Lessons From the Front Gate Of San Quentin

Life lessons are all around us and, depending on how we calibrate our view, sometimes we can miss them. Recently, I was doing some research that required me to make a visit to San Quentin…yes the prison. (Remember, I maintain you can find goodness anywhere.) San Quentin is the oldest prison in California and home (if that’s the right word) to some of the most violent and notorious criminals in the world – a level 4 maximum security prison.

As you pull into the parking lot at San Quentin (SQ), the view of the bay and the San Rafael Bridge is striking. It is located at the bottom of a hill, right on the water. The day we were there the water was calm, the sun was shining bright and yet still there was a feeling of tension in the air.  Since we were there on a visiting day, the parking lot was full and there was a steady stream of people coming to and from the parking lot. We found a spot and made our way up the hill and into the tiny building that processes visitors. As we entered the building there was a scent of mildew and grime, the paint appeared old and dingy and there was a line of people cueing up to get on the other side of the fence to visit their loved ones. We (my friend Mike and I) walked through the building to the other side and up the hill to the front gates of SQ.

As we walked through the building, a woman followed us out and up the hill, the entire time complaining about being denied entry because of her attire. There are very strict rules in California about what you can and cannot wear and what you can and cannot take into the prisons with you. All of the rules are in place for the safety of the visitors, corrections officers (Cos) and inmates. Each rule is there because of an incident that put someone in danger and, in some cases, caused deaths. The woman behind us was extremely angry – I am certainly not an expert but I could see the reason she did not get in was because her clothing was too revealing and in the same colors that the guards wear – a big no no. She stood around and grumbling for a bit and then was off to find appropriate attire and try again for entry.

At the top of the hill, there was quite a bit of activity. Mike and I took a seat on a little bench directly across from the front gate and caddy corner to the post office and handicap parking. From our vantage point, we could see people going into SQ through the processing entrance as well as those people returning from their visit through the processing exit. There was a steady stream of cars and people coming and going. Shortly we were joined by some people who had just finished visiting and, based on the conversation happening between them, this was not their first visit and I’m not so sure one of them had not spent some time in SQ himself.

Before too long, a cab pulled up, literally right to the front gate – the passenger inside took her time getting out but finally emerged from the cab. The passenger was a strikingly beautiful girl with a purse that would not fit in the overhead bin on an airplane and dressed in a way that, even I knew, there was no way on earth she was going to be admitted on that day. She watched the cab as it pulled away leaving her standing alone in the middle of the road and right in front of the entry gate.  (By the way at this point, we have yet to see a guard anywhere near this gate. I was taken aback by the lack of security…for heaven’s sake SQ is a level 4 maximum security prison.) The girl stood in the road looking at the gate, clearly searching for some kind of instructions and appearing a little lost. She surveyed all of the people standing and sitting in the area: a group of people who looked like they knew the ropes (some maybe former or future residents), me, and my friend Mike. Mike…a fella who is clearly uncomfortable and still cannot quite believe he is here, and wanting to leave as soon as possible. Mike is dressed conservatively in navy shorts, polo shirt, (neatly pressed I might add) white socks (pulled up to a fare thee well) his Shape Ups, and a camera around his neck. At this point, he is noticeably irritated and uncomfortable and wanting to leave. The girl takes a step closer to us, looks again at all of the people in our area and says to Mike as she points at the open unmanned gate: “So do I just go in?” Mike quickly and politely tells her no and explains that she needs to walk around and get processed in the building behind us. She thanks him and goes along her way. (I have to admit – I wanted to say sure, go right in – just to see what might happen.) Now almost out of nowhere a guard appears and is following an employee out of the gate, engaging her in what clearly seems to be a flirtatious conversation. The conversation goes on for at least 10 or so minutes. Mike, clearly over the SQ experience, taps me over and over saying let’s get your picture and go”…and eventually we did. I walk over to have my picture taken next to the big entry sign and Mike takes the shot. As he snaps the picture, the guard re-appears and tells him he cannot take pictures that close to the prison. (We gladly comply as we know he has a job to do, but where was this guy earlier- when cars were pulling up, others were taking pictures,  when the girl was about to walk right in through the tiny front gate?)

As we start down the hill to the car, Mike is walking deliberately almost in a full on sprint to the car, when something breaks out in one of the yards. All of a sudden you can hear men yelling it sounds like quite a ruckus. Mike turns to me and says: “Oh great! That sounds like a riot.” By now he cannot move fast enough. I slow down trying to catch exactly where the noise is coming from; it is really loud can I make out any of the words or phrases? I’m sure that it’s not a riot.  As a writer, I’m curious what stories are unfolding, why the ruckus? Mike on the other hand just wants to get out of there as fast as he can.

As we begin to pull away, I feel excited, as all of the firsthand information I needed I got! For me, this visit was very successful. And I’m almost overcome in laughter about the girl in the cab jumping out and asking Mike about getting into SQ. As we pull away, I try to gather myself and I ask Mike what is wrong  why he is so irritated? From the minute we entered the processing building to the moment we got in the car, only 29 minutes have passed.  He, in a very cranky, almost curmudgeon tone exclaims: “We were not getting any value.”

Me: “Value? What do you mean? I got more than I ever anticipated.”

Mike: “What, really? How could that be?”

I explained how just being there in person, talking to the people up by the gate, watching them entering and leaving the entire experience was of value to me. And most importantly, I could now rule out SQ in my project.

Me (bursting into laughter so hard I almost cannot breathe): “And in what universe do we find ourselves sitting outside a level 4 prison with you directing people on how to enter? Oh my, the look on your face, this is a story I will be relishing for a long time.”

Mike: “Really? You got something out of that? We didn’t see anything thing?”

Me: “Are you kidding? We experienced firsthand the stress of  the people just trying to gain entry. We saw the anguish on the faces of the people leaving, we saw the difference in how things are handled here as opposed to the other places I have been studying. We saw the quarters where people cue up and write so much about…I could go on and on. Just being here and seeing all of this with my own eyes and through my filter is exactly what I needed. I would have liked to stay a little longer but I got more than I anticipated out of the experience!”

Me (still laughing): “All of those interactions gave me just what I needed. However, even if this visit had been a bust, it would have been worth it because in what universe does someone pull up to a level 4 prison and ask you for directions? You especially looked more out of place than anyone!”

Mike: “You really did get a lot out of this and I missed all of that. I guess I just expected things to be different. If you got value out of that it changes everything.”

We had lots of conversations over the course of that weekend related to how different we view our environment and even the world. We talked about how sometimes his expectations prevent him from catching all the goodness. You see while sitting on that bench he began to get frustrated because his expectations were not being met. I might submit he did not have enough information to even set expectations.  Life is happening all around us, are you seeing all of it or are your expectations keeping you from what could be goodness? Are you what’s keeping you from joy or just a good laugh? I’m sure I cannot remember the last time I have laughed so hard – I still giggle when I think about that day…even as I am writing this I find myself laughing out loud.  And for me there’s great value in that. How about you?  Are you sitting on the bench frustrated wanting to move on, or taking it all in and making the most of that moment? How is your view?


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