The Unassuming but Eerie Façade of San Quentin

I got to see it recently while taking a ferry from Marin County to San Francisco. There it was, silently glowing gold in the late afternoon sun, with a guard tower nearby. Just a simple building at the edge of the water. There was no one outside that I could see. I had to imagine those inside.

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With only water between us, I almost got a chill seeing San Quentin State Prison in real life. After all, it’s the stuff of 1940s black and white movies, in which gangsters get their due in the end. I immediately had a vision of Humphrey Bogart, dressed in shades of gray, with his classic sneer and heavy five o’clock shadow.

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Among those sent there are all men who have received the death sentence in California. There have been executions in the past, but none have taken place since 2006. In 2019, the governor ordered a moratorium on executions. Almost 700 men remain on “death row.”

The maximum security prison opened in 1852 and is the oldest in California. Pretty tough to escape from there, eh? Some have tried, but no one has ever successfully fled the prison.

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Oddly, the tough prison has served as a setting for numerous films and concerts. Johnny Cash performed for prisoners twice, once with inmate Merle Haggard in the audience. B.B. King and Metallica later performed there.

Bogart was indeed tied to San Quentin: he played an escapee in the 1947 film “Dark Passage.” Several other movies used the facility, including Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run.”

The prison has evolved somewhat since it opened. There are now programs to rehabilitate prisoners who are able to be released, and they do have access to exercise, education and entertainment. But for me, San Quentin will always be that cold, concrete place swathed in black and white, where the baddest of the bad simmer inside.

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I’m glad to be on the “outside.”