I just completed spring quarter at the University of California in Santa Barbara and was looking forward to spending the summer at home with my parents. My father had recently accepted a position as Associate Warden of San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California. One of the perks, which could be debated, was that staff had the option to live on grounds at the prison. The facility consists of an outer gate with full security that houses the prison inside as well as a community includes streets and living quarters for hundreds of employees and their families. At that time, it also had a community gym as well and a small post office and gift shop located just outside the main gate. The cost, I was told, was much more reasonable than rent or a mortgage payment was in Marin County, which is one of the more affluent areas in California. The real estate that the prison and the expansive grounds it occupies, due to its location and proximity to the bay, are worth millions of dollars should the state of California ever decide to sell it!
It was very early in the morning when I left my small off-campus apartment in Isla Vista and my mind was filled with a predictable mix of thoughts about school and anticipation of a summer spent at home. I moved out a couple of years before when my parents had lived in Sacramento and, though I had visited them since the move, I was unsure what to expect spending a few months living at San Quentin. This was before I entered the Army and so I had no experience living in any type of secured community.
I arrived in the late morning and the gate guard asked me who I was there to visit. I informed him that I was moving “home” for the summer and would be around for a few months. After verifying my identification, and calling to confirm I was authorized, he lifted the gate and I drove in and down the road towards my parent’s house. They lived on a hill in a beautiful home that appeared to be built around the turn of the last century, plus or minus a decade. The yard was filled with flowers and the living room had huge windows that had a fantastic view of the San Francisco bay as well as the prison itself. I remember thinking what a contrast the two aspects of the view were. On exceptionally clear days, which were rare due to the near ever-present bay area fog, you could also see Alcatraz prison, then a state park, which added to the spectacle.
In addition to the living room, the house had a family room, sun room, back yard (also filled with flowers) and three bedrooms. I remember thinking that aside from the proximity to the prison this was a nice place to live. Interestingly, the grounds were all maintained by inmates supervised by guards. I realized this early on when I saw that the landscape workers wore the same blue shirt and denim pants that the inmates had on. I also noticed that they were very observant, especially if you were with a female.
In the morning scores of inmates would gather in the main yard and would chant in unison while exercising. I later learned that some of the groups also did this for religious reasons as well as for a show of unity. To a curious outsider, hearing this mixed with the chilling and dense morning fog was both fascinating and somewhat unnerving at the same time! In thinking about it now, it was not unlike some of the more solemn cadences that resonated during early morning physical training sessions that army units do when in garrison.
I visited the inside of the actual prison several times that summer and was fascinated not so much by the denizens, as I had been raised around that (i.e., my father spent the majority of his career in corrections), but by the stark surroundings and the aging architecture of the walls and buildings. I later learned that it was constructed in 1852 with little renovation or change since. In many ways it was similar to ancient forts of the type you would see in far-flung outposts still standing from Spain’s hegemony in places like Manila Bay. During my visits, I also was the recipient of catcalls and much staring as I was 18 then, and even though I am a native Californian, it left an impression on me. One positive outcome from this was that it helped me to more fully understand just how some employees feel when they are victims of harassment, which was useful when I started working in human resources a few years later. I also viewed death row and saw the gas chamber, which was still operational at that time, though that summer it was not put to use.
Visiting day was on Sunday and I remember that because it was one of three times that the main gate was often crowded with people and cars. The other two were during protests, which were also fairly common and usually concerned the death penalty, and during daily shift changes. Visitors would line up and they included a fairly representative sampling of individuals from all walks of life, ethnicities, and income levels and included; girlfriends, family members of assorted ages, attorneys, and friends. The expressions were as varied as the people though many sported looks of sadness tinged with frustration, no doubt in part due to the wait in line, and some tried to look cheerful, though it was clear they did not want to be there. It was not too different from the group that I would see visiting juveniles when I worked as a counselor in a probation department later on. During these experiences, I always wondered what these many were really thinking as they journeyed through the rote security process and queuing just to share a few moments with family, or associates, who were incarcerated.
The prison was located just a few miles down highway 101 from the Golden Gate Bridge, which was next to San Francisco. During that summer I often rode my bicycle around the area and occasionally over the bridge never-failing to marvel at the scenery and the pace of life in and around the city. It is impossible to live in Marin County and not visit the City for shopping, entertainment, or just for escape. When you live on grounds at the prison this is especially true because there is a ferry terminal outside of the back gate that goes directly to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. The ride across the bay takes under an hour and is better than fighting traffic and searching for an overpriced place to park your car on the weekends.
The summer eventually passed and it was time for me to leave the prison by the bay and get back to college life. As I left I told the somewhat bored looking gate guard that I was going back to college and he responded with an indifferent “I don’t care gaze” but, being the well-trained peace officer and public servant that he obviously was, he wished me well nonetheless. Living on grounds at a prison and not being a convict or peace officer is an unusual experience and one that stays with you for life, especially when that prison is San Quentin.