San Quentin's Gym Becomes One Massive Cell

The crowded gym i i

hide captionMore than 360 inmates live in what was once a basketball gymnasium at San Quentin. The prison no longer has room for them — or for basketball and rehabilitative programs.

Laura Sullivan/NPR
The crowded gym

More than 360 inmates live in what was once a basketball gymnasium at San Quentin. The prison no longer has room for them — or for basketball and rehabilitative programs.

Laura Sullivan/NPR
San Quentin cell

hide captionCells constructed for one inmate now hold two across San Quentin.

Laura Sullivan/NPR
Locker i i

hide captionManual Metcalf from Monterey, Calif., points to the locker he shares with his bunkmate. It's the only personal space he has. Trash, white towels and underwear are everywhere in the gym.

Laura Sullivan/NPR
Locker

Manual Metcalf from Monterey, Calif., points to the locker he shares with his bunkmate. It's the only personal space he has. Trash, white towels and underwear are everywhere in the gym.

Laura Sullivan/NPR
Two inmates with a guitar i i

hide captionTwo inmates in San Quentin's gymnasium pass the time with a guitar. There are no programs or activities. Except for two meals in the cafeteria, most inmates spend all day, every day locked in the gym.

Laura Sullivan/NPR
Two inmates with a guitar

Two inmates in San Quentin's gymnasium pass the time with a guitar. There are no programs or activities. Except for two meals in the cafeteria, most inmates spend all day, every day locked in the gym.

Laura Sullivan/NPR

From the moment you walk through the metal doors of what was once San Quentin's gymnasium, all you can see are men and bunk beds. Packed together from front wall to back, more than 360 inmates live here because there's no room anywhere else.

A lone correctional officer, Michael McClain, sits on a riser in the middle of the gym, about 6 feet off the floor. Below, the conversations are loud and tense.

"It can get ugly. It can go at any moment, just at the drop of a hat," he says, watching the floor.

The gym is not the only room packed in this way. Officials at San Quentin, located in upscale Marin County, less than an hour from San Francisco, have set up beds in every available indoor space except the chapel.

Sending inmates to other California prisons isn't an option. In just the past 10 years, the state's already high prison population doubled. Now all of California's prisons are at twice or three times their capacity. And California is not alone: More than 30 states nationwide now house more inmates than their prisons were built for.

Cramming all these inmates into aging facilities has had clear results at San Quentin: an increase in violence, filth, racial tensions and the likelihood that inmates will keep coming back. At the same time, prison officials say they have no room for the programs that help inmates stay out — meaning that overcrowding has led to even more overcrowding.

Up on the riser, McClain sits in an old metal chair and watches the men as they socialize, sleep and use the "bathroom." It's too much of a security problem to build an actual restroom, so the inmates use open toilets along one of the walls.

Most of these men spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week in the gym. With no personal space or safety zone if a fight breaks out, it's a giant game of survivor.

Racial Segregation

If you ask McClain if the room is segregated by race, he will tell you there are no problems like that here. But peering down below, it's apparent that all forms of interaction are organized along racial lines. The inmates don't hesitate to say the same.

"It's nothing but racism," says inmate Lee Haggerty, who has been in the gym since January on a firearms charge. "Look how we live here: The showers are divided, the toilets — one for black, one for whites."

To survive, one must adhere to a certain set of rules, he explains: You can't walk into another race's area. You don't share sinks with someone of a different color. Only an inmate barber of your own race can cut your hair. You don't share food.

Sociologists would call this behavior "herding" — grouping together in the face of danger. With more than a dozen racial or ethnic groups living in the gym, the divisions can get complicated.

"For anyone to say this is not a frightening type of experience [is wrong]," says Manual Metcalf, an inmate from Monterey, Calif. "Just being around a whole bunch of people that, like rats, you put so many of them together and take away all their resources and they start turning on each other."

Metcalf offers to show me his bunk. Instead of taking the direct route, though, we walk all the way around the gym. That's another rule: You never walk between bunks. Here, if someone's standing next to your bed, you're in trouble.

Living Like 'Animals'

Metcalf arrives at a Spartan bunk draped with white towels. His broad shoulders nearly reach from his bunk to the next.

"Man, we don't have a foot and a half between bunks," he laments, his voice rising. "Look at this. You're supposed to have so many cubic feet, but this is not it. We have barely a foot and half on each side of the bunk — where you can breathe in another person's mouth."

The rafters above are covered in dust. There is a fan, but it doesn't look like it's spun in years. The paint on the moldy, windowless walls is chipping. Every 20 feet, there's a rat trap the size of a shoebox.

Just as Metcalf is about to show me his locker, a deafening alarm blares. Inmates drop to their knees. In the entire gym, I am the only person still standing.

An inmate tells me I would be safer if I also was on the floor, but the officer on the riser motions for me to stay up.

The alarm means there's a problem somewhere in this prison, but it's not here in the gym. Each officer carries a personal alarm that sounds systemwide. Somewhere, one of them has felt threatened enough to trigger it. The rule is hands and knees on the floor. If you don't obey, it's up to the tower guard to decide whether or not to shoot you.

More than 5,000 men across this vast prison wait on the ground.

An inmate huddled by his bed makes a motion toward my microphone.

"Would you want to live here?" he asks.

Parole Violations

For the most part, the men in the gym are here not because of some violent crime, but because they violated their parole.

Take, for example, John White. He finished serving his original 16-month sentence for auto theft more than six years ago. And yet, here he is.

"Constant parole violations," he explains.

Parole violations are extremely expensive. This year, the state will cut back the education budget to supplement the $8 billion prison budget, bloated in large part because of parole violations.

"I am a screw-up," White says. "I don't comply very well with the policies. I did pretty good for a minute. I stayed out for four months once."

To someone outside the system, parole may seem easy: Show up to appointments, don't drive on a suspended license, tell your parole officer if you move, don't do drugs. As I spend the morning talking with the men in the gym, however, it becomes clear why sticking to parole can be tricky: Their lives are chaos. They have complicated relationships, little education, few life skills and usually nowhere to live.

Being in the gym doesn't help them figure any of that out, White says.

"We just sit around in here like this, like we are right now," he says. "It's very tedious, it's nerve-wracking and stressful. The lights stay on until 12:30 at night, and they turn them back on at 5:30 in the morning. And it's like this all the time. And we have no program at all here."

The Rehabilitation Paradox

This is the paradox: Because there are so many inmates at San Quentin, officials say there's no space for the programs that could keep them out. Officials used to offer counseling, job skills and drug treatment programs — in the gym, for example. Now there isn't any room.

Seventy percent of California's inmates return to prison within three years. That number is only likely to rise, given the current circumstances.

"Now they send you back to prison for nothing," says inmate Devrek Irvin. He spent four years in prison for threatening his wife on the phone. He never received any counseling or training. A couple of months after he was released, he failed a drug test. Now he's back.

"What am I supposed to do out [there]?" he asks. "I just did four years. What am I supposed to do? People have drug problems, then why send them back to prison for eight months for a violation, when they're not getting any help for that?"

As I talk with dozens of inmates, they all described the same emotions: fear, stress and boredom. They say it's difficult to explain to people on the outside how you could feel all three at the same time. The longer I stay in the gym, the clearer it is that the room is operating under an uneasy truce along racial lines. And soon enough, I see one group's leader crossing the gym to find out what I'm doing.

Racial Order And Tube Socks

Chris Ruffino, a tall man flanked on both sides by inmates, introduces himself.

"I happen to speak for a lot of the whites in here, OK?" he says.

He seems to see himself as a benevolent leader.

"You know, when there's a problem they come to me, and I go to someone else, and we try to alleviate all racial tension here," he says, looking over at the men with him. "And we have a pretty good program here, wouldn't you guys say?"

The others nod in agreement, but Ruffino says there's only so much he can do.

His biggest problem right now is tube socks. To save money, prison officials have cut back. None of these inmates seemed to care about the actual socks — most weren't even wearing any — but it's become something else to fight over.

While Ruffino and I stand there talking, another group has gathered to listen. When Ruffino says inmates are bunked by race, and suggests maybe they shouldn't be, this is too much for another leader in the room, Antoine Moore, an African-American inmate.

"Don't start that, don't start that," Moore tells Ruffino. "That's pretty much initiating racial tension. I know I would sleep better knowing I had a black bunkie rather than a white bunkie."

Ruffino nods and offers, "That's true. If there was tension, I would want to make sure I had one of my people below me or above me."

Clearly they know each other, but even as they agree, they stand with their arms crossed.

"If me and him have a disagreement, it would go to hell," Moore says. "To alleviate all that, we keep the racial segregation."

"That's true," Ruffino acknowledges. "That's sad, but true."

The pair also agrees that right now the problem really isn't between their black and white groups, it's between Latinos from Northern and Southern California.

If a prisonwide war erupts between the two groups, as they suspect it might, everyone in the gym will have to choose sides, they explain. Quarters are too close not to get involved.

Balancing Tensions

Down in a trailer next to the prison yard, Sgt. Lee Collier is responsible for making sure new inmates have a place to sleep. Each day is like a game of chess, he says. Putting an inmate of one race into a bunk means moving other inmates elsewhere.

Today, he's struggling to place two newcomers — "northern dropouts," he calls them.

"They were associated with the northern [California] Hispanics and now no longer are they running with them. So we have to take them out of general population, because the northern Hispanics would want to hurt them."

The number of inmates who, like these two men, have to bunk in separate protective areas has grown into the thousands in California. It's a direct result of the violence that has grown like a weed throughout California's prisons.

Officials here say if these two men were put in general population, they would probably be killed. So they, and thousands like them, have to sleep — and more importantly, eat — away from other inmates. Most inmates are assaulted or attacked in the dining hall, making meals one of the most dangerous aspects of prison life, officials say.

Falling Behind On Upkeep

With overcrowding, it gets harder for prison officials to take care of the basics. Crumbling walls, broken lights and filth are standard.

"That's human feces," says inmate Mike Johnson, pointing to his wall. Johnson has been here for five months on a DUI charge. He says in all that time, the feces has never been cleaned off.

"They'll clean down there on the bottom where the (officers) stay," he says, "but up here, we're just a number."

Johnson's 4-foot-wide cell was built for one man. Now it holds two. With such crowded conditions, it's harder to prevent violence.

Perpetuating The Cycle

Asked if he worries that the current conditions will keep inmates coming back, San Quentin's warden, Robert Ayers, says, "I don't worry about it — it's true. It's a reality."

The Legislature, even the governor know it, too, he says. But in the 1980s and '90s, politicians wanted to be tough on crime — and tough on parole violators. Efforts in recent years to shorten sentences and overhaul parole have fallen flat.

"Most wardens across the state will tell you, reduce the population and give them the resources to initiate programs out there, and they will be able to have some impact," he says. But requests for more money for programs are rejected again and again.

There is no money, he says. "The state is now 16 billion in the red, and things we thought we were going to have a year ago are now off the plate. The first priority is to keep the convicted felon in prison for the prescribed amount of time, as safely as you can."

That's getting harder as inmates come back, again and again, to increasingly crowded prisons.

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