Last Thursday, my local Sisters in Crime chapter visited San Quentin State Prison. It wasn’t exactly what I expected; it was actually way better. I may never use it as “material” for one of my novels. But I definitely wanted to share it with you guys.
You wouldn’t think the primary question for visiting a federal prison would be, “What am I going to wear?” That’s a question usually reserved for first dates, cocktail parties, and Halloween masquerade balls. It wasn’t vanity that made me ask; it was the house rules. No denim. No orange (no surprise there). No lime green. (That was fine; I look terrible in lime green.) No sweatpants. Skirts must be no shorter than two inches above the knee. No open-toe shoes. I finally settled on the dress I wore to the banquet at Malice Domestic. (Okay, I’m kidding, but that was one of the few things that checked all the boxes.)
There were lots of other rules. No purses. No cell phones. No cameras or recording devices “of any kind.” Standing in the waiting area with 16 other mystery writers, we debated whether a pen and notepad was a “recording device,” but luckily the guards didn’t share our super-literal interpretation, and we were smart enough not to argue.
Another thing in the rules? They wanted us to be aware of their “No Hostage Policy” which stated, in bright red at the bottom of the page:
“Hostages will not be recognized for bargaining purposes.”
Our tour guide, Sam, made sure we all understood what that meant before we went in: If any of us were to be taken hostage, the guards would not negotiate to get us back. Sam reassured us that it had been 25 years since their last hostage situation, and he did say, “We’ll do our best.” I understood why the rule was in place. But on the other hand, DAMN!!
Needless to say, by the time we’d made it through all the checkpoints and had been issued all the miscellaneous warnings, we were feeling a little daunted. We started our tour in a beautifully landscaped courtyard, where ten or so prisoners were roaming about on their own. No leg irons. No handcuffs. Sam didn’t seem concerned, so I tried not to be distracted by their presence lest I missed the proper protocol on what to do if we heard gunshots. (Don’t run; drop to the ground.)
As it turns out, the inmates had official business in the courtyard: They were there to talk to us. Sam took us all into the prison chapel and we filed into the wooden pews while the ten guys lined up at the front of the room. A guy named Adnan spoke first. (And no he wasn’t Adnan Syed from the Serial podcast, and yes, someone asked.) “I know some of you are a little nervous, but don’t be scared,” he deadpanned. “We’ve all had breakfast.”
We all laughed, maybe a little too hard, relieved he had broken the ice. The guys took turns talking about their experience there, what everyday life was like — all things that would be helpful to a group of writers who want to make sure they get the details right.
Adnan told us that in the maximum security prison he’d come from, “rehabilitation” meant Alcoholics Anonymous. But at San Quentin, it meant educational programs and group therapy and myriad opportunities for personal development. There are nearly 4,000 inmates there and around 3,000 volunteers who lend their time helping the inmates prepare for the possibility of — maybe, someday — life on the outside. One guy had really gotten into tennis. One was learning video editing. It was striking how … normal it all was.
They opened it up to questions, and boy, did we have a lot of them. Mystery writers — writers in general — are an inquisitive lot, and there were no fewer than five hands in the air at any given time. We wanted to know everything. They were incredibly candid, and it was fascinating.
Then came the really big question. The one that was on everyone’s mind: “Can you talk a little bit about the circumstances that lead you to be here?” (A polite way of saying, “So, what are you in for?”)
Let me pause for a moment here to say that I’m glad that question came towards the end. Because we’d spent half an hour getting to know these guys. They were honest. They were open. They were, in some cases, actually pretty damn funny.
They were also former heroin addicts. Burglars. Murderers.
As mystery writers, these are characters that we could well be writing about. But one of the things that was incredibly valuable about the experience is that we really did get to know them as actual human beings. Yes, they had done things that had landed them in prison. But there was a lot more to them than that.
Now, obviously, when you have 4,000 inmates to choose from, you’re going to pick your best 10 to come talk to groups who are taking a tour, so I know these guys were exceptional. In other words, I have no illusion that San Quentin is a prison full of affable, sympathetic characters who are really, really sorry for what they’ve done. But when you’re standing there talking to a guy who committed a double murder and you feel nothing but sympathy, you know you’ve experienced something pretty profound.
After our Q&A session, which on its own would have been worth the drive, we toured the prison. And they guys — the inmates we’d just gotten to know — walked around with us for most of the tour.
We toured the furniture factory where a lot of the guys work. (Pay ranges from .30 an hour to $1.00 an hour, and someone made the inevitable joke that it’s about the same as being a mystery writer.)
Then we went out to the Yard. One of the inmates came up and started talking to me, and I had a moment of thinking, “Is this okay?” but no one seemed concerned. He asked me what I did, I told him we were mystery writers, and he told me that he was a writer too. He worked on their newspaper, the San Quentin News. Later, we went in the library, which was packed, and I saw him there again. Just a dude hanging out in the library writing (which I tend to do myself).
One of the inmates who worked at the library’s circulation desk was also a writer. He said he mostly wrote horror novels. He told us he had nightmares, and writing about them helped “pin them down.” He was in a group called “Brothers in Pen.” I told him we were with “Sisters in Crime.” There was plenty of common ground between us.
We toured some of the cells, which were tiny. And we saw the incredible murals in the cafeteria done by Alfredo Santos, who was doing time for heroin back in the 1950s and went on to work for Disney after he was released.
Honestly, I could write a different blog post about every area of the prison we visited, but at the end of the day, the thing that really struck me was the people we met. Standing back in the courtyard at the end of the tour, the 17 of us said our goodbyes to the ten of them. We shook hands. We wished them luck. For a few hours on a Thursday, our lives intersected. And I have no doubt that we’ll all tell much richer stories because of it.
P.S. Here’s a great short video about the tennis program at San Quentin that features one of our tour companions: