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Covering San Quentin: A Behind-The-Scenes Look

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

If you didn't catch it last week, NPR's Laura Sullivan had a fascinating, ground-breaking story about life in an American prison. It was on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Laura spent two days inside California's San Quentin prison.

LAURA SULLIVAN: From the moment I walked through the two metal doors of what was once San Quentin's gymnasium, all I can see are two things: men and bunk beds from the front wall all the way to the back of the room.

SEABROOK: Laura Sullivan is with me now in the studio. Thanks for coming in, Laura.

SULLIVAN: Thank you.

SEABROOK: So as a listener, you're thinking about these things, you being in the middle of a prison, you being a woman in the middle of a men's prison, and then this alarm goes off in the prison. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of alarm)

SULLIVAN: Metcalf and every inmate in the gym dropped to their knees. I can see them scanning each other's faces. The noise is deafening. In the entire gym, I am the only person still standing.

SEABROOK: What's happening here?

SULLIVAN: When it first happened, the inmates were saying you'd better get down to the floor, too, because they're going to shoot you, and I thought there's no way I'm going to get down on the floor with 400 men, I mean, in the middle of a prison.

And it turns out that when a correctional officer somewhere in the facility feels vulnerable or threatened by something, they trigger this personal alarm that looks like an old-school garage-door opener, and the entire prison comes to a halt, and 5,000 men drop to the floor, and if they are not on the floor with their hands and knees on the floor, then the tower guards can shoot them.

SEABROOK: What's going through your head?

SULLIVAN: Well at the time, I looked over at the officer on the riser. He motioned, you know, stay up, and I just, you know, hoped for the best, that they would realize that I wasn't an inmate, disobeying this order.

I got used to the alarms, and I think a lot of the inmates are used to them, but the time where I actually thought this could be a problem was when I was in one of the housing units, where there are, you know, 500 men packed in these tiers, and they were all just coming back from lunch. So they were all out of their cells when this alarm went off, and at first, it was sort of the same.

They look at each other. They try to figure out is the problem here, but then the alarm kept going, and it kept going, and it was going on for minutes after minutes, and the tension among the officers, they started running. They were calling each other on the radios, trying to figure out what's going on because nobody could get the officer who triggered the alarm to respond, and while this is happening, all of the men who are on the floor of this unit and out in the hallway, I can see them starting to like shift very carefully over to members of their own race because everybody groups by race for safety.

And I actually had a moment where I thought well, who do I group with? You know, the officers have grouped with each other down the hall, the inmates are grouping with themselves by race, who do I got?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SULLIVAN: So should I go stand next to the officers, which is risky when you're trying to be a reporter in a prison because it makes you look like staff, and inmates are less likely to talk to you because it seems like snitching? In that case, an inmate was injured in a different wing, and so eventually the alarm ended.

SEABROOK: The most surprising thing you saw in the prison?

SULLIVAN: I'd have to say feces on the walls. I've been in a lot of prisons. Most prisons are clean. Actually, most prisons are sterile, that's what most prisons are. This prison was filthy. They have no money to keep it clean.

The inmates told me that the inmates throw the feces because they're frustrated. They're completely squished in to these tiny spaces. It's so small that they have to trade off, deciding which one of the inmates is going to stand, and now the more overcrowded the prison is, the more overcrowded it's becoming because these inmates have no programs to keep themselves out of trouble when they get out of prison, so more inmates keep coming back.

SEABROOK: NPR's Laura Sullivan. Thank you very much for speaking with us about your story.

SULLIVAN: Thank you, my pleasure.

SEABROOK: To hear this piece and to see the slideshow for Laura's story, visit npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.