San Quentin’s Dangerous Conversion Conditions
(ed. Originally published Feb. 28, 2012 – here!)
Every California male sentenced to time in prison must first be processed at one of two Reception Centers (RCs). In Northern California, they are sent to San Quentin (SQ); in Southern California, the California Institution for Men in Chino (CIM). Until 2011, the RC at San Quentin occupied four units: Donner, Badger, Alpine and Carson. Now, the majority of these units are undergoing “conversion” from RC units, which are designed to be temporary housing for all inmates, to Mainline units, where inmates serve the duration of their sentence. It appears that Donner and many other sections of RC have already been fully converted to Mainline units, now referred to exclusively as West Block.
This shuffling of mainline inmates into the unacceptable conditions of RC units, is an unintended consequence of the “criminal justice alignment” stipulations in Assembly Bill 109 (AB 109). AB 109 was an unprecedented attempt to shift state fiscal responsibilities to local counties, which passed amidst controversy in the summer of 2011. Amongst the tremendous consequences of this bill, which has at its core a humane intention to reduce revolving-door recidivism and prison over-population, there are a large number of inmates and employees of the state suffering direct physical consequence without media coverage or methods for redress in sight.
While in RC, inmates are audited, classified, and processed for their placement in a Mainline facility. RC inmates are disallowed many amenities that they will receive once they reach the Mainline. They spend twenty-three out of twenty-four hours per day in their shared 5 x 11 cell and may not go to the yard, library, edification programs, make or receive phone calls, or own any property. RC units were not meant for long-term habitation. The condition of the cells, quality of the food, and general cleanliness of San Quentin’s RC are universally derided by inmates and workers due at least in part to the age of the building itself. It is a brutal stop on the way to a Mainline. Needless to say, inmates are almost eager to be sent from SQ’s RC to their Mainline assignment.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 109 after the Supreme Court cited “serious constitutional violations” regarding overpopulation in California state prisons. AB 109 attempts to address overcrowding and recidivism by shifting as many as 30,000 inmates over the next three years from state prison facilities to county jails. It allows “non-violent, non-serious and non-sex-offenders to serve their time in county jails instead of state prisons” (SQ news). One intention is for overcrowded county jails to do what state prisons refused to: parole inmates and provide reintegration programs to get bodies out of the beds, since the county jails will have to deal with these people ‘in their own backyard.’ Thus, many of the people who would be going through RC on their way to state prison will instead be sentenced to serve time in the county in which their crime was committed, in a county jail.
With less people sent to state prison, SQ is staying in business by reducing its RC and aggressively increasing its mainline population. Under Gov. Brown’s ‘Realignment Plan,” enacted under AB 109, SQ’s already-overcrowded facility is further overwhelmed with buses filled with new arrivals prepared to serve out their entire sentences there. These people are placed in “converted” RC cells. Unfortunately, no significant conversion has actually taken place, due to a lack of state funding. Mainline inmates are forced to share RC cells. According to an inmate currently incarcerated in West Block, these are tiny spaces covered in graffiti, reeking of urine, growing black mold, with no functioning electrical outlets or heat, and standing water. Access to electrical outlets is a particularly vital amenity to inmates because many of them have no access to the outside save for their TV’s, radios, and other appliances. These inmates have to go to the gym to shower (instead of their own hall) and most importantly, they have not been allowed to see their counselors for job assignments or education programs. There are reports of correctional officers (CO’s) sending inmates to these converted cells as a punitive measure. San Quentin’s official tours, led by Sgt. Gabriel Walters, now conspicuously avoid those areas of the prison.
There has been a shocking lack of mainstream media coverage on the consequences of AB 109, and the majority of the information presented here was obtained through SQ inmates themselves. However, the inmates aren’t the only ones attempting to be heard. San Quentin Prison’s labor union, the California Correctional Peace Officer’s Association, (CCPOA-SQ) is outraged at the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) reaction to AB 109, known as the ‘Reduction and Conversion’ plan. The state mandated reduction of staff at SQ means that many reception center-related jobs will be cut, while some jobs will be converted from RC to the mainline. The tentative date for these layoffs is January 2nd.
The conservatives have already coordinated their predictable response: a fear campaign claiming that releasing felons out onto “our” streets will result in chaos and crime infested neighborhoods. They understand that AB 109 threatens not only the convenience of sending the bad guys far far away, but will cost their counties money in rehabilitation and reintegration programs previously considered the sole responsibility of the state prisons. To date, there has been no mobilized counter-response on the left. This is due in part to the fact that AB 109 appears to be a well-intentioned attempt to remedy the obvious failure of the CDCR’s practices. However, in order for it to be effective, we must expose its flaws, and the inhumane treatment of inmates at San Quentin is just one of them.