San Quentin State Prison is widely known for its size, the notorious criminals who’ve passed through, its valuable location by the bay, and the formidable walls and gun towers that surround the fortress-like facility, protecting society.
Those who have served time in San Quentin, volunteered their services, or visited the prison with a strange sense of curiosity, have all seen the hidden beauty within the walls.
South Dining Hall
Inside one of S.Q.’s enormous feeding areas, South Dining Hall, are four murals painted by a former inmate named Alfredo Santos. A talented and successful artist, Santos was convicted of heroin distribution and sent to San Quentin in 1951. By the end of Santos’s sentence in 1955, he had completed the sepia-toned murals that depict life in California. From San Francisco Bay to the San Diego/Mexican border, the murals are the artist’s rendition of the shipbuilding and industrial boom during the early 1890s. His depictions include the many cultures of people who contributed to the growth of California.
Santos’s work is not the only creative masterpiece that beautifies the otherwise dreary, cream-colored walls of S.Q. Across from the newly established hospital and in front of the Adjustment Center, there is another graphic work of art with colors so vivid it captivates the eyes and forces an individual to gaze upon lives captured in a moment of time.
The original design was first created in 1982 and painted by several inmates, whose names are listed on the lower left hand corner of the mural. Due to inclement weather, the colors faded quickly and a group of men breathed new life into the images.
Four men are responsible for this generous effort: John Sklut, Scott McKinney, Gabriel Enriquez and Ron Goodman.
Through the Arts and Corrections Program, these talented men refurbished the historical painting under the guidance of Arts and Craft facilitator Lynelle Herrick. Unfortunately, after putting in many hours of dedication, McKinney was transferred; Goodman took up where McKinney left off. Now, two years after completion of the mural, a section of this artwork has been destroyed for the purpose of an ugly, lifeless, metal sliding door,
After speaking with Sklut, McKinney and Enriquez, information regarding other murals was revealed. Murals of artistic merit were painted over, hiding their beauty and the history of the artist.
When Sklut, McKinney and Enriquez were asked about how they felt about the destruction of the mural that took time and dedication out of their lives, Sklut, a mild-mannered man and 30-year veteran of doing time, replied, “It’s sad. With other murals that have been painted over, there is no record of the contributions and efforts of the artists who took time out of their lives to give the prison some life.”
A Different Side
Sklut added with feeling, “These murals show a different side of the person who painted these walls, no matter what the artist was in prison for. Now a lot of that is gone and there is nothing for the new generation to appreciate.”
“It feels bad,” said Enriquez. “But San Quentin does what they want, no matter how you feel.” Enriquez does not consider himself a professional painter, but continues to paint beautiful creations.
McKinney said, “It’s irritating because Lynelle, the woman who was in charge of overseeing the project, died from breast cancer and it’s a blemish to her memory.” Nevertheless, this situation has not deterred this young man’s drive to be who he is, an artist. Asked if he would participate in another mural creation, he replied, “If allowed to paint, I’ll be there with bells on.”