San Quentin's Gym Becomes One Massive Cell More than 360 inmates live in what was once a gymnasium. The prison no longer has room for them — or for sports and rehabilitative programs. With inmates packed so close all day, every day, racial segregation provides one of the few sources of order.
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San Quentin's Gym Becomes One Massive Cell

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San Quentin's Gym Becomes One Massive Cell

San Quentin's Gym Becomes One Massive Cell

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Now a story on the widespread problem of prison overcrowding and what that means for one notorious prison in California. Thirty states now house more inmates than their prisons were built to accommodate. One of the most crowded prisons in the country sits on a picturesque stretch of the bay north of San Francisco.

BLOCK: violence, filth and racial tension, and the assurance that once a prison becomes crowded, it will only get more crowded.

NPR's Laura Sullivan was given this rare look inside San Quentin.

LAURA SULLIVAN: From the moment I walk through the two metal doors of what was once San Quentin's gymnasium, all I can see are two things: men and bunk beds, from the front wall all the way to back of the room. On a riser somewhere around the free-throw line, there's a single officer.

Can I come up there and see the whole room?


SULLIVAN: There's not much up here. Officer Michael McLane is sitting on an old metal chair next to an old metal desk under the basketball hoop. He points to the bunks.

NORRIS: You have seven rows. The first row is row one, row two, row three, row four, row five, row six, and the last row is considered the Z-Z row, which is an overflow row.

SULLIVAN: An overflow row in an overflow gym. Three hundred and sixty-four inmates live here because there's no room for them anywhere else. Prison officials have also set up beds in day rooms and every other indoor space they could find, except the chapel; they left that.

From up here, you can hear the tension in the room. People are loud. Conversations that start out normal quickly turn heated.

SULLIVAN: Keep your (unintelligible)

SULLIVAN: Office McLane answers my question before I can ask it.

NORRIS: Yes, we've had melees. And it can get ugly. It could go any moment, just a drop of a hat.

SULLIVAN: McLane has his eyes on the floor below, watching the inmates as they lie on their bunks, walk around, or 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.

How long every day do they spend in the gymnasium?

NORRIS: Twenty-four hours, pretty much.

SULLIVAN: Sit up here for a while, and you'll begin to notice something about the inmates. They're only talking, walking and sitting with members of their own race. I learned later that in a place so crowded, this issue has come to dominate every aspect of life at San Quentin - from the way inmates eat and sleep, to the way they fight, to the way they survive. But in this moment, I wasn't sure, so I asked Officer McLane.

Is this room segregated by race?


SULLIVAN: There's no problems like that here?


SULLIVAN: Officer McLane delivers his assessment earnestly, but I get the sense he doesn't believe his answer. A judge has already threatened to put the entire prison system into federal receivership. No one here wants to make things seem even worse, so I asked McLane if I can ask the inmates.

NORRIS: Well, most of them might not be too partial to talk.

SULLIVAN: I head down the riser stairs anyway, and McLane doesn't stop me. Down among the bunks, bleached towels and drying underwear are everywhere. Food wrappers cover the floor. I don't get more than a few feet before I encounter an inmate named Lee Haggerty, and a completely different answer to the question.

NORRIS: It's nothing but racist. That's just like - that's just like the COs promote racism. Like look how we live in here. The showers are divided. The toilets, they - one for whites, one for blacks one, you know what I'm saying?

SULLIVAN: Haggerty has been in the gym since January, when he came here on a firearms charge. He says the rules are this: 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.

NORRIS: Some races, you can't say nothing to them. You can't talk to them. You can't sit on a bunk.

SULLIVAN: Or trade food.

NORRIS: I can't even get a soup from him, you know what I mean? A white dude.

SULLIVAN: It's not just black and white. There are more than a dozen racial or ethnic groups living here, and they don't intermingle. Sociologists would call this behavior herding, grouping together in the face of danger. And that's especially true in here. There's no personal space, no safety zone if a fight breaks out. It's a giant game of Survivor, with 300 people playing.

Manuel Metcalf is from Monterey.

NORRIS: For anyone to say that this is not a frightening type of experience, just being around a whole bunch of people, you understand me, that's like rats that's trying to - you know, you know what I'm saying? You put so many of them together, you take away all the resources, and they start to turn on each other.

SULLIVAN: I met Metcalf as he was pacing the room for exercise. He 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. In a sense, these inmates have created walls where there aren't any. Metcalf explains that here, if someone is standing next to your bed and you're in it, you are in trouble.

NORRIS: My bunk is right here. Most of my stuff is under the bed - my shoes, most of my clothes.

SULLIVAN: Metcalf positions himself between the beds. His broad shoulders are touching his bunk and his neighbor's. He says they're living like animals.

NORRIS: Don't you know how close it is? We ain't got a foot and half between bunks. Look at this, don't you know - this is not even - you're supposed to have so many cubic feet. We have barely a foot and half on each side of the bunk, where you can almost breathe in another person's mouth.

SULLIVAN: The rafters above are covered in inches of dust. There's a fan, but it doesn't look like it's spun in years. The paint is chipping. There's mold on the walls. Every 20 feet, there's a rat trap the size of a shoe box. There are no windows. Metcalf is about to show me his locker.

NORRIS: Oh, down there...


NORRIS: Oh, alarm.

SULLIVAN: Metcalf and every inmate in the gym drop to their knees. I can see them scanning each other's faces. The noise is deafening. In the entire gym, I am the only person still standing.

NORRIS: You got to get down, too.

SULLIVAN: I look over at the officer on the riser, and he 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 system-wide. Somewhere, one of them has felt threatened enough to trigger it. The rule is hands and knees on the floor. If your hands and knees aren't on the floor, it's up to the tower guard whether or not to shoot you.

Five thousand men across this vast prison wait on the ground. An inmate huddled by his bed makes a motion toward microphone.

SULLIVAN: Would you want to live here?

SULLIVAN: In two days at San Quentin, this alarm sounded every couple of hours.

You might think these men were violent criminals. They're not. Just about everyone in this room is here because they violated their parole. It's the number one reason California's prisons are packed to the breaking point.

NORRIS: My name is John White. My original offense was auto theft in 2000; a 16-month term and I'm still doing time on that eight years later. Constant parole violations.

SULLIVAN: There aren't many states that can afford to incarcerate someone for eight years for stealing a car. And by all accounts, California can't afford it. Its prison system costs $8 billion a year. And this year the state is cutting in to its education budget to pay for it.

NORRIS: And I am a screw-up. I don't comply very well with the policies, you know. I did pretty good for a minute. I stayed out four months once.

SULLIVAN: Parole doesn't seem difficult. Show up to appointments, don't drive on a suspended license, tell your parole office if you move, don't do drugs. But that's exactly what has brought John White and most of these men back here. As I spend the morning talking with them, it's not hard to figure out why. Their lives are chaos. They have complicated relationships, little education, few skills, usually nowhere to live.

What do you do in here all day?

NORRIS: We just sit around in here like this, just like we are right now. It's very tedious, it's nerve-wracking and stressful. The lights stay on till 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.

SULLIVAN: And that is the paradox. Because there are so many inmates here, officials say there is no space for the programs that could keep them out. Take, for example, counseling, job skills and drug treatment. Officials used to offer those programs, but they say there isn't room anymore. They used to take place here, in the gym. The result: 70 percent of California's inmates return to prison within three years.

NORRIS: Now they send you back to prison for nothing.

SULLIVAN: Devrek Irvin 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.

NORRIS: What am I supposed to do out here? I just did four years. I'm kicked into society, what am I supposed to do? You know, people have a drug problems, then why send them back to prison for a violation for eight months or whatever when they're not getting any help for that?

SULLIVAN: As I talk with dozens of inmates, they all describe 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, at least on this day, 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.

NORRIS: My name's Chris Ruffino. I happen to speak for a lot of the whites in here, okay? And...

SULLIVAN: Ruffino is a tall man, flanked on both sides by other inmates. Ruffino see himself as a benevolent ruler.

NORRIS: You know, when there's a problem, they come to me, and I go to somebody else and we solve the problem. We try to alleviate all racial tension here. We have a pretty good program, wouldn't you guys say?

SULLIVAN: But he says there's only so much he can do. His biggest problem right now is tube socks. I heard this complaint over and over. To save money, prison officials have cut back on socks. None of these inmates seemed to care about the actual socks - most weren't even wearing any - it's that now, there's something else to steal, to fight over. A crowd has gathered and is watching us talk. And off to the side, another group is listening. Ruffino is explaining that inmates are bunked by race and suggests maybe they shouldn't be. This is too much for the other group, and its leader steps forward.

NORRIS: (Unintelligible)

NORRIS: No. Don't start that. Don't start that.

SULLIVAN: Antoine Moore is also flanked by lieutenants. Where Ruffino looks like he spent one too many decades at rock concerts, Moore is lean, built and young.

NORRIS: That's pretty much initiating racial tension. And I know I would sleep better knowing that I have a black bunkie than a white bunkie.

NORRIS: You know, that's true. If there was tension, I'd rather - make sure I had one of my people below me or above me.

SULLIVAN: Ruffino and Moore clearly know each other, but they stand facing each other with their arms crossed.

NORRIS: Me and him - if me and him have a disagreement...

NORRIS: It would be hell. Even without a disagreement, it would be a problem.

NORRIS: It would be problem.

NORRIS: There would be a problem. What he just said...

NORRIS: To alleviate all of that, we keep the racial segregation.

NORRIS: That's sad, but true.

NORRIS: Yeah. Sad, but true.

SULLIVAN: Right now, at least, Ruffino and Moore both agree the problem really isn't between them. It's between Northern and Southern Latinos, meaning Northern and Southern California. And they're on the brink of war prison-wide. If that happens, Ruffino, Moore and everyone else in this gym will have to choose sides. With bunks only a foot-and-a-half from each other, there's nowhere to hide.


BLOCK: That's NPR's Laura Sullivan. In a moment, she'll continue her report with more on the conflict between those Latino inmate groups at San Quentin, and we'll hear what happens to inmates when they leave the gym and move to regular prison blocks. That's coming up. Stay with us for the second part of Laura's story.


BLOCK: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

NORRIS: And I'm Michele Norris. It is a simple fact of prison management: The more inmates you jam into a fixed amount of space, the more violent they will become. And that's exactly what's happened at California's San Quentin prison. NPR's Laura Sullivan picks up our story on prison overcrowding as a busload of new inmates arrive.


SULLIVAN: Early in the morning, a bus is pulled up to the prison recreation yard. New inmates pile out in leg irons and cuffs and head into a mobile trailer. They stand just inside the door and strip: clothes, wallets, cell phones go into brown paper bags. When the men are naked, they're searched.


SULLIVAN: They head into a holding cage, and here they wait - sometimes the better part of the day. All the while, the buses keep on coming.


NORRIS: (unintelligible)

SULLIVAN: Off to the side of the cage is a small office, where Sgt. Lee Collier is trying to find a place for these men to sleep for the months or years they will spend here at San Quentin.

NORRIS: We have we got?

SULLIVAN: Sgt. Collier is trying to find room for almost 50 inmates. Each day is like a game of chess. Putting one inmate of one race into a bunk means moving other inmates elsewhere. Collier's having a hard time at the moment finding a place for two of the men in the cage.

NORRIS: So they were associated with the Northern 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.

SULLIVAN: The number of inmates like these two men, who have to bunk in separate protected areas, has grown into the thousands in California. It's a direct result of the violence that has spread 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. Because when it comes to violence, there is no place more dangerous in this prison than the dining hall.


NORRIS: Sit down. I said, sit down. Sit down!

SULLIVAN: A giant room the size of an airplane hangar. Officer R. Grant is trying to keep order - 1,200 men sectioned off, crammed around tables, divided by race. It's here, beneath the crumbling paint and leaking roof, that most inmates are stabbed, assaulted or attacked.

SULLIVAN: Does it ever make you nervous?

NORRIS: If I am nervous, you won't see it. I don't have time to shake. I do that at home - even though I am.

SULLIVAN: What do you do if you've got inmates rioting?

NORRIS: Get out the way. First, get out the way. Okay?

SULLIVAN: (unintelligible)

SULLIVAN: I walk over to the main housing area with one of the prison's lieutenants, Sam Robinson. The prison feels on edge. Robinson explains that the Northern and Southern Latino gangs have issued standing orders to attack any member of the other group. Just as we turn into one of the housing units...


SULLIVAN: (unintelligible)

SULLIVAN: ...again, an officer somewhere in San Quentin has triggered the alarm. Inmates all along the tier and as far up the hallway as you can see are on their hands and knees. A supervisor in the command center uses the overhead speaker system to get the officer who triggered the alarm to check in. Nobody can reach him.

SULLIVAN: The alarm (unintelligible) check in.

SULLIVAN: Still nothing.

SULLIVAN: (unintelligible) check in.

SULLIVAN: With every minute that passes, the tension rises. On the ground, there's movement. Ever so slightly, the inmates are grouping, shifting toward members of their own race.


SULLIVAN: What's going on?

NORRIS: We have an alarm. The status of the alarm is unclear at this moment.

SULLIVAN: Just as Lt. Robinson says this, two medical officers rush by with a gurney, and the alarm finally ends. Word comes across the radio that the officer is okay, but an inmate is not. He's been taken to the medical unit. Like this man, an inmate is attacked in this prison, on average, every other day.


SULLIVAN: Within a few minutes, life on the tier picks right back off where it left off. Five stories of cells are stacked on top of each other. Some of these cells were built 150 years ago. After a meal, the officers come around with hundreds of keys. They look like something out of another century. You can get identical ones, down to the width and weight, in the tourist gift shop on Alcatraz Island.

I mean, they have to individually lock...

NORRIS: Every cell. Nearly 250. Yeah.

SULLIVAN: There's little ventilation, crumbling walls, broken lights, and across from the cells on every level of this unit, the wall is smeared with feces.

NORRIS: Look at it. There's crap. That's human feces. Crap.

SULLIVAN: Mike Johnson's cell is on the third floor. He's serving four years for a DUI offense.

And in the five months that you've been here, has it ever been cleaned up?

NORRIS: Across from me? No. They'll clean down there on the bottom where the cops stay. But up here, we're just a number.

SULLIVAN: It's an act of frustration prison officials say they have no money to fix. And the frustration, inmates say, is about space. These cells were built for one man. Now they hold two. They are four fee wide. With two beds, a sink and a toilet, the inmates have to trade off deciding who gets to stand. But throwing feces is not the only way these inmates act out. In the middle of the wall, there is a giant sign that says no warning shots will be fired in this unit.

NORRIS: My first day in prison, a dude got his throat cut.

SULLIVAN: Nicholas Martinez came to San Quentin for burglary.

NORRIS: I mean, it's everywhere. It's what happens when you put a group of men together, and they start plotting and planning and politicking. That's all there is.

SULLIVAN: (unintelligible)


NORRIS: There's yelling like that all day. That's daily life.

SULLIVAN: Yeah, I got your problem. I got your problem (censored).

NORRIS: See how they're talking right now? That's a fight right there, because you don't call a man a punk. You don't call him a punk.

SULLIVAN: Martinez says at the next meal, there will be a fight. He says one of these two men will be in the medical unit by the end of the night.

NORRIS: Those are certain - there's certain words you just don't say to another man. I tried - a busted a dude in his mouth for calling me a punk.

SULLIVAN: Over the years, the more crowded California's prisons got, the more violent they have become. In the past 10 years alone, the population doubled, and so did the attacks on inmates and staff, leaving more than 125 inmates dead. And beneath the numbers is a circular logic that drives this system: The more crowded the prisons are, the more racially divided and violent they become. Rehabilitation drops, and more and more inmates keep coming back to prison - making it even more crowded.

So I asked San Quentin's warden, Robert Ayers, if he worries that they're just going to be more likely to keep coming back.

NORRIS: Oh, I don't worry about it. It's true. I mean, it's a reality.

SULLIVAN: Ayers says he knows it, the legislature knows it, even the governor. But in the '80s 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.

NORRIS: Most wardens across the state will tell you reduce the population, and give them the resources to initiate programs out there, and they would be able to have some impact.

SULLIVAN: What happens when you go and ask for more resources for programs?

NORRIS: There isn't any. The state is now $16 billion in the red, and the first priority is keep the convicted felon in prison for the prescribed amount of time. Do it as safely as you can.

SULLIVAN: That's getting harder with every inmate that comes and comes back to California's prisons.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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