San Quentin State Prison is arguably the most famous prison in the world and an irresistible magnet to far more than the inmates who arrive by bus in a never-ending stream.
The list of suitors is indeed impressive. For ABC, it was the lure of filming a crime drama episode of “Criminal Minds” behind the walls of what is undoubtedly the West Coast’s oldest and most infamous prison. ESPN was drawn to the tennis court and its reputation for vibrant competition between players that come from both inside and outside the prison walls.
For the Discovery Channel, it was an opportunity to donate cameras and state-of-the-art editing stations to the struggling S.Q. film school, then film six episodes documenting the learning process as the inmates were trained to learn with them.
The cable TV Tennis Channel sits impatiently atop a growing waiting list, eager for their chance to enter this crumbling prison by-the-bay to film a documentary around this same tennis court and its players.
It’s not as though San Quentin has been short on outside celebrities. Passing through the ancient gates during the past year have been the likes of PBS news magazine correspondent Spencer Michels, mayor and would-be-governor Gavin Newsom, one-time presidential advisor and community activist Van Jones, local Assemblyman Jared Huffman, author and physician Patch Adams, former boxer and one-time S.Q. inmate Paul Nave and Johnny Cash impersonator David Stone.
Each has passed through the prison’s storied gates in little more than the past calendar year.
And, of course, that is not to include the echoes of a previous generation of prison-bound performers; such as the likes of Johnny Cash, Mary Wells, James Brown, Carl Perkins, Norton Buffalo and so many, many more.
But the flood of film crews has slowed to a trickle now as the effects are felt of a year-long moratorium on documentary film crews behind the walls of the state’s 32 major prisons.
Administration officials say that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is feeling the effects of layoffs, budget cuts and furlough days and no longer has the personnel, time or resources to write, read and review the myriad documents, proposals and contracts necessary to making some of these things happen.
The Tennis Channel stood ready to give a little in order to get a little. Company executives agreed to resurface the prison’s aging and worn tennis court, saving the state approximately $5,000 to $7,000 dollars at a time when money is hard to come by. In return they asked for the right to film a one-hour tennis documentary on the prison’s tennis team.
The state’s response: call back in August when the moratorium is set to expire.
For Los Angeles Times feature writer Kurt Streeter and his Pulitzer prize winning photographer, the attraction was the prison’s unique sports program and its mentor, Coach Don DeNevi. San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist Scott Ostler and his photographer were here to write about Opening Day of baseball season for the San Quentin Giants.
Whoever and however it is that media or entertainment figures wish to journey behind the walls of S.Q., the path for approval almost invariably leads to Prison Public Information Officer Lt. Sam Robinson.
Gregarious, out-going and ever-smiling, Lt. Robinson seems a natural for the position which he has held for the past two and-one-half years. An effective communicator, Robinson enjoys dealing with the public.
All requests from the media to visit the prison, usually about two per week, are routed to Robinson’s office, and the first step is generally a written proposal. The proposal must include all the details of the proposed visit, such as who (how many), when, how many dates will be required, how much time, etc..
After Robinson has determined that all of the requirements have been met, the proposal is forwarded to the warden for his consideration. In normal times, with no moratorium in place, each prison’s warden is free to determine just who he will allow inside of his prison, and for what purpose.
When asked to assess the differences in media attention to San Quentin versus any of the state’s other prisons, Robinson responded with a laugh, “There is no comparison at all. Probably 90 percent of the proposals from the media are here at S.Q. The media are always trying to capture a story about life here at San Quentin.” Robinson pointed out that the news media are not subject to the moratorium on documentary filming.
Not all of the requests are for mainstream projects, according to Robinson. There was a perso n who wanted to do an American Idol, San Quentin style, who even submitted a list of notable people in the entertainment business who were behind the project.