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On March 17, 2011 CJCJ staff toured San Quentin State Prison with the kind permission and supervision of Lieutenant Samuel Robinson. San Quentin State Prison, home to 4,999 incarcerated men and currently operating at 162% of its design capacity is touted as one of the more progressive California state prisons, yet it struggles to provide services to its burgeoning prison population. 

The gymnasium at San Quentin has been utilized as a large open dormitory for the past twenty years, in response to the rapidly increasing prison population. It currently houses 250 men in row upon row of double bunks. The adverse psychological effects of overcrowding is well documented. Moreover, open dormitory settings are notoriously dangerous environments, and have been the site of several major prison riots over the last few years. Not only does this arrangement deprive inmates of a recreational area, encroach on personal space, and exacerbate existing hostilities and mental health issues in its occupants, but it also creates an incredibly unsafe environment for the correctional staff who manage the area. 

The custodial guard post in the San Quentin gymnasium is located at the head of the room and is slightly raised. Four guards sit at the desk looking out across a sea of orange jumpsuits. Lt. Robinson informed us that this area is used to house receiving and returning inmates who are awaiting classification. Thus, its residents are a mixed bunch: parole violators; hardened gang members; those with mental health issues; violent sex offenders; and non-violent drug-related offenders all bunk together in a setting that offers no protection or respite of any kind. If a fight breaks out between the bunks, there is very little a guard can do to prevent it without putting himself in considerable danger. 

Mike Males, CJCJ’s Senior Research Fellow, recently wrote an interesting blog about California’s incarceration policy, and the urgent need to address overcrowding in state prisons. His analysis of the counties capacity to reabsorb low-level adult offenders demonstrates the disparity between county sentencing practices. 

Our tour of San Quentin highlighted the importance of moving away from punitive incarceration policies and embracing the Governor’s proposal to realign both juvenile and adult correctional practices. Returning all juvenile and low-level adult offenders to the counties will reduce the necessity for dangerous congregate housing situations like the gymnasium at San Quentin and begin to allow for true rehabilitation and public safety to be pursued.