A half hour north of San Francisco, just past a string of car dealerships and a shopping mall, a deep-green official highway sign announcing the exit to San Quentin State Prison hangs over the freeway. Even at zoom speed, you can't miss the massive clump of warm, vaguely mustard-colored walls and uncommonly long buildings just beyond the tidal grasses of the bird estuary to the east.
When I moved to the Bay Area, I was surprised by how close the prison was to everyday life. Driving by, I would squint into the distance, trying to catch sight of life in the narrow slits of windows. I wondered if prisoners could see out, or if it was only people on the outside who couldn't see in. It was a reminder that we, the civilized of society, are protected from the truly dangerous people.
With a story assignment burning on deadline, I take the San Quentin exit for the first time. I didn't have to go inside to get a story, but if I wanted to get a radio story, it meant getting the sounds of the prison and the voices of the prisoners.
After a few calls, I connected with Claire-Elizabeth DeSophia, a volunteer helping inmates at the prison become drug and alcohol counselors. She let me know right off the bat it wouldn't be easy for a reporter to get inside, but once she was satisfied I was not bent on doing some sensationalist crime story, she said she would try to help. "You'll have to get cleared by the warden's office. I can't bring you in without their approval. You can tell them I invited you. But if the warden doesn't like you ... "
A week later I received word: I was cleared to go inside the prison, home to more than 5,000 inmates. Lieutenant Eric Messick, the public information officer at San Quentin, gave me clear instructions: "Don't wear blue jeans and don't expect the warden to trade you for a prisoner if you're taken hostage."
As a reporter, nothing is more thrilling than a new story, a new "beat." But now, driving down the freeway, the closer I get to the prison exit, the edgier I feel. My trusty reporter instincts and equally reliable instincts for self-preservation alternate in a stream of questions: Will I be allowed to talk to inmates? Will they be kept at a safe distance in handcuffs? What would it be like to be a hostage? Were they serious about not trading me for a prisoner?
I park in a dirt lot outside San Quentin's east gate and walk up to the imposing rack of black metal.
"Who are you?" the uniformed officer demands in a tone designed to turn away anyone without a legitimate reason to stand between him and the entrance to the prison. He looks at the ten-year-old photograph on my driver's license for a long time before dialing Messick to let him know I'm here. While I wait, he points to a wide white line on the ground about fifty feet back down the road and warns me: no photos beyond that point. "You're on the free side. This is the other side. Okay?"
Minutes later, a balding white man in shirt and tie approaches the gate from the prison side. Collecting my ID from the gate officer, Messick motions for me to step through. "Be sure you have it when you leave," he says, handing my license back to me. "Photo IDs are like currency inside."
We walk at a quick clip down a long exposed sidewalk that leads into the massive fortress looming ahead. Another glowering guard stands just inside the passageway that leads through the thick stone wall. He double-checks my photo ID, pats me down, inspects my microphone and recorder, and marks my bare wrist with a stamp visible only under ultraviolet light.
Clunk. The steel-barred gate pops open. Messick grabs hold of one of the thick round bars and pushes the gate into a large cage. I follow him inside the cage, and he pulls the massive gate shut with another ear-popping clunk. Fifteen seconds later a wall-size set of bars on the far side bounces open.
Stepping out over the steel door's high sill, we emerge from the dark stone passageway of the sally port into blinding sunlight. In the courtyard along a gently curved pathway are rosebushes thick with colorful blossoms. In the middle of a big circular pool, a fountain shoots a heavy stream of water into the sky. Behind us, the back side of the steep wall is topped with rows of razor wire looping around and around like an unwound, lethal Slinky. High above the center of the wall is a bell tower.
Following my eyes, Messick explains, "At 1600 hours every day, all of the prisons in the state take a count. Here at San Quentin, when we ring the bells, everyone knows the count has begun."
A two-story white building with barred windows borders the green grass of the courtyard on the left. "That's AC," Messick says, "The Adjustment Center is where prisoners who haven't adjusted to prison live in solitary confinement."
At the AC's farthest corner is a squat, octagonal building.
"That's Four-Post," Messick says as an officer steps out, swinging a long black baton back and forth. Hanging from his wide leather belt are handcuffs, a collection of keys attached to the end of a chain, a short solid-steel extendable club, and a large blue can of pepper spray. "The officers keep track of the movement of all prisoners going through the courtyard to the chapel or the library."
Straight ahead and a little to the right is the prison library. The two-story nineteenth-century brick building with long wood-frame windows and tall, worn doors has an unexpected elegance. A graying, hunched-over prisoner shuffles nearby. Using a long-handled hoe, he digs at the dark brown soil at the base of the rosebushes that flank the path. He stops, peering over at us before looking back down at the dirt.
"That's Bird Man," Messick says. "He's been here for years. He takes care of the rosebushes and the family of wild ducks that return every year."
Picking up his pace, Messick leads me past the prisoners and the fountain and pulls open one of the double glass doors to the Protestant chapel. Fold-out tables pushed up against the wall are piled with Bibles and church pamphlets. Down the hall a set of golden oak double doors leads to the sanctuary.
Midway through my tour, Messick's cell phone buzzes on his belt, startling us both. He murmurs a few words into the phone, then turns to me. "I have to take care of this. You can wait here until I get back."
Opening the door to a small office opposite the sanctuary, he motions me inside. "Don't worry," he says. "You'll be fine." A quick smile and he disappears, closing—and I presume, locking—the door behind him.
The room is small—perhaps seven by ten feet. Stackable plastic chairs line the walls. I sit down and keep an eye on the door. As I take in my surroundings, I begin to feel a sense of claustrophobia: I'm all alone, unprotected, in prison.
Excerpted from Life After Murder by Nancy Mullane. Copyright 2012 by Nancy Mullane. Excerpted by permission of PublicAffairs.