Scenes from the aftermath in Oakland:
stories of victims, survivors and healers.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Killer View

San Quentin sunrise with Richmond Bridge
When a new inmate first arrives at San Quentin, they put him and his group of new arrivals in a small, airless room. (Everything inside San Quentin is airless. High windows let in only weak, indirect light.) In the room, there are not enough of the small aluminum stools which look uninviting anyway. Today we crowd in, a few adults, a handful of teens from East and West Oakland. A prisoner in blue denim joins us.

Unceremoniously, he dumps the contents of a plastic garbage bag on the floor. There’s a scratchy woolen blanket. A tube of toothpaste the size of an adult pinky. There’s a piece of soap about the size of a domino; you wouldn’t call it a “bar.” There is a plastic toothbrush, all brush, no handle. A white sheet. A pillowcase but no pillow. There’s a gray undershirt that once was white. And a pair of boxer shorts. The inmate holds them up for us. He says, “See these, these are pretty nice, you’re lucky if you get these, because the ones you probably’ll get will be stained from the guys who wore them before you.”

These are impressions from a day in February at San Quentin with a group of teens from East and West Oakland, some of whom are in Youth ALIVE!'s Teens on Target program. Our hosts were a group of inmates called Squires, who represents a civilized evolution of the old Scared Straight program. While we saw some jarring sights on our day inside the walls, the inmates themselves were kind, and good with the kids. They encouraged our young men to talk about their lives growing up in violent neighborhoods in violent times.

The day at San Quentin was arranged by OPD Officer Robert Smith, of the OK Program, which mentors young men of color. It is a long day and it feels thorough. There is time on the yard, inside cells, along unadorned cell blocks, at Death Row (Its entry sign reads “Condemned Row” and is painted on the wall over the arched doorway in ominous Gothic lettering). At lunch in the dim, cavernous mess hall the visitors assemble their own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, like the inmates, without a knife. Your hands get very sticky.

At lunch, inmates sit at tables with small groups of teens and talk. I can't hear the conversations, but the encounters seem meaningful. Later they pass through a cell block called "Badger" where indeed the residents badger them with shouts the meaning of which gets lost in the echoes. Outside the block there is a small, fenced-in recreation yard, where many of the inmates drop their basketballs and stop their games to gather and watch the visitors pass. Some cling to the chain links, make small talk. One West Oakland kid runs into his dad. The father seems happy to see him, comments on his incipient teen mustache, asks if he played basketball this year at school. Promises they'll play when he gets out. The kid says very little.

For some, the most bracing moment of the day comes when each Squires inmate recites his sentence: 20 years to life; 40 years to life; 15 to life; four life sentences, 265 years. One inmate tells us he is 44 years old and has been at San Quentin for 23 years; another, who can’t be more than 40, has been here 21 years. Their commitment to reaching their young visitors becomes clear in their honesty about what they had done to get here. 

The young men react strongest to the underwear. On a day all over the sprawling California Department of Corrections Prison at San Quentin – on the yard, in the mess hall, in classrooms, on the blocks, in the cells, at the entrance to Condemned Row, it’s the underwear and the showers that get the most obvious reactions. The showers are wedged in a narrow cell block passageway, in clear view of walkways along all four levels of cells. The lowest walkway hovers balcony-like. You could perform Romeo and Juliet here. Call it Romeo and Romeo. 

There is a minimum of personal space between the twelve dangling shower heads we are told spout water that might be too hot or too cold but you have no control over that, or much else in your life at San Quentin. These are all the shower heads for the entire cell block and you have maybe 5 minutes to get clean and get out of there. Inmates watch today’s visitors from above, shout out factoids about showering in jail. All the sounds echo and merge and much of what they say is inaudible. You hear “wear boots,” “no time,” “bring a lookout,” “too hot,” “too cold.” It’s another bleak glimpse into a circumscribed world, but others from the day drive home the point to the young visitors that freedom is precious and worth preserving: a minute or so inside a cell with the iron door closed and locked feels longer. There is barely room for one grown man to live but this one houses two, in narrow bunks that are your only personal real estate. There are a few shelves crammed with Wheat Thins, jars of instant coffee, lots of deodorant. At the foot of the bunks, like a forgotten tree stump, sits your toilet, which you can flush once per hour.

Early morning light, San Quentin
Your escape is on the big, busy recreation yard, characterized by sweat and racial self-segregation. On concrete walkways up above, officers with machine guns keep watch while in the sunlight, in blue shirts and blue pants, some guys play chess, some cards, others dominoes, while on a small grassy berm below, men, shirtless and buff, do dozens of incredibly impressive burpies without stopping. None of the guards looks like he could do even one. Some inmates jog the perimeter, around and around. Some play basketball, some sit and talk. One man reads a book. Only a vision from the outside unites them: everyone watches the line of youthful visitors walk past. It’s impossible to know if it makes them wistful, homesick, if they feel on-display. Between the inmates and the teens there’s some friendly chatter, a few scattered, pleasant greetings. One kid grabs a basketball, shoots and misses. Everyone laughs. To the west, there's a killer view of Mt Tam.
                                                                                                          - Jim O'Brien 
(By the way, I encourage anyone who might read this to take a look at the novel On the Yard by Malcolm Braly.)