San Quentin State Prison: Perspectives on Institutional Attitudes

Last week, as part of my Alternative Spring Break trip, I got to visit San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California. There were several aspects of the visit I found problematic, and that often times made me even feel like I should not have agreed to visit the prison, not the least of which was that I was part of a larger "tour" group, and some mebers of the tour seemed to be simply engaged in "volun-tourism" but that is not what I would like to focus on this blog post. I want to share my experiences in how I saw an atmosphere of warfare, dehumanization, and fear being created by the administration of San Quentin State Prison, a mentality that presumably extends to other prisons accross the country.What do I mean with a mentality of warfare, dehumanization and fear?When you enter San Quentin State Prison through the main entrance, you step into what is called the Plaza, a clearing which on its left holds the "Adjustment Center", the solitary confinement module and on its right, holds chapels of various religious faiths. In the middle of this clearing, is an American flag, flown at half mast, and several stones and plaques surrounding the flagpole. The lieutenant in charge of showing us around quickly called our attention to the flag flown at half mast, and he said, "The Flag always flies at half mast here at San Quentin." He then recounted the San Quentin Six incident of 1971, in which an inmate managed to procur a handgun from his attorney, killing several guards and other inmates in the process in an escape attempt. What was really striking to me, was how at the forefront of the prison consciousness this was; the memorial felt like a war memorial, like a daily reminder ofthe war between the inmates and the guards. This was only further reinforced, in my mind, by hearing the lieutenant describe his experiences in being a security guard at the Adjustment Center. He described the excalation of how inmates, as a form of protest of being subjected to uncomfortable conditions in the room, used jars to keep their feces and urine until the guards would come and check on them. The guards responded by cracking down, performing more intense strip searches, and wearing riot gear and face masks. Inmates responded by waiting for guards hunched over so they could aim the jars upwards and overcome the face masks. The guards responded by taking the jars away, but these jars were one of the only way for inmates to keep water during the day, apart from when they received their meals. While he was describing this escalation, I could not help but think of the constant fear and resentment both the guards and inmates must feel for each other, and the psychological impact that must have on both of them, and potentially affect how they see themselves and how they treat each other. Later, as we toured the rest of the facilites and came upon some painted murals in a lower security level facility, and some guards expressed their opinions like: "they will corrupt anything you give them", and  "they just are like that, we can't give them anything" and other statements in a similar tone. This struck me as extremely problematic; the very people most in contact with inmates saw them as fundamentally different from themselves. This was striking to me in how different it was to a prison in Norway I read about pretty recently here, titled: Norwegian inmates treated like people. In comparing these two descriptions, I do not hope to say all American detainment facilities must immediately change to a similar system. I understand that the issue of prison reform is complex,  multi-faceted, and the job of being a guard in many American prisons is potentially fraught with danger. But I do hope to compare the differences in the mentality behind these prisons. If this article claims these Norwegians prisoners are treated like people, then it stands to reason that our prisoners are not, and I think, in having lost sight of the humanity of such a large percentage of our population,  a huge human rights problem exists in our society. And that simply cannot continue.

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