March 30, 2013

My time in San Quentin Prison

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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.

February 14, 2013

The Helpfulness of Strangers

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I have recently been taking care of my wife after she had major surgery.  Her recovery has been slow, though steady, and the experience has caused me to reflect on helpfulness from strangers.  It is far too easy to forget the good that we can do when bombarded daily with images and stories about the bad, which annoyingly receives extensive coverage, regardless of where you look.

Helpfulness from strangers takes many forms and really happens often when you stop and think about it.  When I was a teenager, my father was driving my mother and I back home from a trip to San Francisco.  We were about half way across the Golden Gate bridge when a tire blew out in our car.  My father was able to keep control of the vehicle, but there was no place to pull over. Worse, as we slowed traffic started to go around us at unsafe speeds.  Just then, a highway patrol motorcycle officer noticed our plight and cut across several lanes of traffic to get to us.  He put his lights on and motioned for my father to continue to drive forward as best that he could, which was very slow because we were quickly down to driving on a rim in the blown out tire.  It was rush hour and even though the officer was behind us, cars were still flying past, and more than once they came incredibly close to hitting the officer.  It seemed like forever until we finally crossed the bridge and made it to the first exit.  We parked on the nearest wide shoulder and the officer radioed in for a tow truck.

Clearly, the officer was doing his job, but he did it with little regard for his own safety and he executed it quickly and instinctively.  My father was Deputy Director of the State Department of Corrections at that time and was so grateful that he wrote a letter to Head of the California Highway Patrol commending the officer on the actions he took to assist us that day.

Years later, another less dramatic example of helping happened when I was a soldier returning home from overseas on emergency leave.  My flight had been delayed by a layover in London, so when the plane landed at JFK airport in New York it was very late.  I was not able to get a connecting flight to the West Coast until the morning.  I also had no means to get a hotel at that time and so I was forced to wait at the airport.  It was cold and damp, and I was tired and sitting in a chair with my bags when security asked me to leave.  I had no place to go when an elderly lady next to me apparently figured that out and motioned for me to follow her.  From all appearances she lived on the streets, so I was understandably a little hesitant to follow, but out of desperation I did.  She led me to another distant terminal that had flights departing all night and did not close.  I smiled, thanked her, and found a chair to make myself comfortable in until morning.  Unlike the CHP officer, she did not have to help, but she did and it made a difference.


Another time happened years later when my wife and our then very young children were driving home from a Thanksgiving trip we had just taken.  We were in the Sierra Nevada mountains and it had just gotten dark and it started to snow.  The snow quickly turned to near blizzard conditions and so I stopped to put chains on the tires.  I installed them quickly and we were back on our way.  A short while later, and many miles away from any town or service station, one of the chains slipped off with a loud clang.  I stopped and realized that a part was now missing rendering the chains useless.  We also discovered that there was no cell coverage in the area and the snow showed no signs of letting up.

As my wife and I discussed our options, an old van pulled up behind us with a Hispanic family inside.  A man around my age stepped out, who spoke better English than I did Spanish, and told me that he could help.  He immediately took his shoe laces off and used them to tie the chains back into place.  He then said that he would follow me and, before he walked away, I pulled out some money and offered it to him with my sincere thanks.  He smiled and politely refused my offer and went back to his vehicle.

The storm worsened, but the unconventional repair actually held long enough to get us to the safety of a warm lodge.  A short time later we pulled into the parking lot and waved at the van as they drove passed us and traveled on down the highway in spite of the storm.

I thought about these, and similar helpful acts, when I took my wife to her first post operative medical appointment.  She required the use of a wheel chair due to the amount of walking involved.  While wheeling her around, strangers held doors open for us and politely offered assistance.  We also received help, and multiple offers of same, from numerous colleagues and coworkers.  I found myself humbled and extremely appreciative of all the help being offered.  I also wondered if this is what Mother Teresa had in mind when she said; “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other”?

Few would dispute that nearly everyone benefits from helpful acts, in whatever shape or frequency they take, throughout our lives.  We would do well to remember that because, among other reasons, none of us know when we might suddenly find ourselves in need of help from a stranger!

October 16, 2011

Opening day at Legoland Florida

The weather was ideal with a slight breeze and high clouds and the traffic was light when we arrived for the park’s opening.

The crowd was not too heavy at the gate, though we still had 45 minutes to wait.

Fortunately time passed quickly with music (sorry – no Justin Bieber), entertainment, and even a brief speech, and soon the gates were opened!

The shops and restaurants were the first things that we saw and the staff were all very welcoming and friendly.

The Island in the Sky Ride was renovated and kept as a reminder of the past.

It afforded a great view of the park from 150 feet above.

There were some really cool models to see of many familiar places done in fine detail.

There are also many rides that, for the most part, had short lines.

They kept the fantastic scenery from when the property was occupied by Cypress Gardens, such as this southern belle, in Legos of course!

The gardens make for a quiet and beautiful break from the pace of the rest of the park.

Before we knew it, it was nearly closing time and we had to depart.

By the time we started to leave, the park was getting ready to close and end its first day of business.  My family very much enjoyed the visit and brought back more than a few souvenirs, many good memories, and a desire to return again, which is not a bad first day outcome for any amusement park!

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