An Inmate's View of Prison Culture at San Quentin

FOR the last decade or so I've written to, and occasionally visited, a friend of mine named Joe Morse who has been confined to San Quentin prison in California for 27 years. Convicted of three murders when he was a young man, Joe has spent his adult life in a prison with a reputation for being a very tough place for its 137 years of existence. Recently Joe was transferred from San Quentin, no longer an exclusively maximum-security facility, to a new prison in Vacaville, Calif.

Before he left, Joe wrote an editorial in the San Quentin News, the inmate newspaper for which he was editor for many years. His perspective on prison culture, shaped by experiences unimaginable to those of us who have never been imprisoned, is candid, chilling, and not without considerable insight for a man who knows parole is probably out of the question. Following are some excerpts.

``I've no regrets that I'm leaving. San Quentin is no longer a tolerable place in which a convict can do any appreciable amount of time. There are still a few vocational programs, and the academic section still attempts to offer GED programs and College of Marin courses at night, but for the most part San Quentin is dead in the water. ... The place is slated to be a reentry facility for parole violators and, in my opinion, anyone who remains here will regret it.

``As I walk around the place these days I'm trying to remember the place the way it used to be, not as it is now. Spending over a quarter of a century here ain't been all fun, believe me, but as I think back on it all I seem to feel the good outweighs the bad. ...

``Each section of the joint seems to spark memories as I spend my last days here. When I walk past the education department I realize it's where I received my high school diploma - back when it was called Bayview High School. In those same classrooms I earned college credits, something I'd probably never have done if I hadn't come to prison.

``Even the printshop sparks nostalgia when I deliver a load of copy for the San Quentin News. I spent 10 years there learning a marketable skill. The instruction is still fresh in my memory, but the outstanding recollections are the men with whom I went through the course. Where are they now? Some are out, some are dead, some are still trying to finish their terms.

``The average reader might think such reflections demonstrate a wasted life. True, it hasn't been an ideal life. Especially since I did a few years in various juvenile facilities before coming to San Quentin. Even so the good still outweighs the bad. There has been pleasure in my life, and not all of it chemically induced. As for the hardships of the existence, the prison environment itself has taught me to deal with that. Prison is, after all, little more than a series of losses. We lose nearly everything when we come into one of these places. After getting here, anything we pick up - whether it be a friendship or a material object - is subject to loss at any given moment. Is it any different out there?

``There's no telling what the future has in store for me at the next institution. I ain't exactly a paragon of rehabilitation, but even so I expect to be accepted by both administrators and the convict population....

``From time to time I'll think back on the better aspects of my 27 years here, but for the most part I'll remember what San Quentin has become. It's difficult to articulate. ... The buildings still look the same, but that's where the similarity ends. ... Today's law and order trend has the joints packed to the brim and there is a marked difference in the attitude of convicts. If things change, I'm sure someone I'm leaving here will let me know, but until then I'll be content thinking of San Quentin as a place where parole violators come to get out of the rain.''

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