In a dusty, busy room, men sit behind utilitarian workbenches, some carefully applying finishing touches to beautifully hand-made wooden jewelry boxes, some tooling raw strap leather into intricate belts; still others sit before large canvasses depicting panoramic landscapes or meticulously rendered portraits.
At first sight, one may believe the room to be part of a crafts guild, or a community arts center. And, in one sense, it is both. Then you look a bit deeper, pay closer attention to the men themselves. Most are older, not a great shock—it does take a lifetime to master some of the skills these men possess. They are all dressed the same, blue chambray shirts and blue denim pants dominate. Some have fading tattoos adorning every inch of exposed skin, excluding only their faces—except for teardrops beneath a questioning eye, or words scrawled on a thick, strong neck.
NOT LIKE A PRISON
The men around the room are intent on their work, concentration etched into their expressions. You would never guess that this was the hobby shop at one of America’s most famous prisons—San Quentin. After passing through the front door, beneath sharply serious coils of concertina and bands of rusted barbed wire, you no longer feel as though you are standing in a prison, much less one with as much brutal history as San Quentin. The men will engage visitors in polite conversation, always anxious to show their work, and extol the importance of having such a sanctuary behind the stone walls.
Despite the severity of the situation, visitors to San Quentin often have to remind themselves where they are, exactly. Sitting on some of the most expensive real estate around, the prison by the bay boasts the highest level of community involvement in the state, if not the nation. This creates an atmosphere unlike any other prison. The men living double bunked in the tiny, six-by-ten foot cells of San Quentin’s North Block have the opportunity to participate in perhaps the only rehabilitative, therapeutic environment to be found in California’s struggling prison system.
THE BAD OLD DAYS
History repeats itself in the microcosm of California Corrections. In 1939, America teetered on the brink of world war and San Quentin was one of the nation’s most violent, corrupt prisons. Corporal punishment was the rule of the day and as further penalty, prison guards chained men in the lightless, dank, unfurnished “dungeon.” They delivered food to the inmates in buckets, and there were no available programs beyond the opportunity to attend chapel services.
Gangs of ruthless convicts ran the prison yards with a measure of brutality not likely ever to be seen again. The prison guards exacted retribution 19th century style, wielding clubs, lashes, straps and hoses to beat the ordinary convicts; the “bosses” were left alone. San Quentin was so corrupt throughout the 1930s that a band of prisoners even managed to make a sizeable sum printing counterfeit bills in the photoengraving shop.
“The hobby program gives a man
something to look forward to”
In walks Clinton Truman Duffy. A small man, bespectacled and mild, his size and demeanor belying an iron will and compassionate sense of justice years ahead of its time. Within months of assuming the Warden’s office, Duffy fired the captain of the guards, eliminated the convict overlords and began feeding the men on trays in a new chow hall. Much to the chagrin of the guards, Duffy was known to walk around the yard, unarmed and without escort.
Warden Duffy allowed the use of radios in the cells, established the Hobby Program and made San Quentin the first institution to permit Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Throughout his nearly 12-year tenure, Warden Duffy never abandoned his belief that San Quentin could rehabilitate as well as punish.
Administrators and prisoners alike recognize the value of activities that occupies leisure time and provides a balanced incentive/deterrent for positive behavior. “The [Hobby] program gives inmates something to lose, which helps modify their thinking in critical situations,” notes a prison psychologist.
‘I’M BASICALLY DEAD’
Not surprisingly, the prisoners themselves recognize this. “A man with nothing to lose has no hope. A man without hope is liable to do anything,” states one lifer. “I’ve been in the pen[itentiary] for over thirty years and I can’t count the amount of times I’ve heard a man in the hobby program say no to something that would have risked his ability to hobby. It’s like the family visiting; the hobby program gives a man something to look forward to.”
Mitch Smiley, a Lifer who has participated in the Hobby Program since 1984, wonders what he would do with his time without the Hobby Program. “The [hobby] program is the most important part of my daily life,” he says, “Without it; I’m basically dead to the world.”
NEXT ISSUE, PART 2: A step back but hope for the future.