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“Lockdown” doesn’t come close.

March 22, 2009
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I’ve been chewing on something for a couple of days, wondering whether or not I should write about it.  On the one hand, it affected me pretty profoundly; on the other, it seems… sensationalistic (Is that a word?  I think it should be.) to post about it on the internet.

The long and short of it is that I visited San Quentin prison on Friday as part of a class I’m taking on mental health systems and the law.  I’m not sure what I had expected from the tour, but I certainly got much more than I’d bargained for – a tour of the execution chamber, the yard, a walk through the former gymnasium now filled with bunkbeds and hundreds of men, and a stroll down a cell block.  The experience was shocking, very frightening, and extremely disturbing.  Aside from the moral difficulties I have with housing anyone in such conditions, and my conviction that many (most?) of those people don’t need to be incarcerated at all, it is abundantly clear inside the prison that routine incarceration is the least effective way to return people to society as functioning, productive people.  San Quentin houses both “the worst of the worst” in the California prison system (people on death row and people who have caused too much trouble to be housed anywhere else), the lowest level offenders, and persons of all stripes waiting to be sorted into whatever prison will house them for the duration of their sentence – therefore, San Quentin is simultaneously a maximum security and a minimum security prison.  And the entire place is suffused with an intense tension, a feeling of waiting… for something.  The people there have no freedom and few rights, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone leaving there a whole, healthy, law-abiding human being.  I spent three hours there on a tour and left feeling damaged.  Shows like Lockdown might show viewers the inside of a prison, but they can’t come close to showing what it really feels like inside.  It’s terrible, and terribly sad.  On the whole, though, I think every law student should be required to visit a prison – we have a responsibility to know what’s waiting on the other side of a jury verdict, or at the end of a sentencing law.  It isn’t pretty, it’s not effective, and it’s downright disturbing.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Melissa permalink
    March 22, 2009 1:01 pm

    Thanks for the post! (& now I know about your blog . . .)

    A woman whose job takes her to all 33 of California’s prisons was telling me the other day that as disturbing as San Quentin is, it is less scary to her than the newer antiseptic and desolate prisons in remote parts of the state. San Quentin has the highest level of “community engagement” of any prison in California because of where it is situated – some 80% of the people who volunteer in prisons in CA volunteer at San Quentin (so I’m told). I agree with you that people should visit prisons: if voters knew how ill-suited our correctional infrastructure is for actually achieving its stated goal of keeping us all safe, crime policy in this state would be completely different.

    • The Little Woman permalink
      March 22, 2009 1:06 pm

      Wow – I didn’t realize community involvement was so high at San Quentin, but I did know that most of our other prisons are ridiculously far from population centers. (Out of sight, out of mind…) I can’t imagine having a job that would require me to visit every prison in the state – San Quentin alone did me in for several days. *Shudder.* I guess all we can do for now is keep talking about this stuff and try to change the minds of California voters.
      (Also, welcome! I’ve been shy about telling people about my blog, which I suppose is monumentally silly. Go figure. :))

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