A day in San Quentin

By Walt Williams

It’s a beautiful Saturday afternoon and Lumpy is nervous. Partially from the years of meth, which make him twitch and move his head around constantly kinda like a bird looking for food, and partially, because he knows he may be out in 100 days after 26 years in prison.  

Lumpy has grown up in prison, Pelican Bay to High Desert to San Quentin. He was a fat kid in Sacramento who discovered that meth helped him loose weight. He bought from a dealer and then when his friends wanted some, he started selling to them. Then he got a job with Hostess delivering Twinkies and realized that his route was full of people and stops where he could make lots of money selling more than cream filled goodness.

Soon, he had graduated to meth runs from Sacramento to all over Northern California in the Twinkie van. Dealers loved Lumpy and his Twinkies and since he was smart, when one of the cooks suggested that the real money was in production, he signed on. This lasted until things went bad (things always go bad), he killed a man over a deal gone south, that was 1990. 25 years to life.

We are sitting in the lunchroom at San Quentin when Lumpy tells me the Twinkie story. I’m not exactly sure what is true but I feel a sadness listening to his stories. In a few months he’s going into a world where his job options are limited and where the easiest money is jumping back on the Twinkie van.

In 1963 the SQUIRES program was created. The general philosophy is, “We don’t scare straight, we communicate.” Groups of high school aged kids travel to the prison and spend the day inside talking with inmates, touring cells, walking the grounds, and learning why prison is not the place to be. This works when the group experiences the harsh reality of being behind bars but does not work when the reality is not so harsh. This is my second time bringing students into the prison, reading books is one thing but walking the yard is quite another.

Let’s start with racism and segregation. According to inmates, there are five groups in prisons: Northern Hispanics, Southern Hispanics Whites, Blacks, and Others. You see it on the yard where there are territories claimed by race. Around the basketball court is where the blacks hang out, around the tennis court is where the whites hang out (yes, there is a tennis court in the middle of San Quentin), the baseball diamond and picnic benches are for the Hispanics and the track around the yard is neutral territory used by everyone. Those who don’t self-segregate face consequences from both their own people and the people who they are trying to mix with. In prison you hang with your race, period.

As a nerdy white guy, I felt it as soon as I entered the prison. There was even a subtle divide within the SQUIRES program. The inmates I talked to (Lumpy and Tommy) were the same race as me, we sat together at lunch and we walked together through the yard.

 “You wouldn’t hang with this guy.” Lumpy explained, pointing to Jaime, my Hispanic co-teacher. “If you did, the Arians might hit you up and the northern Hispanics, man, they would shank you just for trying to talk with one of theirs.”

Most inmates in the SQUIRES program are at the end of long sentences, usually for murder.  The program is a part of their rehabilitation and reconnection with the outside world. The inmates could use some race relations curriculum.

The message from the program is valuable but there are some problems. This is my second time visiting San Quentin with a group of teens and I am always curious what the lasting impression will be. There is plenty of scared straight that goes on with the program. Part of the day consists of two sessions with the inmates where students sit in circles talking about their lives. One student from Santa Cruz had been busted with brass knuckles.

“Funny.” Tommy (30 years to life for murder) said, “I started with brass knuckles, then I graduated to knives, then guns, then I killed a guy, and now here I am.” That’s the message, they all started with skipping school and drinking and smoking weed and getting in fights, and then it escalated or they were suddenly in a situation which they couldn’t get out of. Like I said, things always go bad.

The California prion population is actually decreasing. Currently 135,000 people are serving time, down from a high of 160,000 a few years ago. This is good, what is not good is a recidivism rate of 61%, or a structure that focuses on holding not on rehabilitating. 13.4 Billion is spent on maintaining the 37 California prisons. 64 thousand dollars per inmate seems like way too much when you spend a day inside. The food is bad (pre-packaged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a mealy apple, oatmeal cookie and some flavored sugar water). Most inmates work to buy food at the commissary that has a nutritional level similar to 7-11.

Then there’s the booze and the drugs. When I smelled the familiar scent of weed wafting down from the cellblock we visited, I asked Lumpy how I could get drugs in prison. “No problem, weed, heroin, acid, long as you got money.” I told him about a documentary I saw which depicted the inmates holding a daily happy hour where they would bring out their pruno to share. “Yeah, when I was in High Desert I had a still winding around my cell, that’s how I made all my money, making and selling liquor.”

“But what about the guards?” I ask.

“Naw, most prisons have a blood code where if no one is bleeding, the guards leave you alone. The prisoners run the show, until someone bleeds, then they have to get involved.” He explained. Yikes.

At the end of the day the group gets together in a single room and talks about their experience. A chubby kid from Santa Cruz is talking out of turn so the head of the program asks him what he will remember from the day.

“I’m going to remember what a fun day I had at San Quentin.” He replies. The head of the program loses his shit and we all shake our heads in defeat.

The message is powerful but not quite on target.

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