'MSNBC Special: Inside San Quentin' for Jan. 28

ANNOUNCER:  There are two million people behind bars in America.  For the next hour, we open the gates.  “Lockup.”


WARDEN JEANNE WOODFORD, SAN QUENTIN STATE PRISON, 1999-2004  The number of units that are here at San Quentin has just grown beyond the capacity of this prison or what it was designed for.

CROWD:  Free us!  Free us!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I took sociology in college.  And you stack a bunch of rats together, eventually, they start eating each other.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  With the age of the building, the way it‘s set up, almost anything you do, you‘re in direct contact with the inmates.

SGT. J.D. NELSON, SAN QUENTIN STATE PRISON:  Doesn‘t matter how much staff we have, they will erupt, if it‘s going to.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The mentality of most inmates in this unit is that, I‘m on death row, there‘s nothing they can do to me.  You know, if I assault you today, there‘s nothing they‘ll do to me tomorrow.  That‘s their mentality, you can only kill me once.


JOHN SEIGENTHALER, HOST:  Hi, everyone, and welcome to “Lockup.”  At 150 years old, San Quentin State Prison in California is one of the most famous, most notorious penitentiaries in the world.  It is steeped in a very violent history.  Today, its walls are crumbling and the institution has become outdated, contributing to an overwhelming increase in both the number and severity of brutal assaults by inmates.

And during the next hour, you will witness life inside San Quentin as you have never seen it before.  MSNBC was granted unprecedented access, including a never-before look inside California‘s vicious death row.


(voice-over):  San Quentin opened in 1852 and today seems physically trapped in the century in which it was conceived.  Old and decrepit, San Quentin is riddled with shadowy alcoves and blind spots.  There are no electrified lethal fences.  The towers around the perimeter must still be staffed, where, incredibly there are fewer surveillance cameras than a single convenience store.  And worse yet, a lack of modernization has put officers in constant risk of inmate attack.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Every day I walk through those gates, the thought crosses my mind, Is today going to be the last?

SEIGENTHALER:  The grounds are a sprawling 432 acres located on the shores of beautiful San Francisco Bay.

SGT. MICHAEL BARKER, SAN QUENTIN STATE PRISON:  This is the receiving and release area San Quentin State Prison.  Every inmate that enters or exits San Quentin will come through this area right here.  You cannot get into San Quentin nor can you leave San Quentin without coming through this area.

SEIGENTHALER:  When inmates first arrive, they are strip searched. 

They get their hair cut.  Then they‘re photographed and fingerprinted.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Starting with your right thumb, you‘re going to roll your fingers across (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

SEIGENTHALER:  In an effort to avoid violent confrontations later, every inmate is evaluated and classified according to his history of violence outside and inside the penal system.





UNIDENTIFIED GUARD:  Share a cell with another man?


UNIDENTIFIED INMATE:  That‘s all right with me.



UNIDENTIFIED GUARD:  Yes.  I wish we could make that call for you, but (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Thank you.

SEIGENTHALER:  Once evaluated, the newcomers are placed in one of San Quentin‘s four cellblocks.  Each cellblock holds up to 800 inmates in cells that are stacked on tiers, five high.  At its best, this is an inefficient design.  Officers are always having to climb stairs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Where‘s the elevators?

UNIDENTIFIED GUARD:  We‘re the elevator, the human elevator.

SEIGENTHALER:  But at its worst, the design of San Quentin‘s cellblocks expose officers to inmate assault.

UNIDENTIFIED GUARD:  With the age of the building, the way it‘s set up, almost anything you do, you‘re in direct contact with the inmates.

SEIGENTHALER:  When it‘s time for the inmates to go to the showers or to the dining hall, an entire tier is released simultaneously.  And astonishingly, only two officers are assigned to orchestrate it.

UNIDENTIFIED GUARD:  This tier‘s going down right now.





SEIGENTHALER:  An officer uses an original antiquated key called a “spike” to unlock each cell door one by one.  Only then can the doors on that tier be released with the push of a mechanical bar.  With so many inmates and so few officers, the opportunity for violence looms large.  The only visible deterrent is a lone armed officer who constantly patrols the gunrail which overlooks the tiers.

OFFICER VINCENT BAKER, SAN QUENTIN STATE PRISON:  My job is walking around, giving coverage to other officers, watching inmate movement, make sure there‘s no fights, nothing going on in cells.  And of course, you look for different things like weapons, just visible things.

SEIGENTHALER:  By contrast, contemporary prisons control inmate movement safely and remotely with the use of electronic doors.  At San Quentin, officers must escort inmates everywhere—to the showers, to the laundry, everywhere.  And if an inmate is more violent-prone, it takes three escort officers, all in full riot gear.  It‘s ironic that the only place in San Quentin where electronic doors are used is at the officers‘ entrance to the court-yard.

Coming up, meal time at San Quentin, when the opportunity for inmate assault is at its peak.  Plus, a first-ever look inside San Quentin‘s Adjustment Center, where the most violent, most sadistic death row inmates are housed.




SEIGENTHALER (voice-over):  The feeding of inmates always poses one of the greatest risks for violence at San Quentin.  San Quentin‘s lack of modernization places inmates within striking distance of officers and other inmates.  Among the 6,000 inmates at San Quentin, more than 3,000 general-population inmates eat their meals in the dinning hall.  Only a handful of officers oversee the process.

OFFICER DERRICK CLARK, SAN QUENTIN STATE PRISON:  On most nights, it‘ll be two officers in the dining hall.  It could be anywhere from, like, 200 to 400 inmates in the dining hall.  There‘s no guns in any dining hall.  And all we have is our pepper spray and our baton and our communications skills.

OFFICER KENNETH SMOLLEN, SAN QUENTIN STATE PRISON:  This is known as a Mark-46.  It sprays OC (ph) pepper spray, controls any kind of disturbance that we may have during feeding, after feeding, during escorting of inmates coming in and out of the dining hall.

SEIGENTHALER:  On this day, prison intelligence warned officers a gang-related attack might occur at dinner.

UNIDENTIFIED GUARD:  Tonight, we‘re expecting some type of problems, possibly some—we‘ll have extra coverage tonight to provide security.

SEIGENTHALER:  A member of a gang called Nuestra Familia is in prisk (ph) of a reprimand for not fulfilling a direct order.

OFFICER STEVE FEUDNER, SAN QUENTIN STATE PRISON:  They ask them to participate in their gang.  If they refuse, they are disciplined, and the discipline being slashed.

SGT. J.D. NELSON, SAN QUENTIN STATE PRISON:  Doesn‘t matter how much staff we have, they will erupt, if it‘s going to.

SEIGENTHALER:  Officers are tense, watching for any signs of trouble.  Pepper spray is at the ready.  Sure enough, the alarm sounds.  Prisonwide, inmates sit down according to protocol.  Officers catch a man attempting to conceal his homemade slashing weapon.  Fortunately, a violent act was avoided this time.

In this cellblock, it‘s the officer who is at risk during mealtime.  Inmates housed here are considered too violent to be permitted to leave their cells, so it‘s the officers who must deliver the food cell by cell.

OFFICER TONY JONES, SAN QUENTIN STATE PRISON:  This is one of the most dangerous areas in the institution.  There‘s that presence of a clear and present danger as soon as you step on the tier, and it doesn‘t go away.

SEIGENTHALER:  Officer Tony Jones worked these tiers for 14 years, and he knows what inmates here are capable of.

JONES:  They don‘t work and play well with others.  They‘re the bad guys here at San Quentin.

SEIGENTHALER:  A modern prison would have solid doors to protect officers during feedings, but here the cell fronts are open, allowing inmates the opportunity to assault officers in perhaps the most unsavory way possible.

JONES:  The absolute worst thing that could happen to you is to have that—gassing is what we call it.  It‘s a mixture of feces and urine, sometimes fermented for days until it stews into something that is so grotesque, you can‘t mention it.  And that is thrown on the officer through the bars.

A lot of these guys are infected with hepatitis C, HIV and many other diseases.  I‘d rather be punched, I‘d rather be kicked, I‘d rather be stabbed than to be gassed like I was back in ‘92.

SEIGENTHALER:  Incredible as it may seem, officers at San Quentin say that there‘s an attempted assault on their lives almost every day.

UNIDENTIFIED GUARD:  They look for vulnerable spots.  They look for times when you do let your guard down.

SEIGENTHALER:  This is death row.  In fact, this is California‘s only male death row where the method of execution is lethal injection.  This is where you‘ll find such vicious killers as Richard Ramirez, the so-called “Night Stalker,” and Richard Allen Davis, the killer of Polly Klaas.  Today, the condemned population has grown to a staggering 581, well beyond San Quentin‘s ability to handle them.  This forced death row to expand into three additional cellblocks never designed for such violent inmates.

WARDEN JEANNE WOODFORD, SAN QUENTIN STATE PRISON, 1999-2004:  OK, we have one escort coming through.

SEIGENTHALER:  Having worked at San Quentin for 25 years, Warden Jeanne Woodford understands the challenges that confront death row.

WOODFORD:  As the number of condemned come in, it‘s just created a situation with this physical plant, with the open cell fronts, their ability to communicate with each other and pass on gang information, and it just makes it very difficult to manage that population.

SEIGENTHALER:  The most sadistic death row inmates are isolated in the Adjustment Center, where assaults are almost ritual.

WOODFORD:  In the last year, it‘s just—it‘s probably tripled, and not only in numbers but in seriousness.  Just some very serious incidents have happened here.

SEIGENTHALER:  In one recent 18-month period, 45 of the 85 inmates at the Adjustment Center have successfully attacked staff.  The number of attempts, off the charts.

UNIDENTIFIED GUARD:  The mentality of most inmates in this unit is, I‘m on death row, and there‘s nothing you can do to me.  If I assault you today, there‘s nothing you can do to me tomorrow.  That‘s their mentality, You can only kill me once.

SEIGENTHALER:  Just like in general population, one of the most volatile times at the Adjustment Center is meal time.  It‘s a typical morning.  Correctional officers are arriving to start their shift.

UNIDENTIFIED GUARD:  Can‘t have bad breath, you know?  Don‘t want an inmate to get upset.

SEIGENTHALER:  They get ready to serve breakfast to the death row inmates.  Today, it‘s two pancakes and grits.  Inmates also get a bagged lunch with the meal.  At one time, it took only one officer to serve an inmate a meal.  He wore very little protection.  Today, since attacks are commonplace and vicious, it takes three officers wearing full riot gear.

OFFICER KEVIN WALKER, SAN QUENTIN STATE PRISON:  When we feed breakfast, we have all the food in serving containers, and we put it on the trays, serve it to the inmate.  Anytime that you pop open the food port, you‘re vulnerable.  The inmate has—there‘s an opening for the inmate to assault you.

SEIGENTHALER:  Officers Demoine Brittenum and Kevin Walker have worked in death row for a total of 12 years.  They say they can never be too careful in there.

OFFICER DEMOINE BRITTENUM, SAN QUENTIN STATE PRISON:  An inmate might try and grab your arm, pull it into the cell so he can break it or stab it or, you know, cut it, slash it.

WALKER:  There‘s been an instance where a spear was shot out at an officer when the food port was open.  He opened the food port, turned and grabbed a milk and breakfast items.  And when he turned back around, the inmate had some elastic set up to shoot out an arrow.

BRITTENUM:  He wasn‘t wearing these, but he was wearing a visor.  So we switched to these helmets because the face shield is thicker.  It‘s harder.

SEIGENTHALER:  In spite of the riot gear, attacks at the Adjustment Center have continued.  So prison officials took the extraordinary step of installing plexiglass shields to protect officers while they serve meals to prisoners.  The shield has rollers, which allow officers to slide it along a pipe running the length of the tier.  Still, the attacks have continued.

WOODFORD:  They‘ve been really tricky in there.  The one assault that I can think of, the officer was handing the inmate mail, and the inmate pretended like he dropped the mail, reached down to pick up it, allegedly, in the cell, but came up with a weapon and slashed the officer‘s hand.

WALKER:  I don‘t think you ever get used to it.


WALKER:  I don‘t think that you—you ever get to that point where you feel like you‘re getting used to it, then I think you might want a job change.

BRITTENUM:  Because that means you start dropping your guard and get you and somebody else hurt.

WALKER:  You got to form a thick skin in here.

SEIGENTHALER:  Coming up: After several related gang attacks, officers search cells for weapons and find the most ingenious inmate-manufactured killing devices.




UNIDENTIFIED GUARD:  On last Friday, we had two incidents in which...

SEIGENTHALER:  It‘s nearly 7:00 AM in San Quentin, and officers gather in the court-yard for a briefing regarding a series of recent assaults they feel may be related.  So they‘ve organized an extensive cell search for hidden makeshift weapons.

UNIDENTIFIED GUARD:  This is how we‘re going to do it.  We‘re going to do a search line right there in the rotunda.



UNIDENTIFIED GUARD:  Pat them all down.  Have them take off their shoes.  They might be packing on the way in here.  There‘ll be searched and fed.

SEIGENTHALER:  After breakfast, the inmates are moved to the yards, where they will stay until officers can complete their search.

UNIDENTIFIED GUARD:  We‘re looking for makeshift weapons (UNINTELLIGIBLE) anything with a razor, anything that is—they can slash these guys with or even stab them with.

SEIGENTHALER:  The operation is broken up into several two-person teams.

OFFICER DAVID HAMILTON, SAN QUENTIN STATE PRISON:  Well, Megan, I guess I‘ll get the top, huh.


You‘re the tall guy.

SEIGENTHALER:  Officers David Hamilton (ph) and Megan McGee (ph) each have years of experience at second-guessing where inmates like to hide contraband.

MCGEE:  OK, I found two razors that were removed, that the blades were removed from the disposable razors.  And these can be melted into a toothbrush handle, used as slash—real good slashing instruments because those are solid, very sharp razors right there.

HAMILTON:  There‘s another one.

MCGEE:  And looks like my partner‘s found another one.  I‘m going confiscate these because like I said, they got about 20 of them, and they‘re only supposed to have, like, one each.

OFFICER STEVE FEUDNER, SAN QUENTIN STATE PRISON:  This was manufactured from a bedspring.

SEIGENTHALER:  Officer Steve Feudner works for San Quentin‘s Investigative Services Unit, where they keep a collection of confiscated inmate-manufactured weapons.

FEUDNER:  The inmates, they pry their—a portion of their bedspring off of the bunk rail.  They straighten it.  They sharpen it.  And this inmate used string for the handle.  These weapons are very well made, extremely sharp, very deadly weapons.

UNIDENTIFIED GUARD:  We got about a two-inch—two to four-inch piece of bedspring that‘s missing out of here.

UNIDENTIFIED GUARD:  And it‘s not red painted.

We spray paint it with red paint.  That means it‘s already been noted, so it‘s not new and it hasn‘t been fixed yet.  So like that one down there doesn‘t have red paint.  That‘s one we just found out about.

SEIGENTHALER:  With some inmates in their cells for up to 20 hours a day, they‘ve got nothing but time in which to think up the most ingenious ways to use whatever is at hand to make the most deadly of weapons.

FEUDNER:  The inmates manufacture weapons from something as simple as cellophane wrappers.  They‘ll heat it, melt it, take socks, roll it together, get it so it‘s forming.  They‘ll dip it in cold water.  They‘ll heat it again.  They‘ll dip it in cold water until the molecular structure changes.  And then what you end up having is that.

This weapon, for instance—very crudely made.  Magazines rolled.  This is a spear.  And as you can see, it‘s pretty rigid.  This inmate lodged a metal screw for the tip.  When the officer or inmate walks by the cell, the spear is thrust out.

MCGEE:  You wouldn‘t think that a rolled-up newspaper or magazine would be—make that good of a handle, and it does.  Very effective.

FEUDNER:  This is known as a zip gun.  This portion of the zip gun is filled with match heads, ground-up match heads.  A plunger is used to push shrapnel, pieces of metal, ground up zippers, packs it down.  When his target walks by, the inmate would light those two fuses.  Basically, what you have is a double-barreled shotgun.

SEIGENTHALER:  What‘s particularly scary is that once an inmate finishes making his weapon, he finds a clever place to hide it for quick access.

HAMILTON:  It‘s an old joint.  You can hide stuff anywhere, like the I-beams up here.  I‘m going to go on and check these.  It‘s just a beam.  You walk under it every day, but the best place, somebody‘s walking to the chow hall.  And a lot of guys‘ll know where it is, but they‘re not going to tell because they don‘t want to get killed, they don‘t want to get hurt for ratting.

I guess you can‘t reach up there, can you.  I‘ll get them.

MCGEE:  You just had to point that out, didn‘t you!

HAMILTON:  I can‘t help it.  I call them like I see them.

SEIGENTHALER:  By 10:00 AM, search teams had confiscated several homemade weapons, including sharpened bedsprings and blades.  The search was a success.  And as a result, several prisoners will be prosecuted.

Coming up, inmates and the politics of staying alive on the exercise yard.  But first, a provocative and personal look at how inmates remain sane in the 6-by-9-foot world of a prison cell.  They share how they cook, wash clothes and even fish.




ANNOUNCER:  Due to mature subject matter, viewer discretion is advised.

SEIGENTHALER:  San Quentin is a deteriorated penitentiary whose obsolete 150-year-old design is putting officers at risk and causing enormous inefficiency.                But for the thousands of inmates who are incarcerated here, San Quentin is home.  It‘s where long days are spent in small cells and where survival is as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one. 


UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  This is a 9-by-6 cell.  Now I can put my hand from here to here and I can‘t even stretch my arms all the way up. 

SEIGENTHALER (voice-over):  You might say that this is what criminals deserve.  After all, this is prison.  But for cell mates Russell Johnson (ph) and Christopher Reed (ph), for instance, it‘s hard time. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  There‘s certain ways that you can conduct yourself in here, too.  You know what I‘m saying? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Let‘s say, for instance, somebody...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Someone want to talk to him.  You know what I‘m saying?  I got to sit down.  You know what I‘m saying?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I might have to come up like this.  Or either you can just turn to this side right here and walk this way side by side like this here. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes.  This is how you do it.  You do your back that way. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  This is a real deal, you know what I‘m saying?  It really is. 

SEIGENTHALER:  Just how each inmate survives the extraordinary time they spend in these tiny spaces is as individual as the inmate. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  As you see, we keep our home neat and clean, because cleanliness is next to godliness. 

SEIGENTHALER:  Solen Lee (ph) is a third termer about to be paroled.  Lately, he‘s been teaching his cell mate the benefit of his experience and he‘ll need it.  He‘s got a 12-year sentence in which to practice. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  This is what I do.  I take my T-shirt, grab my bar of soap, dip it in the toilet.  That will keep my toilet fresh and clean. 

I hold my hand over the toilet.  The toilet fills up, there‘s fresh

water now and I can just rinse it.  As far as the cooking, we use a little

·         we use a can, an empty Coke can. 

But I will just demonstrate how it works.  You wrap the toilet paper.  You keep wrapping it, tuck it in.  You tuck it in on both sides.  You know, in order to keep the fire going, you have got to let it breathe. 

So this is basically what a bong looks like when you‘re finished.  You sit it on the edge of the toilet, because it‘s got to breathe.  I might sit it here.  I might light it at the bottom.  As you see, it‘s like a fire.  You hold your can over it and you cook.  And you hold the can up here.  And it heats the can.  Therefore, your water gets hot. 

SEIGENTHALER:  At San Quentin, using fish lines is the customary way for locked-up inmates to share food, tobacco, information, anything. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Fish lines are throughout the institution.  I mean, that‘s a common practice of the inmates.  It‘s their way of getting something from this cell to that cell.  They rip up bed sheets.  Sometimes, they will get real violent taking their clothing apart and getting like a thread-sized fish line going. 

They will usually anchor it with a piece of soap or something that slides well down the tier.  And then they send everything from cigarettes to whole newspapers to any information that they‘re trying to pass, drugs.  All kinds of things, they‘ll pass with fish lines. 

CHARLES PELHAM, PRISONER:  My name is Charles A. Pelham.  And I‘m originally from Tampa, Florida.  You might wonder where I came to the Golden State of California.  Well, it‘s like they say.  You come here on vacation and you go home on probation. 

SEIGENTHALER:  Charles Pelham is completely a short eight-month sentence for a parole violation. 

PELHAM:  I‘m not an Aryan brother.  I‘m not a skinhead.  I used to be a member of Hare Krishna back in the old days.  And the skulls let the rest of these inmates know that they had better back off, because I ain‘t no easy mark. 

I don‘t hate anybody.  I‘m too old for that nonsense.  I had this put on my face when I was a youngster.  I wanted to make a political statement.  I also wanted to impress my girlfriend.  But it impressed her the wrong way and she got rid of me. 

MIKE MILLER, PRISONER:  I‘m the bird man of San Quentin. 

SEIGENTHALER:  Mike Miller is at San Quentin for commercial burglary. 

He‘s got roughly eight months left to serve.

MILLER:  I think birds is a good way of releasing a lot of tension and anger.  Before I got arrested, my girlfriend used to chase the birds away.  She didn‘t want me around.  So now I‘m in here, I have a chance to mingle with the birds.  And, basically, that‘s about the only friends I got are birds.  I can‘t trust anybody else.

SEIGENTHALER:  This is the mental health unit at San Quentin‘s infirmary.  The inmates who are housed here generally don‘t have the survival skills needed in prison.  Susan Downs, the prison psychiatrist for more than four years, comes here every day to see her patients, a pretty volatile group.  She always maintains a safe distance with from them even with a solid steel door between them.

SUSAN DOWNS, PRISON PSYCHIATRIST:  You have to wear a vest, because there was one psychiatrist, they tried to kill her.  They grabbed her when she got near the cell port.  And they tried to stab something into her. 

OK.  So it‘s just going to be—just wanted to check and see how you‘re doing today.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I‘m doing the same I‘ve done every day.

SEIGENTHALER:  Dr. Downs meets with her first patient.  He was once incarcerated three years for stealing a car.  During his term, he often assaulted both staff and inmates.  Now he‘s back for a parole violation.  Officers brought him to this unit because they noticed he seemed to be quite delusional.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  They‘ll put me in a cell and then they‘ll put like a gun killer next door, right?  And then the gun guy don‘t ever get out.  The guy likes shooting people.  And then I‘ll get out.  I‘ll be the guy that was in the cell next door going out and shooting people with a gun. 


UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  ... dying.  They‘re coming up with (EXPLETIVE DELETED) (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in my file.

DOWNS:  Would you like...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Some level one little petty theft, you get killed

by a psycho killer in his (EXPLETIVE DELETED) sleep. 

DOWNS:  Would you like to consider taking medications?  Because I think it could...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I don‘t need medications.  I feel just fine.

DOWNS:  Because you get all these thoughts rushing at your head. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It‘s like this.  I (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to be on medication, and then they‘ll keep me around here for three months and then I‘ll get out of prison and I‘ll be him, because I know he‘s a psycho killer and I‘m not.  Next thing you know, I‘m running around with a psycho killer and they think that I need medication.  I don‘t need medication. 

SEIGENTHALER:  Under law, in California state prisons, a psychiatrist cannot force drugs on any patient unless that patient meets certain criteria for being a danger to himself or others. 

DOWNS:  They‘ll probably discharge him like that and there‘s not much we can do, because he has the right to refuse medications. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  This is a crime against civilization, those bars on that window. 

SEIGENTHALER:  Coming up, what is considered the most dangerous place at San Quentin, the exercise yard. 




SEIGENTHALER (voice-over):  When an inmate arrives at San Quentin, he quickly learns that he needs to find a gang or a group with whom he can affiliate himself.  Even if he‘s not a gang banger on the outside, not belonging means going it alone and, more importantly, a serious loss of protection.  On the exercise yard, there are no bars keeping rival gangs apart, only a desire to carve out their own place in the sun. 

JOHN GLADSON, PRISON GUARD:  And this is the lower yard, and the inmates segregate themselves out here, and the reason being that the gangs want it that way. 

SEIGENTHALER:  John Gladson is a veteran officer at San Quentin with 19 years of experience observing yard politics.  This has helped him to fine-tune his senses for predicting trouble. 

GLADSON:  Sound is a big thing in prison.  If you look out, this yard is pretty nice.  Everybody is out and about talking and laughing and having a good time.  If the yard goes silent, you know it‘s all bad. 

ANTHONY TROTTER, PRISONER:  If there‘s something going on, you‘ll feel it.  It‘s just there to be felt. 

ISAAC BREWER, PRISONER:  You can tell it.  Ain‘t too many people smiling.  Ain‘t too many people laughing.  Everyone is in their own little circular, you know what I mean?  You can honestly tell.  People are whispering and talking.  And that‘s just how to goes. 

TROTTER:  And those are the first things that...

BREWER:  Signs.

TROTTER:  ...you will come to learn in the penitentiary.  

SEIGENTHALER:  Inmates must be even more aware of their environment than an officer.  For them, it‘s all about survival of the fittest. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Using your vibes and looking at the motions and the actions of people from a distance.  Something ain‘t right.  Something isn‘t right.  So we have got to watch this here. 

GLADSON:  The northern Hispanics is our main gang here in San Quentin, and it‘s because they‘re better organized.  If you will look at the yard, it looks like the blacks control more of the yard, but the blacks are all fragmented into different gang groups, where the northerners, no matter what gang they‘re in on the street, when they get here, they‘re one group and they all stick together. 

Then Border Brothers run this area over here by the laundry that has got the volleyball court, Border Brothers being anyone that was born south of the border.  They usually are the ones that getting taken advantage of, because they‘re not organized at all.  But they‘ve taken that little area there because nobody else wants it, because it has an open bathroom.  It stinks.  It smells.

OK, the white guys are over there on the parallel bars and on the picnic table.  So, the white guys are pretty relaxed, even though, in reality, everybody is always looking. 

SEIGENTHALER:  Looking out for one‘s safety is any inmate‘s concern.  Perhaps even more important is his obligation to look out for all his cohorts on the yard.

GLADSON:  What you‘re looking at is the bathroom area.  They‘ll go over together.  And one guy will stand out in front while the other guys go to the bathroom and then they will switch off. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Basically, we do that just for safety, for our safety.  We watch each other‘s backs.  Because you never know what could happen.  Things happen in a second.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  This is prison.  And things can happen here. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  So it‘s kind of good having somebody else with you.  They can—they got your back or whatever.   

SEIGENTHALER:  Right now, the atmosphere seems calm and uneventful, but, in fact, each gang is involved in at least some level of surveillance activity.

GLADSON:  Over in the corner, you see where the Asians are sitting.  You will see that everybody is sitting facing a different direction.  And the reason for that is that they‘re making sure that nobody comes into their area.  And if you will look, you‘ll see their area is all empty right around them, because they control that area. 

And they‘re not going to let anybody take their space.  This is a turf war here with the northern Hispanics.  They have a minister of defense, is what they call him.  And his thing is, he‘s to have 10 weapons ready at any time.  Their weapons are all hidden over there.  And in the morning, we‘ll come over and we‘ll search that area and try to find their weapons. 

But they‘re getting better and better at the way they hide their weapons.  The blacks are over here.  As you see, this one guy keeps looking around.  And he‘s got the heavy coat on.  The temperature is pretty hot, so they‘re soldiers.  They wear these jackets.  It‘s a little bit more armor. 

JAMES WAYNE, PRISONER:  You‘re going to watch your back period, like you do on the streets regardless.  You watch your back on the street.  So, when you come here, it‘s just natural.  You know what I‘m saying? 

You don‘t look over your shoulder.  But you have got somebody who is already looking in that direction.  You know what I‘m saying?  And I‘m already looking behind him.  And you have got someone sideways looking this way.  So it‘s not like, hey, watch out for me.  But it‘s like, when he sees something, he‘s going to say something.  Hey, homey?  What‘s up?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  And he‘s looking out for himself. 

TOMMY CLEWIS, PRISONER:  My thing, it‘s like this.  You in the penalty.  You know what I‘m saying?  You don‘t need to get ready.  You stay ready.  You know what I‘m saying?  You stay prepared.  You‘re always prepared.  You know what I‘m saying?  So that‘s why you see individuals, you know what I‘m saying, in groups always on the lookout. 

It‘s they‘re spaced out sometimes, like don‘t know what they‘re looking at.  You walk up to them, what is he looking at?  But him, he know what he‘s looking at.  He‘s looking at every invisible movement of this yard. 

BREWER:  When you grow up like how we grew up in gangs or whatever in the neighborhood and the ghetto, you know what I‘m saying, you‘re raised watching your back, because you have got enemies on the streets. 

You go to school with your enemies on the streets.  You get on the bus with them and everything.  So, when people come here, it‘s nothing new to us, because we‘ve been watching your back all your life. 

CLEWIS:  You never know which of your enemies is going to come in here.  You know what I‘m saying?  The enemy come in here and you‘re not aware, something could happen to you.  Just like that.   

BREWER:  So, to top everything off, you just got to be aware in here or on the streets, you know? 

MARTHA ALVISO, PRISON GUARD:  Yes, look at that big smile.

SEIGENTHALER:  When we return, the last place you would expect to find this peaceful neighborhood. 




SEIGENTHALER (voice-over):  At first glance, this looks like a perfectly normal suburban neighborhood, beautiful trees, well-manicured lawns, a nice place to live. 

M. ALVISO:  And my kids play outside.  I don‘t have to worry about seeing cars coming down the road. 

SEIGENTHALER:  That‘s one reason why Officer Martha Alviso decided to move her family here.  The one caveat, these houses are located inside San Quentin‘s gates. 

When the work day is over, most officers head for the gates en route to their homes.  But for others, home is no more than 100 yards away. 

M. ALVISO:  It‘s hard to live in the San Francisco Bay area.  Rent is so high.  We couldn‘t buy a house because prices just skyrocketed.  And then with just my income, it was just impossible to live like that.  So I asked the warden if it was OK if we moved in.  We waited three years, but then we got it and here we are. 

SEIGENTHALER:  There are 87 houses in all.  And when one becomes vacant, they become available to officers in need of cheaper rent and a shorter commute. 

M. ALVISO:  I hear a lot of people say they don‘t want to move here because they never leave the prison.  Well, I come home and I‘m home. 

SEIGENTHALER:  Not everyone in the family is so excited about living inside a state penitentiary.  In fact, the whole idea makes Martha‘s son, Chris, pretty nervous. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It‘s kind of scary, because they could break out and come in and sneak in.  I just think about it sometimes. 

DAVID ALVISO:  Actually, it‘s very safe.  It‘s like a real nice—it‘s just a good neighborhood.  Everybody is a correctional officer, so if somebody escapes, they‘re really not going to run here.  They‘re going to run somewhere else. 

M. ALVISO:  Look at that big smile.

SEIGENTHALER:  For inmates, the feeling of community can be found at one of the several houses of worship on the prison grounds.  This is the Garden Chapel.  When it was built, most inmates were Protestant, which is why their facility is the largest of the six chapels at San Quentin.  With over 200 seats, it‘s also among the most spacious in California. 


SEIGENTHALER:  Evangelist Richard Rugnad has been singing here for 11 years.  Richard was once an inmate at another institution.  After kicking a heroin addiction that almost killed him, religion helped him turn his life around, something he feels his parishioners can appreciate. 


RICHARD RUGNAD, EVANGELIST:  They can relate to that.  And now to come back in to tell them that there‘s a way that they can come out of that also. 

SEIGENTHALER:  For those inmates who are sincere about reprogramming their lives, Richard gives them a song, a prayer, and a little bit of hope. 

RUGNAD:  Where there are rules and regulations, and rightfully so, because they‘re incarcerated, just the fact that they are able to yell as loud as they want to or clap their hands and stomp their feet, for that brief hour and a half, two hours, however long we‘re here, they‘re able to get some kind of release. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Come on.  Give him praise.  Give our wonderful lord and savior some praise in this house today. 

SEIGENTHALER:  At San Quentin, getting any kind of release is a luxury for both officers and inmates alike. 

This is a tense, stressful environment, aggravated by the antiquated design of its building and how officers and inmates manage their stress is all a matter of individual choice. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I think, if you have outside activities, it helps a lot. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I try not to get too worked up over certain situations that I can‘t control.  And sometimes, you just got to stop and say, OK, I need a minute. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Hi.  My name is Ray Lincoln. 

SEIGENTHALER:  For inmate Ray Lincoln, doing time at San Quentin is much more emotional. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  This is a true life story about being here.  You know what I‘m talking about? 

(singing):  I close my eyes and see the things that no one else can see.  And no matter how far apart we are, your heart‘s in tune with me.  All around me, I feel all upset because I‘m dealing with insecurity.  And I lay on my bunk and at night I cry, because I wonder where I went wrong.  And by the time they let me go, I know that you will all be gone, because I‘m doing time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Free us.  Free us.


SEIGENTHALER:  It‘s clear that San Quentin is an old and decrepit institution in serious need of an overhaul.  After years of debate, state officials say they are planning to spend $220 million to renovate the death row facility. 

Business and community leaders have argued that such prime real estate would be better suited for housing developments or a public park, for example.  San Quentin‘s new death row would be a single building with capacity for more than 1,400 inmates.  There are more than 600 waiting for execution there now, including convicted murderer Scott Peterson.  In December 2004, a jury recommended he be put to death for killing his pregnant wife, Laci. 

That‘s our report.  Thanks for watching.  I‘m John Seigenthaler.



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