August 09, 2007
Johnny Cash performed at San Quentin in 1969. The album was released later that year in June. In July we walked on the moon. My parents were sure the moon landing was fake, so they didn’t bother watching it on TV. In August the Manson Family went on a killing spree and Richie Havens opened Woodstock with the song “Freedom.” I was born that fall.
My mother tells me that when I was little I had a friend who lived in the village of San Quentin, and that we used to play on the beach just outside the prison walls.
There was no Saint Quentin. Quentin, or Quintin, or Quintino was a Miwok warrior who refused to convert to Christianity and attacked the mission in San Rafael. He was captured at the place that would later bear his name, the name the Spaniards had given him. The “San” was added in keeping with the names of the surrounding towns: San Rafael, San Anselmo, San Francisco.
During the Gold Rush prisoners were kept on boats in the bay. The prisoners began construction of the prison in 1852. At the time San Quentin was a remote wind-battered location, good for nothing but criminals. Now it is considered prime real estate, and there is talk of tearing down the prison and establishing the site as a transit hub. But there are also plans to build a new death row. San Quentin has California’s only death row, where nearly 700 inmates will spend twenty-something years appealing their sentences. For now the death penalty is on hold. The triple-cocktail lethal injection was found to be potentially cruel and unusual; if the first shot doesn’t put you under, the next two shots will be excruciating. According to the execution logs, some of the men executed by lethal injection at San Quentin may have been conscious.
When I went to San Quentin last week the gift shop was closed. This time I leave early to get there before it closes. On my way I’m pulled over by a cop. He tells me I was doing 52 in a 35 mph zone. He lets me off with a warning. I thank him and try to explain the irony of being pulled over on my way to San Quentin. The cop says, Be careful in there.
The sign on the gift shop door says CLOSED, but another sign says BACK IN 5 MINUTES. I look in the window, shielding the glass from the reflection of light outside, and look at the art on the walls, at stained-glass birds, at a jewelry box, an ashtray, a dollhouse. I wait five, ten, fifteen minutes. It occurs to me that the BACK IN 5 MINUTES sign has been up for a long, long time.
Before I go inside the prison I am given a whistle to wear around my neck. Apparently I was supposed to be wearing a whistle last week. I feel self-conscious about the whistle, but it’s too bulky to tuck inside my shirt.
Since my first visit I’ve learned that if I’m taken hostage inside San Quentin there will be no negotiation. And if the SWAT team comes in I must drop to the ground or else I will be shot. This contradicts what I was told before about remaining standing if the alarm goes off during a lockdown. In the case of a lockdown, sharpshooters stationed in the watchtowers need to be able to distinguish me from the prisoners. But the SWAT team doesn’t make distinctions. They don’t care whether you are wearing blue or orange or civilian clothes. For all they know, I could be an inmate in civilian clothing.
There are books stacked on the floor in the office of the classroom building: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Call of the Wild, The Odyssey. A poster on the office wall says SELF CONTROL IS KNOWING YOU CAN BUT DECIDING YOU WON’T.
An inmate in the class I’m observing notices my whistle right away. He points to it and asks me if I feel safer in San Quentin or on the streets outside. I think about the street where I was mugged. Where I was grabbed by my neck and had a bottle broken over my head. It was a safe neighborhood and the police station was just up the block. I tell him it depends on the street, but, yeah, I do feel pretty safe in here. He sips from a bottle of orange Gatorade.
I’m more afraid of some of the guards than I am of the inmates I’ve met. I tell this to the inmate and he says it’s because the COs don’t treat you like a human being. We’re all human, he says. We all want connection.
I tell him I came early to go to the gift shop but it was closed. He tells me it’s been closed for five months. He says there was some hanky-panky in the Hobby Shop where they make the arts and crafts they sell in the gift shop. As a result the Hobby Shop was shut down, but it’s set to reopen along with the gift shop later this month.
Before watching a short film in class I jokingly ask one of the inmates if he brought popcorn. He laughs and says he thought I was bringing the popcorn and the Raisinets.
On my way out through the prison yard an inmate stands alone on the baseball field among a flock of Canada geese. He feeds them bread crusts he stuffed in his pockets. This is against the rules but he does it anyway.
In the pretty courtyard with the roses and fountains and chapels I notice a memorial with brass plaques bearing the names of slain COs. A reminder that it isn’t always so peaceful in here. Above the memorial looms the Adjustment Center, where the worst-of-the-worst death-row inmates bide their time, exhausting their appeals. Even as the future of the death penalty remains tied up in the courts, a new death chamber is quietly being built.
As I’m leaving I see an iron railing decorated with seahorses that wraps around one of the beige buildings. This oddly whimsical parade of seahorses makes my heart feel a little lighter.