It probably goes out without saying that any sort of contact with San Quentin has its unpleasant aspects but actual penetration, however slight, is an exercise in revulsion. I mean to say that those of use who have had the duty or inclination to go inside the gates and walls know only too well that the level of decay permanently raises the threshold of filth beyond which one cannot endure.
The first building of the actual prison is crowned by a parapet structure which bears the date of 1890 as having been constructed in that year. Main visiting takes place in a red brick blockhouse in which large timbers have been placed so as to give the illusion that the Frankenstein retrofit will brace the building sufficiently in the case of a seismic event.
Most of my encounters with clients take place in a speaker/telephone interview booth. Even lawyers are not allowed to take first aid type alcohol pads with which to sterilize the telephone receiver on the representation that they will be available at the second check-in desk. Rarely is this the case. In reaction to an expression of OCD quality germaphobia I have been given a blob of hand sanitizing gel on a paper towel.
They, meaning the CO’s have actually lost people I was intending on seeing on at least two occasion. You would think that keeping track of the whereabouts of all of the prisoners at all times would be #1 on the agenda at a prison. San Quentin however has a huge influx of new conscripts into the system on a daily basis. It is no longer the high security, maximum danger place that it once was. The so-called Reception Center is but a transfer station which begins ones prison experience from any of a number of counties in the Northern California area. When someone arrives on a bus from county jail they necessarily install him in a cell and ask questions later. It is a minimum of a week and sometimes as long as two or three weeks before any given inmate is booked into the system with a CDC number so that he can be located on request. Inmates are then sized up on a point system and generally moved to other appropriate loci on the CDC travel brocheur. A stay in the Reception Center is only supposed to be ninety days but in some cases is much longer because once CDC has someone they are in no hurry to do what ever they are going to do with him.
Cells in the Reception Center are approximately 9′ x 12′ inhabited by two stink-ass guys with little or no yard time outside thereof. After waiting an hour and a half for them to find one of my people the CO suggested that maybe this guy was refusing the visit but the word just wasn’t getting back to the visiting area. I opined that this was unlikely since he was in reception and my understanding of the conditions there leads me to conclude that if he was going to be out of his cell for as short a time as a half hour but he was told that he would have to first eat a dog turd he would probably do it. The CO failed to see the logic and/or humor in that observation and told me I was lucky I only came from Tiburon and not Los Angeles or San Diego for nothing. That may be true but did not make me feel any better about the past ninety minutes that were better spent elsewhere.
The prison authorities are very particular about the color and cut of the clothing worn by visitors, legal and non-legal, alike. Not to mention the fact that one must pass through a metal detector that if airport security were set to the same level of scrutiny the line to board an airplane at SFO would end somewhere near Chinatown. The regulations are far too numerous and tedious to inflict upon an otherwise engaged reader. Accordingly, only the high spots will be touched upon. I can bring in my case file but it must be devoid of all paper clips and staples, which is unreasonable. Usually I bring with me only fax confirmation of the visit upon which to take notes. Only a finite number of one-dollar bills can be taken behind the walls with which to avail oneself of the commissary vending machines. One car key can be in my pocket but no fob or remote is permitted. No blue jeans are allowed because some of the prisoners wear blue denim. One would not want to be mistaken for a one of then, now would one. Navy blue slacks on the other hand are perfectly acceptable. No green of any shade, tint or tone is allowed. The guards wear green and despite the fact that it is highly unlikely I would be mistaken for one of them, green is strictly verboten. I consider it a minor victory if I am sent back to my car only one time on any given visit to relieve myself of an offensive item.
The color coding came to point one day when I worn a pair of pants I routinely wore to San Quentin because the were drawstring as opposed to belt loop type trousers. This meant one less item to remove for the X-ray machine along with my shoes and jacket. the CO at the check-in desk asked me what color the pants were. I told him they were gray or if one wanted to get very particular, slate colored. He specifically inquired if they were green to which I responded, “No, they are dark gray or slate, take your pick.” He then informed me that he was color blind and they could be green from his sensory perception. I took pause with amazement that the CO’s union possessed such drag so as to be able to preserve the job of a color blind member in a position where color determination was crucial. Another CO not so afflicted was called over to make a final determination as to color of my pants. I explained that I had worn this particular pair of pants into the prison on dozens of occasions and had never been mistaken for a guard. The precedent I cited meant nothing to CO Black&White who summoned a colleague for a ruling. The second set of eyes was initially ambivalent provoking additional argument for my position that the pants where many thing, but not green. Discussion ensued and I was ultimately allowed to enter with the admonition that I should select another item from my wardrobe next time. I did and the pants in question were relegated to leisure wear.
One need look not farther than the parking lot to see the blatant and intentional caste distinction between those allied with the prisoners and those aligned with the guards. The staff parking lot is newly paved, freshly stripe and perfectly level. The lot that to which legal and personal visitors are relegated has not seen fresh blacktop in decades, is worn down to the bedrock in some areas and has ankle deep potholes in others that fill with rainwater providing for a steeplechase run from the car to the check-in counter every winter.
No where is the intentionally unhygienic infliction of dehumanization more evident that in the visitor’s restroom. While the commodes and other fixtures are kept in a reasonable state of sterility sitting on a slightly corroded stainless steel is a bar of soap. Every other public accommodation in the state contains some type of liquid soap dispenser which has to date failed to find its way into the San Quentin visitor’s restroom. And not any type of anti-bacterial soap. Just a basic white greasy ass bar of soap with a couple of dirt veins running longitudinally.
I cannot imagine what I would have to get on my hands which would compel be to lay my profane paws upon that bar of soap. If I had my own shit on my hands I would leave it be as opposed to lathering up a bar of soap that has presumably suffered atrocious acts at the hands and other body parts of friends, family and associates of heinous persons who can be assumed to have heinous traits themselves if only by association.
What would it take to put a little plastic bottle supported by a chrome bracket and button valve so that an individual who is probably thoroughly intimidated prior to pissing on his or her own fingers can lave sus manos without fear that heretofore undiscovered microbes will be introduced into the bloodstream via dermal osmosis and creating an internal chain reaction rendering their host a poster child for a George Romero film?
How much would it cost to place a ubiquitous dispenser on the wall so that a false perception of benevolence could be maintained. It’s my understanding that the soap company will give you the plastic dispenser so long as you agree to fill it up with only their product. It is my further understanding that liquid soap is actually more economical in the long run, excepting I guess if we are talking about a bar of soap that has been there the last five years because no one has had the guts to touch it.
So if you happen by the San Quentin visitors restroom, be careful when you pee.