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. Before this, I had no real contact or perspective on any incarcerated people, a problem in and of itself. My only other vague experience was as my parents drove me to school through the streets of Caracas, Venezuela as a child, and them vaguely mentioning we had just passed a prison.

In many ways, my visit to San Quentin was perspective shifting and extremely thought provoking, though there were several aspects of the visit I found really uncomfortable. Not by the inmates themselves, but really by the fact of me being there, in the strict conditions I was in, without being able to talk to inmates, passing through. I felt like I should not have agreed to visit the prison, as we waltzed through the facility in some almost perverse tour. Most of the time, I felt uncomfortable with the other adult members of the tour, there on some vague sounding, corporate “community engagement” opportunity, as they walked on by, joking with each other, making insensitive jokes about the inmates and in general seeming like they were on a tour of Disneyland instead of what I saw as a glimpse into a much-ignored, still raw and bleeding societal wound-an emblem of state violence, of wasted human potential, tucked away neatly out of sight. But that is not what I want to focus on for this post. I want to share my experiences in how I felt 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 across 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, having passed through a main office and metal detector you step into what is called the Plaza. A simple clearing which on its left holds the Adjustment Center, the solitary confinement module. On its right are chapels of various religious faiths. In the middle of this clearing, is an American flag, flown eternally at half mast, giving the whole Plaza a somber tone. Several stones and plaques encircle the flag pole in memorial.

The lieutenant in charge of showing us around quickly called our attention to the flag flown at half mast, explaining, "The Flag always flies at half-mast here at San Quentin." He then recounts the San Quentin Six incident of 1971 and begins to build the mythology of San Quentin, the stories San Quentin as an institution tells about itself. The incident, in which an inmate managed to procure a handgun from his attorney, ended with him killing several guards and other inmates in the process of an escape attempt. This was that stood out to me about San Quentin: at the forefront of the prison consciousness we find a war memorial, a daily reminder of the ongoing war between the inmates and the guards, eternal like the half-mast flag.

This war mentality, in my mind, kept building as he began sharing with us his own war stories as a security guard at the Adjustment Center. Of escalation: how inmates, as a form of protest of being subjected to solitary confinement, used jars to keep their feces and urine until the guards would come and check on them, throwing it at them as makeshift non-lethal weapons. The guards responded, an eye-for-an-eye, by cracking down, performing more intense strip searches, wearing riot gear and face masks. Inmates responded by waiting for guards hunched over right in front of their cell doors, so they could aim the jars upwards and overcome the face masks. The guards responded to that 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 the lieutenant was describing 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, how that changes how they see themselves and how they treat each other. Later, as we toured the rest of the facilities and came upon some painted murals in a lower security level facility, some guards showed us their resentment, they told us how they see the men they guard, in a place that should supposedly work to reform them: "They will corrupt anything you give them, we had to stop the murals because they were corrupting the paint we gave them for other purposes", and  "You can’t change them, they’re just corrupt, we can't give them anything". I couldn’t get over these statements. I know I have no idea what it is like to be a prison guard, but from talking to a few of them, I did notice many had military pasts, where they also must have, for their survival, a need to view “the enemy”, as inherently separate from them.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this as we continued to ‘tour’ the prison and how different it was to a prison in Norway I read about pretty recently here, titled: ‘Norwegian inmates treated like people’.  Now, I don't necessarily think that San Quentin should immediately adopt that model, or that even any other American detainment facility do so. I understand that the issue of prison reform, if not eventual abolition, is complex and multi-faceted. I also know that the job of being a guard in many American prisons is potentially fraught with danger. But I kept comparing the differences in the mentality behind these prisons. If that article claimed these Norwegians prisoners are treated like people, then it stands to reason that U.S. prisoners are not, and I think, in having lost sight of the humanity of such a large percentage of our population, we have a glaring human rights problem, neatly tucked and out of sight. And that simply cannot continue.