San Quentin State Prison opened in 1852, and is California’s oldest running state prison. Located in San Quentin, Marion County, California, the prison is for males only, and holds the only death row block in the state. This infamous prison has held some of society’s cruellest men, from Richard Ramirez to Rodney Alcala and has featued in many music videos, films and documentaries.
*In accordance with with California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) for the Fiscal year 2012/2013:
Opened: July 1852
Design Capacity: 3088
Total number of employees: 1832
-Custodial Employees (Warden, Chief Deputy Warden, Associate Wardens, Captains, Lieutenants, Sergeants, Officers, Counsellors):1056
-Auxiliary/Support Staff/Casuals: 356
-Medical, Mental Health, and Dental (Physicians, Clinicians, Nurses and Support Staff): 420
Annual Operating Budget: $164 Million
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In the late 19th century, prison ships (hulks) were becoming severely overcrowded and disease ridden, and it was clear that a new solution had to be created to combat the ‘rampant lawlessness’ in California. The area, originally named “Puenta de Quentin”, was selected and 20 acres of this land was purchased by the state for $10,000. The U.S Coast Survey team in 1850, noted the name of the site ‘Point San Quentin,’ most likely due to a misunderstanding of the Spanish language.
The prison hulk known as the Waban was anchored in the nearby San Francisco bay, and its inmates sent to quarry clay and stone to help the new build. Construction began in July 1852, and the 40-50 convicts of the Waban were transferred to dry land, returning only at night time to sleep in their hulk. The first cell block was completed in 1854, and was not named as male specific until 1933, when a prison specifically for women was opened at Tehachapi, known now as the California Correctional Institution.
From 1893 to 1937, there were a total of 215 prisoners who were executed by hanging at San Quentin, which was the preferred method during this time. Later, a further 196 inmates were killed via the gas chamber, until 1995 when the gas was deemed to be an unusually cruel form of punishment. In the modern day San Quentin, all executions are performed using the lethal injection, which is said to be a more humane punishment, although some experts dispute this.
Modern San Quentin
San Quentin is made up from a series of blocks, the main four named for their locations within the prison grounds.
- North Block
- East Block
- South Block
- West Block
- Central Health Care Service Building
- Medium security dorm
- Minimum Security fire house
- Death Row
New prisoners are initially transported into the prison’s West block, where they are categorised and assessed. Many of these prisoners suffer drug withdrawal, or are in a poor mental or physical state. Prison officers address the issues, and send them to their new temporary cells, of which they will spend roughly 20 hours a day locked inside.
The new inmates are let out of their cells at meal times, and they all eat in one large mess hall simultaneously. Upon entry to the prison, the inmates are served breakfast, which usually consists of:
- Two hard boiled eggs
- Grits (ground corn food, similar to porridge)
- Two bananas
- Two slices of Bread
- A serving of potatoes
- A pint of milk
Guards report that meal times are one of the most dangerous times in the West Block prison schedule, as all of the new prisoners are allowed to mix, including that of rival gang members. Besides the mixing of prisoners, they are also extremely reluctant to return to their cells, and do everything in their power to delay the inevitable. Many prisoners simply linger, squeezing each second out of their ‘free time’, others come up with innovative ways to deceive the guards, such as pretending to be cleaning.
As the building is so old, and in many ways has not been modernised, each cell door must be hand locked by a guard. Unlike other prisons of its nature, San Quentin is not heavily based around a computer system. Doors cannot be locked from a control room anywhere in the building, and this makes it even harder for the guards to control the inmates. As is the policy of the facility, the guards check over each prisoner as they lock them back in their cells, for any cuts or bruises which may indicate fighting.
The vast majority of the prisoners who arrive in the West Block are re-offending criminals, and have in fact been to San Quentin many times. The fact that most of these men have been incarcerated the majority of their lives leads to them becoming institutionalised, in that they prefer being in prison to the outside world. One guard claimed: “Many of these men are not bad men, they just have bad habits.”
The North Block at San Quentin prison holds long-term prisoners, most of whom are serving a life sentence for murder. It is the North Block where the most suicides in the prison occur, as many men cannot adjust to life imprisonment. However, the majority of the prisoners in North Block adjust accordingly, and are able to enjoy a more privileged life in prison than their West Block neighbours.
Here, prisoners are rewarded for their good behaviour, and earn privileges, such as additional outdoors time, and customisable cells, where they are able to decorate them according to their personal taste.
East Block - Death Row
Upon entering Death Row at San Quentin, each prisoner is assessed and categorised into either a Grade A inmate of a Grade B.
The Grade A’s tend to be well behaved inmates who adhere to the rules and regulation of the prison and cause very little trouble. Grade B prisoners are violent offenders who refuse to cooperate with the prison guards and rules.
The Condemned Unit is divided into three sections:
- Northern- Segregation (North-Seg) – Houses grade A inmates.
- East Block – Houses Grade B inmates.
- Adjustment Centre – Houses the most dangerous and high profile inmates
The North-Seg consists of around 68 prisoners who live quietly in the original death row building, constructed in 1934. As the prisoners in this section are able to get along, they are allowed to interact with one another, making their death row experience a little less isolating.
The East block is the largest section of the Condemned unit, consisting of five tiers of double sided cells, and filled to its capacity with prisoners awaiting their execution. As these prisoners are classified as Grade B, they are not allowed to interact with one another, and are prone to shouting out of of the cells, creating a unsavoury atmosphere. They communicate using ‘Kites’, which are basically torn pieces of bed linen with small notes written on them. The prisoners toss them from one cell to another, or hang them down the tiers to pass their message along, despite this being against prison regulations. When a prisoner is found sending a ‘kite’ they are fined almost $3 for property damage.
The Adjustment Centre is a self contained unit, separate to the rest of the prison. When inside, the guards do not have access to the rest of the prison, the building is locked until they leave their shift and are replaced. Roughly 102 prisoners reside in the Adjustment centre, but not all of these men are sentenced to death, or ‘condemned.’
Some are simply too dangerous to house anywhere else in the prison, or require intense security. Many child killers/ molesters are housed in the Adjustment Centre due to the taboo nature of their crime. Their fellow prisoners hold a very negative view of taboo crimes, especially those involved with children. The high profile prisoners are also held here, as they are viewed as ‘trophies’ to the other prisoners on death row, and become targets.
Execution is not the usual fate for the death row prisoners, as the majority of them spend years appealing their cases. On average, those who do finally succumb to their sentence spend roughly 16 years on death row before their execution. Many inmates never do experience the lethal injection, due to either a reduced sentence, or death. Since 1978, a total of 12 prisoners have committed suicide on death row, and a further 30 have died from natural causes, including the infamous Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker.
Gangs play a leading role within San Quentin, and are predominantly responsible for most of the violence and brutality within its walls. There are two main Hispanic gangs who rule San Quentin, which are the Surenos and the Nortenos, the north and south gangs of California. The Nortenos are considered by the guards to be the largest and most organised gang within the prison.
The main yard is the centre for gang activity. Each gang stands in their own portion of the yard, with inmates standing guard at the corners, protecting the rest of their gang. Each gang is led by a team of ‘shot callers’, who meet and decide on any appropriate action which needs to be taken. They then pass this information on the standard gang members, via the use of Kites, which are often buried or hidden somewhere in the yard. When ‘Shot callers’ call for violence, gang members are sent to create weapons, mainly shanks. Shanks are stabbing instruments of any kind, that are fashioned out of anything the inmates can get hold of.
Not all prisoners who enter San Quentin are part of a gang, but they tend to get the attention of which ever gang has the same race/ home town as them. Often, ‘shot callers’ demand new prisoners to do jobs for them, such as attacking another prisoner, or crafting shanks, and the new prisoners do them, in fear of being killed themselves. This perpetuates the gang culture which resides inside the majority of US prisons, dragging new members in each day.
PIA: Furniture manufacturing, mattress manufacturing
Vocational: Dry cleaning, electrical, graphic arts and printing, landscaping, machine shop, plumbing, sheet metal
Academic: Adult Basic Education, High School/GED, Pre-Release, English as a Second Language, Literacy Program
Other: Community Service Crews, Youth Diversion, Religious, Arts in Corrections, Victim Awareness, Drug Treatment/Diversion, Joint Venture, Computers for Schools, Eyeglass recycling, Bicycle repair.
Charles Manson – Cult leader of the Manson Family and, held accountable for the Tate and Labianca Murders in 1969. He was held in San Quentin after his trial, until he was transferred to Corcoran State Prison in 1989.
Richard Ramirez – Ramirez was a serial killer, rapist and burglar who terrorised the residents of Los Angeles and San Francisco between June 1984 and August 1985.
He was sentenced to death for 13 murders, 11 counts of sexual assault and 14 counts of burglary, but died in San Quentin’s Death Row in 2013 before he could meet his fate.
Stanley Tookie Williams – A founder and leader of the West Side Crips, an American street gang which has its roots in South Central Los Angeles. In 1979, Williams was charged with four murders, and handed the death penalty. He served his time in San Quentin until December 13, 2005 when he was put to death via the lethal injection.
Wallace Fard Muhammad – The founder of the Nation of Islam was held in San Quentin in1926 after he was caught bootlegging alcohol to an undercover police officer. He served three years inside the prison, and was released in 1929 when he disappeared for four years.
Scott Peterson – Found guilty of murdering his wife and unborn son in 2002. He gained substantial media coverage, making him almost a celebrity inside San Quentin.
Despite his claims of innocence, Peterson was found guilty and sentenced to death. He remains in the Adjustment Centre of Death Row for his own protection.
Morris Solomon Jr. – Found guilty of six murders in the Sacramento area around 1986-7. Despite his denial, multiple surviving victims came forward to testify against him, sealing his fate. He was sentenced to death in California’s only death row; at San Quentin, where he still resides to this day.
Kevin Cooper – convicted and sentenced to death for the hatchet and knife massacre of the Ryen family in 1983. Cooper strongly denies these killings, claiming he has been a victim of the manipulation of evidence. Regardless of his pleas, he was sentenced to death, and all appeals have been refused.
Richard Farley – Convicted of killing seven of his co-workers and nearly killing another, a female co-worker (Laura Black) whom he stalked after she rejected him in 1988. He was sentenced to the death penalty and sent to San Quentin, where he still resides.
George Jackson – A member of the Black Panther Party, who was killed in San Quentin in 1971.