The Technology Inside America’s Most Notorious Prison

The Technology Inside America’s Most Notorious Prison

Do prison inmates surf the internet? Do they have gadgets? Do they make gadgets? Do they make weapons? Where do they get their porn and booze?

On the outside, we enjoy lives built around the fruits of modernity. But what about prisoners? San Quentin sits on the San Francisco Bay, minutes away from the most technologically famous valley in the world, so we went to jail to find out how much of our 21st-century techno-culture has made it behind bars.

San Quentin State Prison is the stuff of legend. Hell, Johnny Cash wrote a song about it. A lot has changed since The Man in Black visited, but even more striking is what hasn’t changed. Recently, Gizmodo had the rare opportunity to get inside this notorious prison. To say that it was enlightening is a serious understatement.

There are a lot of rules when you visit the slam: You can’t wear blue, grey or orange. Not a stitch: Those colours are reserved for inmates only — blue and grey for the full-time residents, and orange for guys who were still being processed and might well end up in a higher security prison. (They kept us far away from the guys in orange.) You also can’t bring in a cell phone, a very coveted piece of contraband. And you most definitely cannot bring in anything that could be used as a weapon; not that they’re hurting for weapons, as you’ll find out tomorrow.

Quick history lesson. San Quentin is the oldest prison in California (built in 1852), and it’s the only place in the state where the death penalty is carried out. They used to hang ’em; then they used the gas chamber; now prisoners are executed by lethal injection. It’s sobering to think of all the death that occurs in a complex that sits on one of the most beautiful pieces of property imaginable. San Quentin is located right on the San Francisco Bay, in Marin County. It features gorgeous views of the water, north San Francisco and Mt Tamalpias. Reads like a brochure, doesn’t it? That’s probably why developers are constantly trying to tear the place down; if they ever succeed, the homes built there would sell for millions. As the old San Francisco real estate adage goes: The sun is cheap, but you have to pay for a view.

San Quentin houses more than 5000 inmates, despite being built to accomodate only 3082. Six hundred condemned men reside on San Quentin’s death row — far more than Florida’s or Texas’. For all that, there are only 300 officers on duty at peak shifts. We spent most of our time on North Block, which houses approximately 850 men. Around 650 of them carry a life sentence, and roughly 80 per cent are there for violent crime. Prisoners are generally housed two men to a small cell that was only intended to house one. That’s overcrowding for you. The men refer to their cellmates as “cellies”.

For all intents and purposes, San Quentin is designed to be an island. It’s very clear that inmates are not meant to be a part of the modern world of technology. They aren’t allowed any internet access at all. They can have TVs, but no cable. They can make phone calls, but they absolutely cannot have mobile phones. No booze, no way. Yet, despite the levies in place, technology has a way of seeping in. Mobile phones can be procured though a number of illegal channels. Booze can be made right in your cell. Permitted devices can be hacked to do things they aren’t supposed to do.

Essentially, where there’s a will there’s a way — even in prison. And these guys have nothing but time on their hands.

Walking down the narrow hallways of North Block, literally surrounded by killers, I couldn’t help but feel claustrophobic. We didn’t have an armed guard with us. In fact there were only three guards within the entirety of North Block. Some of these men have life without the chance of parole; what would they have to lose? I kept half-expecting to be jabbed through the kidney with a toothbrush shiv, and I regretted having ever watched an episode of Oz. But the day passed without incident.

By and large the inmates we interviewed were affable and articulate. If you were meeting them under other circumstances, you’d probably think they were nice guys. Except most of them were in for murder. It was hard to wrap my mind around that. The deeds didn’t seem to match the men’s personalities, and probably with good reason. Most of the guys we’d talked to had been in jail since the ’70s. They were young men who had made big mistakes — mistakes which many would argue are unforgivable — and they were still paying for them. Many had been in prison longer than I’d been alive.

When we left that afternoon, we were acutely aware of how lucky we were to be able to do so. The battery in our car had died. So what. We weren’t in jail. Small annoyances were put in their proper places. Our smartphones, which we’d gotten so jaded about, were incredible and magical again. As we ate our dinners, sipped our beers, and occasionally checked our emails that night, we talked about the things we took for granted. We had always enjoyed our freedom, but I don’t know that we’d ever had a clearer picture of what life would be without it. It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to make sure you are taking advantage of all life has to offer. It’s the kind of thing that makes you grateful to go home.

Every day this week we’ll be bringing you a new tech story from inside San Quentin, complete with photos and video. Today’s episode is Prison Hacks.

Special thanks to Terry Thornton, Dana Toyama, and Sam Robinson of the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation for facilitating this visit. Thank you to Sergeant Don McGraw, Officer Eric Patao, and Officer Gino Whitehall for all of their time and help. And thanks to inmates Sam Johnson Sr., Richard Lawrence Alley, Shahid, and Marvin Caldwell for sharing slices of their lives with us.

Video by Bill Bowles, Woody Allen Jang, and Brent Rose

This story originally posted on Gizmodo in 2011.