On July 6th, 17 intrepid Sisters in Crime joined Lieutenant Sam Robinson for a five-hour tour of San Quentin.

After we showed our IDs, signed in, got wanded and wrist-stamped, we squeezed into a space between two sets of bars where we showed our IDs again. Then Sam lead us into a surprisingly beautiful plaza landscaped with flowers, a memorial to officers who lost their lives at the prison.

Above us loomed guard towers and razor wire.

To the lieutenant, the courtyard represents the ground between the best and worst of the prison—the Adjustment Center on one side, housing the most difficult criminals, and two chapels on the other side, one for Catholics and the other serving a multitude of faiths.

Before Lt. Robinson became a public information officer, he worked in the Adjustment Center, a place rife with prison gang members where the cells require concrete doors fitted with only slots. It’s a place where two officers are required to move an inmate, and the inmate must undress and submit to a cavity search first. The officers wear headgear with shields to protect against “gassing,” prisoners throwing collected feces and urine on them.

Sam warned us we might—and we did—hear alarms, a time for all prisoners to cease their activities and sit, and for us to remain standing and grouped near our guide. If we were to hear a whistle, that means “one hundred percent of the time, something is happening.” If we heard gunshot, then we should get down. Although we didn’t have to drop to the ground, one of the alarms during our visit was due to gunshots in the Reception Center.

The Reception Center is where most problems occur as inmates from all over the state funnel together to be processed. In the center, they are assigned a security risk level of 1-4 before being sent to their final destinations. San Quentin mainline prisoners, not in the Adjustment Center or on Death Row, are Level 2.

We passed many of the new arrivals in their orange jumpsuits—the reason we were not to wear orange during our tour, just one item on a page-long list of prohibitions, ending with the ominous red notice:

Hostages will not be recognized for bargaining purposes. 

In the scorching sun of the courtyard, Sam gave us a brief history lesson. After the gold rush, San Francisco became the hub of crime in California. San Quentin, originally just a ship, cut the crime rate in half. At first San Quentin was a private prison that provided cheap labor for Vallejo.

The original brick building housed both prisoners and staff. Now San Quentin has about 4,000 inmates. Approximately 85 of the staff members live in the charming village outside the prison walls, with million-dollar views of the bay.

We moved from the quad to a chapel and the highlight of the tour. Ten inmates, who Sam called our Guardian Angels, candidly spoke with us, answering our questions right up to the courageous “What were the circumstances that lead to you being here?”

The answers varied from a third strike for stealing two twenties from a cash register to a double homicide. All of them took responsibility for their crimes, but a meme emerged. At the time of their crime, they were young. One of them killed two men in retaliation. They had stabbed his father in the neck. “I went and bought a gun—my biggest mistake.” He was sixteen.

According to our guides, one hurdle to rehabilitation is “young guy think.” Young inmates tend to view their incarceration with the attitude “I just need to do what I did better.”

All of the inmates who spoke to us had spent time in Level 3 or Level 4 prisons. While they had to exhibit good behavior to earn the move to San Quentin, an inmate named Curtis emphasized, “Prison doesn’t teach us how to be good citizens.” It’s much more about survival, especially in the higher security prisons, where there’s a lot of pressure from one’s race group to act for them. The harder prisons are “very segregated” and embody a “culture of hopelessness.”

Our speakers felt fortunate to have made it to the Level 2 San Quentin, although one experienced anxiety that he was too damaged from maximum security prison, that he was “too hard for the yard.”

As a lower security and urban prison, San Quentin is better able to field volunteers and currently has over 3,000. Two young male volunteers in the university program accompanied us on our tour. As we moved about the prison, through the furniture and mattress-making factories and out into the main yard, inmates in their program warmly greeted them. (In case you’re wondering, the furniture and mattresses supply state government offices and college dorms.)

Our Guardian Angels all experienced different “Ah ha” moments when they decided to change their lives. For Joe, it came the moment he was arrested. He resolved right then never to use drugs again. Of course, he may not have had much choice about that. Not even cigarettes are allowed on California prison grounds.

For Adnan, his change came via the volunteers. His prostitute mother and pimp father had physically abused him. When he was eleven, his father pointed a rifle at his chest and threatened to kill him. “When even your parents want to kill you, you develop a sense that everyone is out to get you.” People volunteering to help him altered his view of the world.

Another inmate experienced his epiphany only shortly before he addressed us when he was told he might be sent back to Pelican Bay.

While the presentation was intense, it was also full of laughs and good humor. Asked about the food, one replied, “We don’t necessarily call it food.” Another quipped, “Every time we have chicken, the seagull population goes down.” They get up for breakfast at 5:30 and are issued a sack lunch at breakfast. If they don’t rise and shine, they won’t eat until supper. Unless they can afford treats from the commissary, where a 3.5 oz. bag of peanuts will set them back a buck.

“Why did you agree to speak to us?” one Sister asked.

One reason is that all inmates in the general population, the ones dressed in blue denim and blue chambray shirts, have to either attend education courses and/or work. Work pays from 30 cents to one dollar per hour. Some of the speakers addressed us to earn their money, although more than one confessed it was good prep for facing the parole board. Clearly, too, Lt. Robinson carefully selected them. After speaking with us, they accompanied us about the grounds. At a couple of tense moments, as we huddled close to Lt. Robinson, the inmates formed a loose perimeter around us.

In spite of the integrated programs at San Quentin, the inmates on the main yard quickly segregate into specific areas. Lt. Robinson pointed out there has been some small progress in this self-segregation. For example, on the basketball court, once black-only turf, one might see a player of another race. Same on the tennis court. Before we left, one inmate entertained us with his magic tricks using a deck of cards.

Sister Ellen Kirschman inside one of the therapy safe spaces.

In addition to the factories and main yard, we passed through the new hospital, completed in 2009. Large cages filled a room for group therapy. Each inmate sits in his own little cell during a session. This is for the protection not only of the therapist but also of the clients, who may share antagonism.

We also stopped in the small library where all the tables in front of the stacks were filled. Science fiction and fantasy are popular, but there are also Reacher Creatures here, with a demand for Lee Child, as well as other thriller writers. Anyone who would like to contribute to putting books in the hands of inmates might check out the Prisoners Literature Project.

Santos’ panels were printed in the San Quentin News after his death in 2015 at age 87.

“San Quentin is where I became an artist,” muralist Alfredo Santos once stated. He arrived at the prison in 1951 at the age of 24.  His Smithsonian-coveted, sepia murals enhance three walls of the SanQuentin cafeteria. A person could spend an entire tour gazing at the intricate depiction of California history laced with personal references to Santos’ life.

While our prisons may be woefully in need of reform, a trip to The Dungeon, used up until 1940, illustrates how far we have come in terms of more humane treatment. In The Dungeon, up to six men were locked in an unlighted, cave-like cell with no beds or toilet. Each cell contained only three buckets, one with the prisoners’ water supply, for the men to navigate in the dark. The current cramped 4×9 shared cells represent a huge improvement.

One of the biggest surprises of the tour occurred as we filed down a final hallway, right toward the showers! Only a privacy strip separated us from full frontal views of naked men.

After we exited the prison, showing our IDs and exhibiting our stamps under a black light, we made our final stop—the Execution Room. Since no prisoner has been executed in California since 2006, the room feels like a storage closet. The centerpiece, a small, airtight gas chamber, barely accommodates the two teal metal chairs inside. Dusty stools for viewers have been shoved up to the “glass” and some small bleachers moved against the wall, which created a narrow passageway for us.

The Execution Room haunted me. We had just witnessed ten men’s journey on a path toward redemption. One of our Guardian Angels had committed murder at age 19 and had been locked up for 42 years. None of these men could be defined as only his crime. They stood before us as complex human beings, taking responsibility for the devastation they wreaked on their families and the families of their victims, and moving forward.