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San Quentin Puts on a Happy Face

A field trip to California’s oldest prison.

What if, instead of building prisons in remote locations, we put them near cities, accessible to family members and to the resources -- educational, vocational, therapeutic, recreational, cultural -- that are scarce in most prison towns?

What if, instead of walling out the world, we invited in volunteers by the hundreds to help prepare inmates for life outside - to put the correction in “corrections?” What if we offered public tours, during which visitors could chat with prisoners beyond the earshot of guards?

What if we allowed the inmates to publish a newspaper and produce a radio program?

What you’ve just imagined is San Quentin, California’s oldest prison, housing the state’s felonious since 1852.

A few of us from The Marshall Project spent two days at the prison last week. The occasion was a six-hour TEDx program featuring speakers and performers, most of whom would return to their cells for the night, a few from outside (including Robert Rubin, President Clinton’s treasury secretary, and Neil Barsky, founder and chairman of The Marshall Project). The event was above all a celebration of the prison’s faith in rehabilitation.

If you’ve watched Louis Theroux’s gripping 2015 report from San Quentin on the BBC, or San Quentin episodes of the MSNBC show “Lockup,” you know that the facility has its share of violent bedlam: rival gangs, the biggest death row in the United States, a spirit-sapping solitary ward. The BBC documentary begins with Theroux being strapped into a protective vest.

“The negative sells,” said Sam Robinson, the prison’s spokesman, who has worked there for 20 years. “It feeds into what people believe. And that’s part of the reality. But prison is much more complicated.”

Our visit was about the bright side, the hopeful side of prison. We walked without official escort through the main prison yard, past the intense half-court basketball games, the inmate giving al fresco haircuts, the weight-lifters and the aimless walkers. We talked to countless men who were incarcerated there, some for decades.

Because San Quentin is embedded in affluent/liberal Marin Country, and because it has had some progressive wardens, it is rich in programs. The prison has 3,000 volunteers donating time to an incarcerated population of about 3,700. The men can sign up to do Shakespeare, therapy, yoga, meditation, music, newspaper and radio journalism, college courses -- even a computer coding program aimed at generating contract work from nearby Silicon Valley and preparing the students for employment when they get out.

Most prisons, fearful of a political backlash if prison seems too comfortable, offer at most some high-school GED classes and manual-labor training. San Quentin, attentive to the reality that upwards of 90 percent of the incarcerated are eventually set free, makes an effort to prepare its residents for a civilized reentry to society. "Like I told my father,” one resident said, “this is like a men's liberal arts college, except there's less violence and less drinking." Also bleaker food options; we shared the standard San Quentin lunch -- plastic-wrapped slices of bread, squeeze sacks of peanut butter and jelly, cookies and a piece of fruit.

Research on the results is spotty, but studies of some programs in San Quentin indicate that participants have recidivism rates a fraction of the state average, which is around 60 percent.

We didn't see death row on this trip, and we didn't see the living quarters. The population we met -- about 200 men who signed up to mingle with us in a drizzly courtyard outside the chapel where the TEDx event took place -- were mostly serving life sentences with the possibility of parole. We met men who were given long sentences because of the "three strikes" rule; one said he got a life sentence for a third-offense forgery. Others were sentenced as juveniles - men now in their late 30s and early 40s, some of whom have new hope because of Supreme Court decisions that say those convicted as juveniles must be offered at least a chance of parole. Most were sentenced for acts of real violence, but they have convinced authorities that they have mastered their impulses enough to be trusted with visiting civilians. The men we met were eager for conversation, warm, smart, and enthusiastic about the opportunities for self-improvement. None seemed defeated or bitter.

The meeting with the San Quentin News staff was unexpectedly collegial. It turns out a newsroom in a prison is still a newsroom. These were men who took their jobs as seriously as we take ours. They cover many of the same subjects (but carefully, since an angry reader of the San Quentin News may do more than cancel his subscription.) They have some of the same debates we do. What’s the appropriate noun for the residents of prison? The managing editor was comfortable with “inmate” or “prisoner,” which is what the men mostly call themselves. One of the younger writers argued strongly that "incarcerated American" was more accurate and morally neutral.

At the News office we met Rahsaan Thomas, a lifer who has written two “Life Inside” features for The Marshall Project -- one on coping with sexual frustration, another on an inmate, nicknamed “Wall Street,” who has become a self-taught investment advisor. Later, “Wall Street” (his mother knows him as Curtis Carroll) told us how stock-picking literally saved his life: as a valued advisor to inmate members of the rival Crips, Bloods and Mexican drug gangs, he was rendered immune during outbreaks of gang warfare.

At the TEDx event, the roughly 150 visitors -- all dressed in black or brown, loose, cleavage-free clothes, in keeping with the prison’s strict dress code -- mixed freely with the men who were dressed in powder blue, a few guards and warden Ronald Davis. The incarcerated men ran the cameras, lighting, and all aspects of the programs. A guitar player/singer made sweet music. A group of heavily-muscled and slightly-scary looking men did a dance from their native Hawaii. An Asian man - "The Teacher" - offered a graceful soliloquy on meditation, yoga, and violence. A veteran talked about the agony of seeing his colleagues killed in combat, his attempted suicide in prison, and his work trying to get the armed forces to more aggressively address the epidemic of suicide among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. A woman whose police officer husband was murdered talked about how her need for revenge receded after she met with women in prison for murder. Now she’s an advocate for prison reform.

In most prisons, on rare occasions when civilians are invited in for an event, they sit sequestered from the men in colored jumpsuits. At San Quentin, we sat with the residents, joined in the banter and standing ovations. At the end, we scrambled to find warm beds in San Francisco while we waited out the snowstorm in New York; the men had to be back in their cells by 4pm for the head count.