When I wrote about my visit to San Quentin prison with my NorCal Sisters in Crime chapter, I had a hard time keeping my story from sprawling on for pages and pages. I focused on one specific aspect of the story — meeting the prisoners — but didn’t get a chance to talk about the tour itself. A couple of people suggested I write a followup, so here goes!
One of the things that’s amazing about San Quentin is its setting, right at water’s edge overlooking San Francisco Bay. It’s unbelievable that they took this prime piece of real estate and said, “Hey, I know, instead of pricey condos, let’s let prisoners live here!” The air smells good, there are no traffic sounds, and seabirds circle overhead. A couple of blocks from the prison is a house for sale — at the bargain price of $1.49 million.
After making it through the outer gates, we went through another set of gates in a castle-like building that looked like it could have held a Medieval Times. Our tour guide, Sam, stamped our wrists with invisible ink, which we were to show on our way out as proof that we were allowed to leave. I asked him what the stamp said and he brushed it off with a joke. Later, when we were leaving and showed our stamps under the blacklight, I tried to sneak a peek, but the guard said, “Keep walking.” They really don’t want us to know what the stamp says — which makes sense — but now I’m dying to know!
What I didn’t realize before visiting is that I had a narrow vision of what a prison was. It’s not a building that holds prisoners. It’s practically a self-contained small town, with multiple buildings and everything you need to house 4,000 prisoners. Here are some of the areas we visited.
The Adjustment Center
Right inside the gates, overlooking a lovely courtyard full of flowers, this building houses “the worst of the worst.” These guys might not have committed the worst crimes before they arrived, but they’re the ones who can’t be afforded even the smallest amount of freedom. Sam described the lengthy security measures in place for even the simplest of activities and how things can go horribly wrong when those procedures aren’t followed. He didn’t offer to take us inside, and nobody asked.
The prison has a surprisingly nice hospital, which looks about like any hospital you’ve ever been in — except for one small detail. On the floor reserved for mental health services, one room held small, individual cages about the size of phone booths that are euphemistically called “therapeutic modules.” They put high-security prisoners in them during group therapy to “prevent drama.” I’ve never considered myself a particularly claustrophobic person, but the idea of being locked in one of them for longer than the length of this picture was pretty daunting.
The Furniture Factory
At Folsom Prison, the inmates make license plates, but the prisoners at San Quentin get paid 5 cents an hour make furniture. (Think office chairs for state agencies or mattresses for dorm rooms at state schools.) We toured their factory and the workers were surprisingly happy to be there stapling together office chair seats. They were friendlier than most retail employees I’ve run across in the Bay Area, happy to show us what they were working on (and probably enjoying the interaction with people who were genuinely interested in what they were doing).
I’d thought the prison’s outdoor recreation area would be a little more intimidating, but we wandered through freely — along with all the inmates. Sam explained that there’s a fairly structured system of racial separation in the yard. Each group has their own area and there’s no intermingling — except for the tennis courts, where all are welcome. And BTW: tennis courts! The yard had the feel of an urban park only with more concrete than grass.
We took a quick pass through one of the cellblocks, including getting to duck into an open cell. Up til now, we’d seen a side of prison that didn’t feel all that punishing — lack of freedom aside — but the cells were another story. The space between the bunk beds and the wall was barely wider than my shoulders, and the toilet was in full view of anyone passing by. It’s easy to imagine that sharing one of these oppressive spaces with a roommate would quickly start to feel like a little slice of hell.
The “Other” Exercise Area
I didn’t catch the official name of this area, but there were basically cages the size of bedrooms where the death row inmates go to exercise. No sunny tennis courts or milling about the Yard for them. They can basically do calisthenics or walk in circles, but there might as well have been a sign that said, “Men Who Do Not Play Well with Others.” I walked by a heavily tattooed man who, despite his intimidating appearance, smiled and said hello. I wondered what he was in for. I was able to Google him based on his tats and it turned out I didn’t really want to know.
The Execution Chamber
We ended our tour of San Quentin in the most grim part of the whole prison. Sam warned us that a lot of people have an intense reaction to seeing the tiny room where 196 people have been executed over the last 100 years. Some people have even fainted in there. The mood definitely changed when we entered the dark, windowless room with seats arranged around the gas chamber. The most curious part? There are two seats in the chamber because the first time it was used was for a double execution. At least, that was what struck me as interesting in the moment; now, I wonder if I was trying to distract myself with details like that to avoid thinking much more about the primary function of the room.
With that, our tour was finished. We exited the execution chamber into the parking lot, blinking against the bright afternoon sunshine and smelling the salty ocean air, happy we came — but glad we got to leave.