In the San Quentin Prison complex of drab gray concrete, unforgiving steel bars, and razor wire-toped fences, one building has a distinction: H-Unit’s building four is undergoing a beatification process.
Inmates sponsored by Correctional Officer J. Lee have been painting murals inside of the building for the last 66 months. It has been an evolving process that has more than 60 percent of the upper walls of the 200-man dormitory adorned with majestic prehistoric images.
“The murals bring tranquility, making it more peaceful in the dorm,” says Officer Lee, who has been working in H-Unit for 14 years.
The dorm’s restroom and shower area has a 400-square-foot mural from the Jurassic period. On one side of the restroom wall are fierce-looking land dwellers, including a life-size Tyrannosaurus Rex and raptors with rows of razor sharp teeth, which seemingly jumps out at viewers. The other side of the mural is a water wonderland featuring giant sea creatures.
“A lot of people look at the murals over the restrooms and don’t even know that there are 14 hidden things,” says Lee.
The painters have hidden images that depict icons such as Jimmy Hendrix and Marylyn Monroe into the landscape.
The dorm’s perimeter walls, decorated with works from Dali, Escher and Octavio Campo, are a work in progress. One prisoner-artist, Charles O’Neal, has painted more than 16 of the images thus far. Another artist, Ronnie Goodman, worked alongside O’Neal before his parole.
“I am able to express what I am inside,” says O’Neal. “It gives me a sense of peace and gives us (prisoners) a better environment.”
For many of the perimeter wall paintings the artists have been referencing the book “Masters of Illusion.” These murals are comprised of small figures that together construct larger-than-life images that include Don Quixote, the Mona Lisa and many more reproductions of historical symbols.
In a place where racial tension usually flourishes, Officer Lee’s beautification program transcends racial boundaries. Lee allows anyone who is a worthy artist to take part in the mural painting.
“All of the different races painting these murals bring togetherness,” says Lee.
Officer Lee runs the dormitory as an honor dorm. To bunk in Dorm 4, prisoners have to be involved in education or one of the many self-help groups. The dorm is remarkably cleaner, quieter and with its murals aesthetically nicer than any of the other four dorms that make up H-Unit.