On November 30, students in professor Carina Gallo’s Criminal Justice System class took a tour of the infamous San Quentin State Prison. The tour gave students a rich understanding of the prison’s history, facilities, programs, and inmate population.
The tour was a unique opportunity for students to deepen their understanding of the prison system. For many students, it was their first time visiting a prison and interacting directly with inmates.
The tour was led by Lieutenant Sam Robinson, a public information officer and captivating guide with a long history working at the prison. The prison was originally a ship anchored in the San Francisco Bay. Today’s San Quentin facility was built by prisoners and opened in 1852. It currently holds around 4,000 lower security inmates (level I and II) and 724 death row inmates.
After entering the prison walls, our group was surprised by the beauty and tranquility of the central courtyard. A few inmates in blue jumpsuits tended flower beds and men in orange jumpsuits--new arrivals--were quietly escorted from one side of the courtyard to the next. Lt. Robinson pointed out the visible buildings: a hospital with its original facade, two chapels, the condemned unit, reception center, and strategic guard towers. This area, we were told, connects the best and the worst of the prison.
We were then ushered into the chapel for a discussion with eight inmates, referred to as our tour “Guardian Angels.” These volunteers spoke frankly and eloquently about their prison life, family history, rehabilitation accomplishments, and how their perspective changed through the years. They were open and remorseful about the crimes they committed--primarily as young teenagers. They spoke about their moments of change. For one inmate, it was the moment he decided not to retaliate against a prisoner that killed his brother.
Every inmate we spoke to was thankful to be at San Quentin, as opposed to other state prisons. They explained that San Quentin, a lower security and urban prison, offers numerous rehabilitation programs and services.
The tour took us through furniture and mattress making factories that inmates work in for .30 cents to a dollar per hour, and through the main yard where, Lt. Robinson acknowledged, inmates quickly self-segregate by race upon arrival.
“Getting to spend a few hours with the inmates I saw a different side to these men. I always had a bias against prison inmates knowing that they broke the law and, in some cases, murdered another human being. After today, I see the men as humans and not prisoners,” said criminology student Ryan Fujinaga. “The trip to San Quentin is truly once in a lifetime and I recommend it to anyone interested in the criminal justice system."
The week following the tour students were asked to share what they learned from the tour and explain how it influenced their idea of an ideal prison. Students noted how San Quentin inspired them to view education and therapy as a priority in prison, they believe these services help inmates better understand themselves and make them more equipped to handle difficult situations in the future. The students repeated a line they heard frequently on the tour, “knowledge is power.”