an L next to an inverted L, I'll try and ASCII-art a cross-section here:

| | |
| ___| |
| | |

with the bunks in the low-ceilinged section. However, prisons being overcrowded, other bunks were added that fold up and down to the walls, and you spend your whole time in there close enough to touch your cellie. You get locked down, you're there 24/7 for a week, two weeks, maybe up to a month - though that never happened to J., since he's Asian.

See, California prisons are blatantly segregated by race: Black, Native, Northern Mexican, Southern Mexican, White, and Other (almost always Asian.) Whites and Mexicans are sometimes segregated by county, depending on the prison.

You heard the term "shot caller"? Well, J. never heard it in prison. Someone who speaks for a group is simply a "rep". You got a problem with someone, you talk to his rep. Everyone tries to resolve everything as calmly as possible, or boom, lockdown: no canteen, no visits, no nothing.

And it's group, not gang. Prison gangs do exist - the Aryan Brotherhood, the Nortenos, the Surenos, etc - with their rules and regulations written on tiny strips of paper in letters so small you can barely read them when squinting. They have whole elaborate heirarchies, ranks, sergeant, lieutenant, etc. (See also Jonny Steinberg's amazing book The Number, all about South Africa's amazingly byzantine prison gangs, who actually have their own freakin' creation myth, I shit you not.)

J.'s Norteno's bunkie stole some of his tobacco; J. went to the Norteno rep, got no results; went to a high-ranking Norteno friend in North Block at SQ, and boom, problem fixed immediately.

Individual fights are, despite all you hear, very rare. Those prison scenes in movies, where guys get stabbed at the canteen and so forth? It never happens, because you've always got all your guys around you. When there are fights, it's usually group-on-group (and the Asian inmates are rarely involved.) At CMC, you had to sit down in the order you entered the canteen, and so everyone entered one group at a time. You are always with your homeys. Groups rotate through the showers, the gyms, and there is always someone watching. If the Nortenos are out in the yard, they post pickets like every ten feet in a circle around them, and if someone comes over, they get told - politely - "sorry, homey, this is our patch." "This is our table." "This is our shower."

Groups are referred to as "our car" or "your car" - J.'s theory is that this began as "card", as you actually get processed on different-coloured cards, blue cards for black inmates, yellow cards for Other, red for Native Americans, etc., and that this became "car". Hence "Keyholder" being a synonym for "rep."


When J. first got arrested, he was jailed with a guy from a gang who were supposedly the deathly enemies of his gang. This guy, older and more experienced, explained it to him: all that shit stays outside. No vendettas in jail (except personal vendettas), they had to stick together against the Surenos.

They got put into the LA County Jail's "day room" - once a common room, then home to 72 bodies who slept in shifts on 36 bunks crammed side-by-side (did I mention the jails are overcrowded?). He remembers waking up, looking out, and thinking blearily: "Why is there a pay phone in my room?...oh shit!" He mentioned in a low voice that this happened every now and again, over the years, he'd wake up and not remember at first that he was in prison, and then it would hit him all at once.

When he was first taken (to Delano, I think) he was put in a cell with a big Sureno in his late 30s. Now the right thing to do would have simply been to refuse to enter the cell, to shout "There is no way I am going to enter the cell!" But he didn't, he walked in. J. had gotten big in county jail, but then small again during his trial due to all the stress, and this guy was huge.

He's pretty sure the CO in question set him up. He points out COs get paid time-and-a-half when there's a lockdown on, and then double that for overtime which usually necessary during lockdown, that's three times their salary.

The big Sureno wasn't any happier to see J. J. remembers how how he sat on his bunk and stroked his shaved head, thinking hard, while J. stood next to his locker, tense, ready to kick the guy in the face the moment he came for him. (This was during the "green light" period mentioned above.) Then a trusty - a Sureno trusty - came down the hall, to give out soap or something, and said to J.'s cellie, "Who the fuck is that?" The Sureno said something like, "He's cool."

The trusty disappeared. Both J. and his cellie waited for the verdict, tense as anything, while the message? request? was carried up the Sureno heirarchy. (J.'s Sureno cellie was risking getting beaten up for not beating him up.) The Sureno offered him a smoke; J. turned it down, because he'd heard in county "If you take anything from a gang member, that means you're in the gang." (Which like many prison myths, is totally false.) Fifteen minutes later the word came back: "OK, he's cool."

Later that day his cellmate offered to cut J.'s then-long hair. J. was thinking "You mean slit my throat?" But he was nineteen and looking at what felt like forever, so he figured what the fuck, and told the guy to go ahead. It was just a haircut.

A few days later the CO who'd brought J. to that cell expressed surprise he was getting along so well. Soon after J. was transferred to a cell with another guy.

"There's no point arguing with COs," J. says, "they're always right."


Newcomers often show up with no money - it takes a month for it to clear to a new prison - so your group buys your stuff at canteen, and then you buy other newcomers stuff when they arrive.

Once J. briefly had a psycho ex-Marine bunkmate, in Reception at SQ before he reached Mainline (explanations later), the guy volunteered to kill anyone J. didn't like, and he meant it. That kind of shit isn't supposed to happen, but it does.

Oh. The biggest, most ubiquitous prison myth? Not true.

There's virtually no rape. (This isn't just J. talking; Ted Conover says the same thing in his book NEWJACK.) There are male (and transgendered prostitutes - J. remembers one at CMC who looked just like a pretty Asian girl) - but he's never even heard of one prisoner raping another. Male-on-male, that is. (As he points out, the population who does not want rape vastly outnumbers the population that does, even in prison.) COs raping female prisoners? That does happen. As J. points out, "they have abortion clinics in female prisons."

Now, he's talking hard-timers, in their groups, state prisons. At the same time, he can see how it could happen. He got sent back to county jail at one point (he was called to testify against his "crimie," pled the 5th, was given immunity, which eliminates your right to remain silent, he refused to answer, got 6 months for contempt of court). He got picked as a trusty there. (In general, outgoing trusties pick the new trusty, the COs don't know them and don't much care.) This was a luxury position - 3 guys in a big cell, most county cells had 6 guys or more.

It was also a power position. He could easily take advantage of scared new guys. "Can you give me 20% of what you get in the canteen?" he'd ask, and they'd agree to it, before he told them he was joking. Another time, the three trusties (one for each subethnicity there) went into a cell with two new guys, closed the door behind them, and said menacingly, "You know what you gotta do, right?"

The guys turned pale until the trusties burst out laughing - but as J. points out, they could have done anything they wanted to them right then. Instead they gave them a lecture on how they had to stick up for themselves and not take shit from anybody.


Inmates shop in canteens. At the county jail, the most you can spend is $40, prices are hiked up, a soup packet is $1.10. You fill out a form with your CDC number etc, you give them a cashier's check, then they bring food to you in your cell.

At state canteens, the selection was pretty good, though they replaced canned goods with pouches of powdered food some years ago, for fear of shanks. Which J. thinks is pointless. "There will be weapons" - they get into prisons, one way or another.

At SQ there's canteen once a month, and every month prisoners have to fill out a form to transfer money to their canteen fund, because it automatically lapses back to their savings at the end of the month. Canteen profits are supposed to go to the IWF, Inmate Welfare Fund - basketball, cable TV, etc - but staff have access to the funds, and spend it on other stuff.

When you get canteen depends on your "draw", the last 2 digits of your DCD #: "draw 1" is 1-33, "draw 2" is 34-66, "draw 3" is 67-00. You bring a laundry bag, fill out a form and a list, you generally get as much stuff as you possibly can, in case there's a lockdown or they run out of something next month.

CMC, which sounds pretty comfy as prisons go, had a mini-canteen open daily where you could get soda, ice cream, etc. with "dockets" (sic?), pieces of paper divided up into little squares marked 5, each one representing a nickel; these were of course traded, used for gambling, etc. CMC prisoners even get keys to their cells (though of course there are times when those keys don't work) and similarly at SQ some prisoners get padlocks.

There are a lot of rich people at CMC. Suge Knight, for example. As a result of their donations, CMC has a really nice basketball court, fresh basketballs all the time, a good boxing program, weights in the yard behind fence for those with weight cards - until they banned weightlifting from all California prisons. (The theory held by all prisoners and not a few COs is that this was done because the COs - many of whom, J. points out, are seriously overweight and obese - were frightened of the physical prowess of the prisoners.)

J. says he can spot a new CO from the look of fear on their face, but eventually they settle in. He spotted a female CO (who do work at men's prisons) once, said to her, "When did you start?" She asked, "How can you tell?" He said, "You want some advice?" She shrugged. He said, "There's more to life than this."

Prisons come in various security levels, from 1 to 4. Prisoners are assigned a certain number of points when they are first jailed. 52+ points means level for, ultramax: 29-51 points level 3, maximum: 19-28 level 2, moderate: 18 and down level 1, minimum. Points depend on your family, your education level, your crime, etc., and diminish by 8 every year you don't get written up. (Presumably they can increase too.) J. came in at 47.


I was surprised (though I shouldn't have been), amused and delighted to hear that there's a lot of D&D played in prison. Yes, really. Often with dice made origami-style from paper. "You get the D&D guys, the sports guys, the books guys, and so on."

J. got transferred because the juror who saved him from murder one took an interest in his case, called CMC, and talked people there into taking an interest too. They asked J. what he wanted. He wanted a transfer into San Quentin because it has the best vocational programs and a college program (the only one in California.) It's technically a closed prison because it's overcrowded, but he eventually managed it.

He's heard the "college program" was just a bunch of useless Bible-thumping stuff: another dead-wrong prison myth, it's actually certified. About 150 people are in. Which is less than 10% of the 1000 inmates in H-unit (no one is quite sure why it's called that; used to be called "Tent City") and the 800 in North Block - the "mainline," "blue," or long-term, San Quentin inmates.

Short-termers and those not yet processed (processing can take years) are in Reception, aka Orange, which is the most overcrowded; if there you might be in a cell, in a dorm, in the gym converted to a massive dorm, or even on a bunk in the hallway outside cells. East Block is Death Row. There's West Block, which I think is maximum or ultramax but not death row.

And then there's the aforementioned Ranch - 500 people on minimum security with no fence (well, a marker fence two feet high) who go out to work in the world every day, picking up garbage, moving COs' furniture, etc., and then come back to sleep on the Ranch grounds. Stuff smuggled into SQ proper often begins its smuggling life with a late-night drive-by toss onto the grounds of the Ranch.

J. occasionally saw Death Row types in the yard - eg Richard Allen Davis - but they're always handcuffed and surrounded by like six armed COs. But physical contact between mainliners and the condemned (and hence attacks) are at least theoretically possible.

Other stuff (we were both running out of energy at this point...): there are libraries, lots of forms are involved, but once you get to know the staff you basically get the run of them. There are computers but no Internet. Food is dictated by day: fried chicken every Monday, chili every Tuesday, etc. Enterprising inmates with access print out a TV guide/menu for each month and sell them for $1 a copy. In some prisons (not SQ) inmates have TVs in their cells; in dorm prisons there are common TVs.

Oh. And your final thought from J.? "That show Prison Break? That is the lamest thing I have ever seen."

Part II: my visit to San Quentin

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."

California never had the electric chair: it has executed its condemned by hanging (until 1945), hydrocyanide gas (until, um, 1986?) and lethal injection (since.) Capital punishment is currently on hold in the state until it builds a new execution chamber as per a judge's recent demands, although according to our tour, the judge didn't actually forbid executions from happening, but simply required that if carried out in the current execution chamber, they be performed by the personal injection of the condemned by an individual person, rather than pushing the lethal drugs through 17 feet of IV hose as per the current system. The State of California refused to have any identifiable individual publicly perform an execution, and instead are building a whole new chamber. This seems totally bizarre to me - I mean, if you accept that you have executions, can't you accept that you have executioners? - but hey, fine by me, as I'm (pragmatically, not philosophically) opposed to the death penalty.

The overwhelming impression I got when touring the execution chamber was that modern executions are theatre first, killing second. Take the case of Stanley "Tookie" Williams, executed in 2005. During his execution, there were three helicopters and one fixed-wing aircraft circling above San Quentin; two Coast Guard gunboats training searchlights on the beach; seventy CRT (aka SWAT) team members on the hills above the prison, dressed as bushes, training laser sights on would-be human monkey wrenches who swarmed the hills and the beaches all night long. A more formal protest took place right outside the gates, three thousand strong despite the wind and rain - wind and rain that lifted up jacket hems and revealed at least a dozen concealed weapons in the crowd. The CRT team stationed in a dark building in San Quentin village wisely decided not to engage this miscreants, though they did wind up arresting one at the very end, when he was slow to leave with the rest of the crowd.

Meanwhile, in a chamber located on the outer edge of the prison walls, a man was killed.

On the night of an execution the warden first lectures the offenders' and victim's family members who will be present at the execution, regarding "behavioural expectations," then walks with them from the administrative offices to the execution chamber at about 11PM (Executions always take place at midnight exactly. Like I said: theatre.) A black gate of crosshatched iron is located between a hearse and a squad car. Past the black gate is a hallway-alcove open to the sky, where a dozen COs stand, motionless as Beefeaters, as the witnesses file into the execution chamber. Their brief is to remove witnesses who violate the behavioural expectations. At San Quentin, at least, they have never yet had to act. Not that surprising; the road to this room is often a good twenty years long, more than long enough for rage and hate and fear to cool into despair and resignation.

The execution chamber is surprisingly small, concrete-walled, smells like some kind of warehouse or university building (actually, O Waterloo grads, it made me think of the Engineering Lecture Hall, back in the day.) It's about thirty feet square - except a full third of the room is cut off by a wall that slashes diagonally across one corner, and in the middle of that wall, a huge globular green metal thing like a bathysphere, with big windows on all sides, protrudes halfway into the witness room. The gas chamber. It's about ten feet in diameter, and looks like it should be exploring the Titanic rather than executing prisoners. There is a modified dentist chair inside.

Outside are a couple of banks of risers, a bunch of folded chairs, a lectern, and, on display, "Chair A" - the chair in which the condemned sat when the gas chamber was used as a gas chamber, solid metal, big and intimidating, with seat-belt like straps for arms, legs, and torso; when I first saw it I wasn't sure it wasn't an electric chair. ("Chair B," used on the rare but not unheard-of occasions when two inmates were executed together, was elsewhere.) Nothing else in the way of decor, except for the single door that leads into the anteroom. There's room for about 50 people; 15-20 media, 10-15 family and spiritual advisors, and the balance being the warden and his staff.

The anteroom contains EKG equipment, on wooden shelves; the gas-chamber entrance, complete with huge metal sealing wheel; a massive metal door that leads into the "deathwatch room," where the condemned eat their final meals; a few IVs hanging on the superstructure of the gas chamber itself; and three telephones on the wall, one unmarked, one labelled SUPREME COURT, one marked ATTORNEY GENERAL. Before, during, and after an execution, those lines are live on both sides, in order to prevent any repeat of the slightly embarrassing case when a Supreme Court clerk tried to call the prison to notify them of a last-minute stay of execution, but dialed the wrong number; by the time they got the right one, the prisoner was already dead.

We weren't able to see the deathwatch room because it's currently used for storage. Did I mention that San Quentin is horrendously overcrowded?

The gas chamber, like basically everything in San Quentin, was built by prison labour. Its lead welder was eventually paroled. Six years later he committed a double murder, was sentenced to death, returned to San Quentin, and was killed in his own gas chamber.

Today - or at least, until last year - the prisoner is led to the chamber, strapped onto the modified dentist's chair, and rotated so that he is facing his family and spiritual advisors. The warden's assistant waits until midnight for any last-minute stay of execution. Presuming none arrives, a scroll containing the death warrant is passed through a small hole in the door to the anteroom, and the warden reads the death warrant aloud to the visitors. Only then, after the theatre is complete, can the condemned man be killed.


January 22, 2010



January 13, 2010

Haiti: context

I've been a couple of times, to visit my friend L., who now lives back in New York City, and to research this piece I wrote for The Walrus about MSF's obstetrics hospital there.

Estimates of the ultimate death toll range from "thousands" up to 100,000 or even 500,000 - although "both men admitted that they had no way of knowing."

Haiti's poorest of the poor, a large number, live in tin shacks like these in La Saline:



The one virtue of such shacks is that when they collapse in an earthquake you probably won't be either immediately killed or buried beyond recovery. So that's sort of a good thing.

However, slightly more affluent Haitians tend to live in dense warrens of concrete boxes like the ones on the right here:


Also, Port-au-Prince is a very hilly city, and thanks to the security situation, there are walls everywhere:


and up another economic notch, you get rickety, often-incomplete, multi-story concrete buildings, which are probably the most dangerous in terms of earthquake survival.


That's Xavier there, L.'s driver, who couriered me around town when I visited. Great guy. I hope he's still alive.