While most students headed to their classes on campus last Wednesday, some traveled 17 miles across the bay to tour San Quentin, a maximum security state prison in Marin county. Professor Samantha Smith took her criminology class to the prison, once the home of serial killer Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan, assassin of Robert F. Kennedy, and current home to death row inmate Scott Peterson, as part of the curriculum established by the late Professor Esther Madriz. According to the California Department of Corrections website, San Quentin is the state’s oldest prison and it has “the state’s only gas chamber and death row for all male condemned inmates.”
Professor Kim Richman, a sociology and criminology professor currently on sabbatical, normally teaches the course and has made the San Quentin tour a regular component of the course since 2003. In addition to organizing the tour, Richman has incorporated a discussion with current inmates about their experiences. She said, “I also added a component in which students get to meet with a group of inmates who I work with there, who tell their stories and answer questions.”
Aside from this portion, students were instructed to observe rather than speak with inmates. Meghan Raab, a senior English major, took the course last fall and said, “We were there to observe and were instructed not to talk to people.” Of speaking with these inmates, Raab said, “They were really inspiring. These guys were not getting out, but using their life for something positive to help people who are getting out. Other people out in the yard were less motivated.” Hearing what life in prison is really like from a prisoner challenged Raab’s preconceptions. “Before I had an opinion that people in jail don’t care, but it was nice to see that some people really do care and take the situation seriously,” she said.
During the tour students walked by cells and viewed the gas chamber, a former method of execution which is no longer used in the state of California. Richman believes this firsthand experience helps students understand what it is like to be incarcerated. “The death penalty takes on a whole new meaning when you actually enter the execution chamber and stand where people have been executed,” she said. Daniela LaBounty, a senior international business major, said of the tour: “It made me re-examine my own positions on prison and the prison system.”
Organizing the tour requires background checks of every student and clothing restrictions. Of the process, Richman said, “Normally I have to send a list at least a month or two ahead of time that includes the names, birth dates, social security numbers and driver’s license numbers of every student. They run individual security checks on each one.” If a student does not clear the background check, he or she is not permitted to take the tour. The rules and deadlines for submitting this information constantly change and when San Quentin briefly stopped allowing tours in 2002, Richman said, “I had to lobby hard to get them to take us in again.” According to Raab, the prison required students to wear business attire and forbade them from wearing anything denim, blue, orange or clothing with logos so they would stand out from inmates.
Many students take the class as an elective so they can tour San Quentin. When Smith asked students why they chose to take the course, LaBounty said the San Quentin tour “seemed like a big motivator for people taking the class.” LaBounty herself enrolled in the course so she could see the prison.
Richman said, “No matter how much you read about incarceration, there is no learning experience that compares to actually seeing a functioning prison and speaking to those who are incarcerated there. People often envision inmates as something less than human, until they meet and speak with the men at San Quentin, and learn how much they have in common with many of us.” At least one student’s perspective changed after the tour, Raab said, “Viewing them [prisoners] in this light, I felt more inclined to help them than to judge.”