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Regional Interests

How San Quentin Prison Got Its Primo Real Estate

Driving west across the Richmond-San Rafael bridge offers majestic views of San Francisco’s skyline, the Bay Bridge, and the turquoise water of San Francisco Bay. Looming in the distance is Mount Tamalpais and beautiful Marin County, known for its tony real estate and great hiking. Off to the left as the bridge touches down in Marin, right on the water is San Quentin State Prison, California’s only death row for men.

Every time Terese O’Malley drives across that bridge she wonders: “How did this maximum level prison get to be in Marin County? And how is it still standing there?”

California’s First Prison

San Quentin was built more than 160 years ago, just four years after California became a state. It’s the oldest prison in California.

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When miners and other fortune seekers began flooding into San Francisco during the Gold Rush, crime spiked. Soon the jail in San Francisco was overflowing, so the authorities began locking people up on prison ships.

“San Quentin began as a private prison,” said Lieutenant Samuel Robinson, communications officer at San Quentin Prison. “It was a prison ship docked at Angel Island.” The ship was called The Waban.

The state legislature approved the purchase of 20 acres at what was then called Punta de Quentin — meaning Quentin Point — in 1852. The site was named for a Coast Miwok warrior named Quentin. The “San” came from Americans’ erroneous perception that it was a Spanish name and that all Spanish names started with “San.”

The state paid $10,000 or about $320,000 in today’s dollars for the land that would become San Quentin State Prison. That might seem like a steal, but back then the area was isolated. There were no bridges and overland travel was arduous. Punta de Quentin was remote.

“None of this was here,” Robinson said. “It was just hills and marshland; it was land that really no one wanted.”

The Waban docked near Punta de Quentin where the inmates continued to live for another two years while they built the prison. They dug rocks from a quarry up the road and built the original cell block — now administrative buildings.

The castle-like fascade of San Quentin prison was added on in the 1890s. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“Inmates on the boat were marched off the boat everyday to the hills here around San Quentin, where they literally made big rocks into little rocks and they built, essentially, what has become the facade of our facility,” Robinson said.

Since that time the prison has grown and changed. The first prisoners living on the Waban numbered between 50 and 60. Now, San Quentin houses nearly 4,000 prisoners. The prison has changed in many other ways as well, starting with its status as a privately owned facility. That meant its owner could lease the inmates’ labor out to the highest bidder, which quickly led to corruption and abuse. After numerous complaints, the state took over San Quentin in 1855.

All of the state’s executions take place at San Quentin. The first was back in 1893. Since then, the state has executed more than 400 people here, the last one in 2006. In 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom issued a moratorium on the death penalty. Still, more than 700 men are housed on death row at San Quentin now — awaiting an uncertain future.

Inside the prison

Entering the prison is a process. Visitors pass by a guardhouse to enter the outer layer of the complex, where the administrative buildings and staff housing are located. There was once even a school here for staff children. To get to where the inmates live, visitors pass through the prison’s original gate, a portico built wide and tall enough to fit a horse and buggy, to enter the “Plaza.” On the right is a chapel, to the left the cell blocks. Straight ahead is the hospital.

The oldest building in the complex is the dungeon, now used for storage. But the remnants of this 1850s building are thought to be the oldest public work still standing. Its history speaks of a more brutal past.

Construction of the Old Spanish Blocks. (Courtesy San Quentin State Prison)

“Each one of these wells had big solid black doors in front of it,” Robinson explained. “So no matter what perspective you were in, you’re securely locked away in the dark. The reason why there is no bed in there, because we’d lock a minimum of one up to six guys in a well together.”

The prisoners slept on the floor. They were given three buckets, one with water and two that were empty. The dungeon hasn’t been used since 1943 when the warden at the time, Clinton Duffy, had the huge metal doors melted down so the dungeon could never be used again.

The dungeon is a brutal reminder of California’s history and one of the oldest remaining buildings in the state.

“Marin wasn’t really here before San Quentin,” Robinson said. “So really history in California, we’re standing on site right here at San Quentin. This is history.”

Why is San Quentin still located in Marin?

It’s pretty easy to understand how San Quentin came to be in Marin — the land was cheap, there was a deep water port for the prison ship to dock while they built the main building, there was a quarry up the road and bedrock for the foundation. What’s less clear is why the state never moved the prison. It sits on valuable land and operates in an expensive region. Couldn’t the state save money by moving it somewhere cheaper and selling the land?

Four photos in a grid show different perspectives from guard tower #1 at San Quentin State Prison. (Courtesy San Quentin State Prison)

It’s not so simple. The state considered a prison expansion back in 2002. Joe Nation, Marin’s state assemblyman at the time, had some ideas for how San Quentin could be used differently.

“I just thought there were other opportunities for it,” Nation said. “Part of it was the deep water ferry port that I thought would make a lot of sense.”

A deep water ferry port would allow the Larkspur ferry to avoid the shallow no wake zones it currently travels through. And, Nation thought the county could connect it to the SMART train, maybe build some much needed housing.

“I thought if you made it a transit hub, if you made it so that people could actually live there, work there, or commute on the ferry to the East Bay or to San Francisco, that made a lot of sense,” Nation said.

But no one else in the state legislature had much enthusiasm for his ideas and there was significant local push back. People living nearby didn’t want the noise and congestion such a project would bring. Counterintuitively, the prison is a good neighbor. It’s tucked away, with few comings and goings. Many Marin County residents don’t think much about it.

Also, because San Quentin is located in the Bay Area its inmates have access to more programs and services than many other prisons. And, the prison employs people in good jobs. If it moved, those jobs would leave too.

It’s hard to change the status quo and the prison isn’t likely to move any time soon.

Meanwhile, there’s a whole world going on behind walls few Bay Area residents pass through.

“There are people who have hope in a new day and a new future,” Robinson said. “[They have hope] that laws may change to benefit them, that they’ve worked to become better people themselves. And so it’s just not this place where people are sitting in the corners conniving to do bad things all the time, I think you see humanity within the walls, all aspects of it, good and bad.”

Recently, San Quentin has been the site of one of the deadliest outbreaks of coronavirus in the state’s prison system. Over 2,200 people were infected — two-thirds of the prison — and 29 people died. The long term effects of the outbreak are still being felt.

In April, our colleagues on The Bay podcast interviewed a prisoner currently incarcerated at San Quentin to learn more about what it was like to live through the last year on the inside. It’s an important perspective to hear alongside this history of the prison.

For more information about the COVID-19 outbreak at San Quentin and its aftermath, follow the ongoing reporting from our KQED News colleagues.

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