December 31 marked the last day of a year and the last day of an era. Captain Samuel Robinson walked out of San Quentin State Prison to end his 26-year career with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Robinson went from walking the tiers of Death Row to managing one of the most innovative programs that ever existed inside a prison. His well-deserved retirement sends him to family in Houston.
Gov. Gavin Newsom called Robinson a “problem solver” who “saw an opportunity and used it to help build out a full-fledged media center that promotes rehabilitation, reentry, accountability, and of course, positive human transformation.”
Newsom’s video message, recorded during the SQNews annual fundraiser last September, paid tribute to Robinson. Newsom praised the Captain for “overseeing programs that create space for empathy, understanding and communication.”
Incarcerated residents of San Quentin see Robinson as a trailblazer dedicated to enriching the lives of everyone he meets.
“He’s the epitome of optimism, because he wants the best for everybody,” said Steve “Rhashiyd” Zinnamon, sound designer for the podcast EarHustle. “He believes in second chances. He treats us like men as opposed to a prisoner or anything else.”
Nigel Poor, cofounder of EarHustle, met Robinson in 2012. She was initially intimidated because as a community volunteer she “had to talk to him all the time” about getting episodes of the podcast approved. She soon discovered that Robinson is “caring and easy to talk to, if you earn his trust.” Having earned that trust, she didn’t want to let him down.
“I feel like I owe it to him to be the best person I can be, because Sam is a person who would do anything to guide the guys inside toward rehabilitation,” Poor said. “Incarcerated guys and people who work in the prison respect him, so that tells me that he’s a righteous person, something that’s really hard to do in this environment.”
Earlone Woods, cofounder of EarHustle, paroled from prison in 2018. Woods described Robinson as someone “who deals with people as they are in the moment. He didn’t use his job to continue to punish people. He used his job to rehabilitate. He’s the R in CDCR.”
Brian Asey produces videos for San Quentin television in the prison’s media center. Like Poor, he met Robinson in 2012. He says that Robinson is the first correctional officer who saw him as a person and not an inmate.
“He’ll give you the opportunity to be the person you want to be. He doesn’t see color. He’s the same way with everyone,” said Asey. Robinson showed him a unique brand of professionalism.
As Robinson, often referred to as the “Mayor of San Quentin,” ends his career with CDCR, the prison’s staff and residents are poised to continue his legacy of optimism.
The Unexpected Career
Robinson recognizes the impact that a schoolteacher, Mr. Shields, had on his life.
“He took an interest in me and took the extra step to keep me out of trouble,” Robinson said. After a risky encounter when Robinson was 14 years old, Mr. Shields met with his parents. Subsequently, Robinson transferred to St. Elizabeth, a private school. He recalls, “I didn’t want to go to prison, so I did the right thing.”
Robinson’s life changed once he recognized the importance of a good education. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering from San Jose State University in 1996. After graduation, he worked several jobs as a security guard.
At the same time, about 20 of his relatives were working at San Quentin. But he says that being a correctional officer did not appeal to him because people from his East Oakland neighborhood were serving time, some at San Quentin.
His uncles encouraged him to consider the position. They thought that their young nephew would be able to handle the challenge of working in a prison that held folks from his neighborhood. One uncle reminded Robinson that he’d been around people doing wrong all his life, but that had not stopped him from “doing the right thing.”
Robinson was persuaded and took the job. After less than a month with the department, he saw that being a correctional officer was a good career move. As a rookie, Robinson says he was mentored by his uncle; he saw how an effective correctional officer conducts himself. He quickly perceived that treating incarcerated people with respect and dignity fosters a safe environment.
San Quentin’s Public Information Officer
Robinson moved up the ranks of CDCR and in October 2007 became San Quentin’s Public Information Officer. One of his duties as PIO was to conduct tours of the prison. In this role, a quiet and subtle optimism became evident.
He was not your run-of-the-mill PIO. “San Quentin has always had this maverick type of group of folks that live here, work here and done things a little bit different than the traditional,” Robinson said.
Grand juries, judges, district attorneys, teachers, high school students, college students and various other elements of society regularly tour San Quentin. To help lead these groups through the prison, Robinson assembled a team of incarcerated residents that accompany the tours to help explain prison life and operations to the visitors.
In this way the PIO brought disparate groups of people together and provided them an opportunity to have a good look at each other.
“Lieutenant Robinson gives tours to show the outside community what rehabilitation looks like,” said San Quentin resident Timothy Hicks, who became a part of the tour team six years ago.
“By doing the tours, Robinson gives us the opportunity to show the public that we deserve to come back to the community. The public can feel comfortable about us returning to society,” Hicks said.
Robinson’s 26 years of experience inside of prisons has broadened his belief that treating people humanely and with dignity earns trust, which is a vital element that fosters peaceful communities and in the end, does what we all want — brings us home to our families as better people.