criminal justice human rights Incarceration Kevin D. Sawyer

San Quentin Is Decaying. California Has No Clear Plan to Fix It

The prison will be turned into a new-age rehabilitation center, but over $1 billion in maintenance needs are being neglected.
Outdoor plumbing facilities at San Quentin State Prison (Photo by Eddie Herena / Prison Journalism Project)

By Kevin D. Sawyer / Prison Journalism Project

On each of the five floors of the west block building at San Quentin State Prison is a maintenance sheet that lists year-round problems. 

“Water leaking in cell from chase again.” That was written by a prisoner on a maintenance sheet on the first floor. “Sink drain needs cleaned out,” another wrote. “Wall, sink, toilet area leaking,” wrote an occupant of another cell. 

Steven Baumgartner’s toilet does not flush properly. 

“It’s been doing it ever since I’ve been here, and I’ve been here for a year,” he said. He reported it six months ago. “In fact, I was going to report it again.”

There are so many unhealthy conditions of confinement that have existed so long that they’re practically invisible to men here. Well, invisible to some.

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Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to convert San Quentin into a rehabilitation center does not address the deplorable living conditions at the 171-year-old prison. 

The list of problems on the maintenance sheets in the west block span time periods from a few days to several weeks or even months. Some problems don’t get fixed. 

“Hot water won’t shut off — second request,” a prisoner in cell 1-W-33 wrote. 

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has a whopping $14.4 billion budget. And the governor has promised $360.6 million in funding to turn San Quentin into a rehabilitation center. But the state has neglected the existing problems with the prison’s infrastructure. Little has been said about the $20 million the governor promised for “various” improvement “projects,” even though the prison’s maintenance needs topped $1.6 billion in 2021.

The overcrowded prison places an excessive strain on its aging infrastructure. Each cell was originally designed to hold one prisoner. Today, most cells are doing double duty, housing two men.

It’s not easy to have work done. Harry Terry, who lives in a cell on the first floor, asked maintenance to look into a lack of hot water in his sink. He told me his toilet button sticks, too, and that he has listed the problem twice. 

“It’s been at least two or three months,” Terry said. “Now I’m just living with it.”

Corrections officers say they call maintenance “if it’s an emergency.” For everything else, an inmate building clerk collects the maintenance sheets to create a record and write a work order.

Every floor has maintenance problems. I counted 12 on the second floor; none on the third (because a new sheet had been placed there); five on the fourth floor and 10 on the fifth. The problems are wide-ranging: cells in need of paint, no hot water, lights burned out, sinks clogged, water leaks, ventilation problems and toilets clogged or having low pressure. 

Toilets present a particularly gross problem when they do not flush properly, often due to problems with water pressure. 

For years, prisoners in the west block have been waiting for San Quentin to repair the leaks in the first-floor chase where standing water has been accumulating — along with dust, dirt and possibly mold from years of moisture. 

In the dining hall, we have to be cautious where we sit. We often have to look up and make sure pigeons are not ready to bomb our meals with droppings or feathers. On the walls, under a gun rail, paint has been peeling for years.

At some level, the conditions in the west block likely have a criminogenic effect on some of the men who live there because the underlying message they receive is that no one cares. 

Money will not fix these problems, though. People will.

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Kevin D. Sawyer

Kevin D. Sawyer is a contributing editor for PJP; a member of the Society of Professional Journalists; and a former associate editor and member of the San Quentin News team that won SPJ’s 2014 James Madison Freedom of Information Award. His work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Post, California Prison Focus and others. He was a 2019 PEN American Honorable Mention in nonfiction and a 2016 recipient of The James Aronson Award for community journalism. Prior to incarceration, Sawyer worked in the telecommunications industry for 14 years. 

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