Wednesday, July 1, 2009

San Quentin - A Parish Behind Bars

Speaking of prison, here's an article on the first of many trips I made into San Quentin prison in Marin County, California. It's an oldie but a goodie written a few days after 9-11 in 2001. It was written for Catholic San Francisco which wasn't putting things online yet. So now it's online:

Sign of Hope Inside San Quentin
By Jack Smith, Catholic San Francisco

It’s hard to paint a pretty picture about a visit to San Quentin. But meeting Deacon George Salinger and seeing the effect of his ministry, that’s exactly what it was. The last time I was at San Quentin, I stood outside the East Gate to cover a protest of the latest execution. This time I was going inside to see the cell blocks.

Growing up and going to school off Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in Marin, the sight of San Quentin was a daily occurrence. It’s a Marin landmark, but an abstraction. I’ve often thought, “That’s a great piece of real estate. They must have an incredible view.”

I was wrong; no windows.

Ray McKeon, coordinator of Detention Ministry for the Archdiocese arranged my visit. At the East Gate, I was greeted by Deacon George Salinger and Lieutenant Vernell Crittendon, the prison’s media relations officer.

“Pleased to meet you Lieutenant,” I said.

“Call me Vernell, so I know who you’re talking to,” he said.

As we were walking through the various checkpoints, Vernell’s first question was, “Have you ever been to a state prison?”

“No.” I lied. I’d spent a night at the, now condemned, Santa Rita prison for a political protest in my youth. I was only in the bullpen. About sixty of us milled about a large enough room with three bunged up toilets and feces smeared on the walls and floor. But as awful as that experience was, it in no way prepared me to visit an actual cell block in San Quentin.

Arriving at the last checkpoint at San Quentin I had to sign a waiver: I agree that if I am held hostage, the prison will not negotiate for my release.


Past that gate an unexpected sight; a meticulously manicured garden with a memorial in its center to the correctional officers who died in the line of duty at San Quentin. A couple of dozen men in blue were tending to it. Vernell explained that the men in blue are regular residents. Men in orange are in transition to incarceration at some other prison or eventually regular status at San Quentin. The garden is maintained entirely by the prisoners and its landscape is planned and changed a number of times a year by them.

Next, we went to the Catholic chapel, which is off the garden adjoining the Protestant chapel. Deacon Salinger stopped there to pick up communion hosts to be distributed on his rounds. I sat and talked with head chaplain, Holy Ghost Father Denis McManus. Father McManus is a very dedicated and efficient man of few words who hails from County Mayo, Ireland. When Deacon Salinger came back to the office, Father McManus, matter of factly, handed him a fax.

“Oh no,” Deacon Salinger exclaimed.

“We need somebody to do it,” Father McManus said.

Deacon Salinger took the fax and was off to do his duty without any conversation or complaint. He had to tell a prisoner that his fiancée was killed in one of the hijacked planes on Sept. 11.

Back through the garden and on to the cell blocks, I was surprised to see the familiarity Lieutenant Crittendon had with the inmates.

“Hey, hey brother man,” the lieutenant said jocularly to an inmate as we passed by.

“How you doin’ Sir,” was the reply. It sounded surprisingly sincere.

I wondered on the way to the prison whether Deacon Salinger shared his unusual last name with Pierre or J.D., the novelist. I discovered his brother is former Kennedy Press Secretary, Pierre Salinger.

“Don’t print that,” the Deacon said, “I shouldn’t live off his name.”

I told him I’d print it anyway.

Walking through the yard with Deacon Salinger, his softness and humility was immediately evident. He gave me a hint as to why he feels called and can perform this difficult ministry.

“I had a huge history of alcohol abuse and that’s one of the reasons I can identify with these guys,” he said.

Raised in San Francisco and ordained a Deacon in 1999, the 72-year-old Salinger has been involved in prison ministry since 1990. “This ministry literally called me to the diaconate,” he said. “This ministry is about bringing God’s message of unconditional love. With God’s mercy, we can come to a place of recognizing our own value.”

We went past the education building, where prisoners can earn up to a bachelor’s degree, and into a large covered courtyard, where about a hundred men were waiting in double file to enter the cafeteria. Others are milling about in the courtyard. I was a little nervous about walking through the courtyard with, apparently, so few guards about.

Full stop. The prison alarm goes off. All the prisoners sit down. I started second guessing myself on signing that waiver. “It happens three or four times a day,” the deacon explained, “It’s usually nothing.”

We walked over to a long bench where men were sitting. A young man stood up and we greeted him. He was very excited to see Deacon Salinger. The deacon spoke to him for a bit and then asked him if he would do an interview and have his picture taken. He made a humble smile, shook his head “no” and sat down again.

Through the yard, up through stairways and corridors into “Badger” block. I only found out later from Ray McKeon that “Badger” is where the worst of the men in orange are kept. “Vernell did you a big favor, I’m not even allowed in there,” he said.

As we entered the cell block we passed a line of men. Vernell said they were in line for their medication. “We’ve got paranoid schizophrenics, manic depressives and all sorts of conditions here,” he said.

I wasn’t paying much attention, because a huge man in orange pants and no shirt with an elaborate tattoo covering his entire torso (and probably more) stopped me and demanded I take his picture. Accompanied by an unarmed lieutenant and a chaplain, I was in an accommodating mood. He squatted down for the best view and I took his picture.

On the second level of the block, we ran into Rustico, a mild looking, middle age man. He went to the deacon and expressed his shock over the terrorist attacks on the East Coast. “Will you pray with me for the victims and their families,” the deacon said.

They prayed together and then the deacon gave him communion. Rustico moved close to the deacon and started talking in muted tones. He obviously had something personal to discuss, so I moved away.

Along the way of double occupancy, six by nine cells, we stopped and Deacon Salinger told me he wanted to introduce me to a man who has really turned around his life.

“Jack, this is Stan,” he said.

I couldn’t see Stan. The cell block is dark. In addition to black bars, the cells are covered with a black wire mesh, so the inmates can’t stretch their arms outside. A hand appears through an opening where things can be passed back and forth.

“Pleased to meet you, Jack,” he said. I shake his hand. As my eyes adjust, I can barely make out the figure of a tall, young man dressed in white boxers.

We chat for a while and Stan explains that his visits with Deacon Salinger have made a difference, “a lot, in a good way.”

“Understanding is a gift to me from Him, from the Lord. His realness has put me back where I’m supposed to be,” Stan said.

Deacon Salinger told me when he first met Stan, he didn’t think Stan was going to make it. With Stan’s apparent turnaround the deacon told him, “You have the ability to help an awful lot of men. And you have.”

I ask him skeptically if he thinks he has helped other men in prison.

“They ain’t told me that,” Stan said.

“Tell Jack your sentence,” the deacon said.

“Three life terms,” Stan said.

I’ve always assumed that men who “find Jesus” in prison are making a phony ploy for mercy and good behavior to get out early. But this young man is never going to get out no matter what he does.

His sincerity was palpable.

I asked the deacon to get the guard to let Stan out so I could take a picture of the two of them. “Let me get my clothes on,” Stan said.

While waiting alone, someone yelled “Hey you!” It didn’t register because the cell block is so loud with people yelling things between the cells and levels of the block.

“Hey you!” again, “Come over here. Talk to me!”

I walked over to a guy with a white bandana in the cell next to Stan’s. “Tell me about this terrorist stuff,” he demanded.

I told him that the World Trade Center towers were hit by two planes and collapsed. “Oh my God!” He had no idea. He wanted to hear the news from the outside, but it was clear to me that he mostly wanted some conversation.

A guard and the deacon came back and Stan was let out of his cell. I backed up all the way to the walkway railing, but I wanted to get further away for a good picture. I noticed on the opposite wall a wooden walkway covered with garbage. I asked Vernell how to get over there. He explained that only guards could go there; it’s the gun walk.

I took a picture, said goodbye to Stan and we were on our way out of the prison.

There are about 6,000 prisoners in San Quentin. I was amazed by how many of them Vernell and Deacon Salinger knew by name or at least conversed with.

As I left, Deacon Salinger was off to inform the inmate of the death of his fiancée in one of the terrorist plane crashes.

“Do you know this fellow,” I asked.

“No,” he said, “It’s not the best way to meet somebody.”

But it’s his job and he does it day in and day out.

It struck me that day, what the meaning of a penitentiary is; a place to do penance. Living in San Quentin is certainly that. But the value of that penance depends on a knowledge of God and his forgiveness; a knowledge of one’s value and the value of others; and a companion in Christ to give you strength for the journey.

Father McManus and Deacon Salinger are all that to what they call a “parish” of 6000 men.

Ed. Note - Both men are now retired from San Quentin. Santa Rita jail, mentioned as condemned, was since rebuilt.