Looking back on 42 years of service at San Quentin

By Charles David Henry

In June 1975, Donald Graham left the California Department of Corrections’ training academy after two weeks and took his first job assignment at San Quentin State Prison.

An Air Force veteran with college degrees in computer science and mathematics from California State University at Sonoma, Graham came to work for the department with a proactive perspective for problem solving.

His stance toward the incarcerated population was unique. As a new recruit, fresh out of the academy, he acknowledged that many problems with the correctional staff and the general population could be generally resolved without conflict.

“It takes a little time to gain an inmate’s trust, but after that, problems are easily solved,” he said.

Throughout his long career, Graham had the good fortune of spending all 42 years at San Quentin. During the ’70s, new recruits out of the academy worked the graveyard. He spent six months walking the gun rail in West Block.

The ’70s were also turbulent. Prisoners were frustrated and restless. On occasion, cultural tensions soared among the races. Graham was later assigned to work the West Block’s upper yard. There he had opportunities to intermingle and speak with inmates. Even though he spent two weeks at the academy, he knew his on-the-job training would come from working with these men.

How to combine safety and security with compassion toward the inmate population was then and is today a set of contradictory ideas and terms for staff to understand and implement. For Graham, this dexterity was simple.

“I’m paid to work as a correctional officer. These men should be treated with respect when deserving,” he said.

From late 1975 through 1976, he worked H Unit’s kitchen area. Relationships with Blacks, Hispanics and Whites were fragile. Being an enthusiastic new recruit with problem-solving skills, “I often found myself caught in the middle,” Graham said. But he managed to find a simple solution for many complex racial problems. Often “a little patience and understanding” was needed.

After a year, he started working other units. Alpine, Donner and West Block general populations continued to grow. The Adjustment Center, Badger and East Block became the overflow, which gave him broader exposure to the prison.

Working in different units added to his all-embracing perspective of how to enforce the rules of safety and security without being offensive.

During this time, East and North Blocks became the maximum security units. “North Seg” was the only unit that housed condemned and Death Row inmates in the late ’70s and early ’80s. He had to approach these inmates with a different mindset. However, despite their attitude and disposition toward staff and problems with their prison living conditions, interacting with these men taught him their problems, too, were easily resolved. “Take the time and listen to them,” was his mantra.

In 1983, Graham was promoted to sergeant and then went back to West Block. During these times, the general population was in a state of flux. The unit was converted to a reception center. Overcrowded county jails in the Bay Area sent their excess to San Quentin. There was very little stability in the housing unit because inmates were constantly arriving and departing the prison. Violence erupted regularly among the ranks.   

It became difficult to maintain respect with his proactive attitude. Many daily activities resulted in serious rule violations. In many instances, he applied common sense to fix problems, but often he had no choice but to follow the rules and procedures. “I tried to be fair in my assessment of the problems and applied the best solution to the situation.” 

“I’m paid to work as a correctional officer. These men should be treated with respect when deserving”

In 1996, a young correctional officer from East Oakland came to work on Death Row with Graham, who was then a lieutenant. Like most officers fresh out of the academy, Sam Robinson wanted very little contact with his immediate supervisor, let alone a lieutenant. But it was different with Graham. “He was always approachable and easy to get along with,” Robinson said. Death Row inmates require special handling, but he and Graham worked well together. 

Late in 2006, Lt. Graham became San Quentin’s Inmate Assignment supervisor. This new job operated under a completely different set of challenges, procedures, requirements, rules and problems.

Over the next 10 years, the department’s interest in incarceration, rehabilitation and re-entry metamorphosed as a result of federal court orders, and the demand for change became more urgent. Lt. Graham’s days were filled with an onslaught of rapid decisions that had to be made.

His wit and proactive perspective for problem- solving was needed to handle the Prison Industry Authority operations, vocational training programs, joint ventures, assigning inmates to GED classes, to yard and kitchen job positions.

In mid-2015, San Quentin Prison implemented the Strategic Offender Management System (SOMS), a computer system used statewide to monitor inmate programming status. All self-help activities, daily dentist, medical and mental health ducats are processed through Lt. Graham’s office. 

When asked why he never promoted to captain, Graham simply said, “I came to the department to be a correctional officer. I make a good living by working with the general population. I’m committed to them. The political part of being an administrator is of no real interest to me.”

Though not yet retiring, Graham was nonetheless asked about his legacy. He answered, “I want to be remembered for my accountability and commitment.”

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