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Chico State's independent student newspaper

The Orion

Chico State's independent student newspaper

The Orion

Chico State's independent student newspaper

The Orion

Students learn about life behind bars

Photograph courtesy of Connor Spiegelman Criminal justice students pose outside the prison.
Photograph courtesy of Connor Spiegelman
Criminal justice students pose outside the prison.

A group of Chico State students spent their Friday talking to convicts in a jail—and they liked it.

The Community Legal Information Center sent students from the Penal Law Project to visit San Quentin State Prison. The prison is located along the coast, 12 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, adjacent to multi-million dollar homes.

The 12 student interns for the project work about 8 hours a week responding to letters from inmates requesting legal information.

San Quentin is the only prison in California that has death row, and is the oldest prison in California, built by inmates in 1852. It houses about 42,000 inmates today.

The group spoke with five inmates, including a man convicted of first-degree murder.

The offenders stood about 15 feet from the students, not constrained behind bars, said Chris Golden, a senior criminal justice major. One prison guard stood by.

Golden was surprised by how friendly the prisoners were with the guards.

“They were all really nice,” Golden said. “They made a lot of jokes.”

The prisoners weren’t as hostile as he expected.

“I wasn’t uncomfortable at all actually,” he said. “It seemed like they just wanted to enjoy the nice weather.”

The CLIC students asked the prisoners questions that went unanswered, Golden said.

“They didn’t tell us much about what they did to get in to get in there,” he said. “They seemed like they wanted to put their past behind them.

On the tour, students got to see the gas chamber, which is no longer in use, that once held Charles Manson, Golden said.

Something that stood out to Golden from the trip was art on the walls in the mess hall.

Giant red murals of the history of California that were painted by an inmate many years ago remain, he said. The inmate who created them went on to work for Disney Channel and the Discovery Channel is airing an episode about the artist soon.

Visiting the prison didn’t scare Golden away from his dreams of becoming a police officer or federal agent.

“When I join the force, now I know what their lives will be like after I arrest them,” he said.

Other students wanted to see what the people they communicate with were like.

“We deal with them so it’s good to know the conditions they have and actually see it,” said Ahlam Shaikh, a senior criminal justice major.

The prison was very high-security and had strict rules for the visitors.

“We can’t wear any colors that are gang-affiliated,” she said. “We can’t bring anything but our wallets, and we can’t wear jewelry.”

The directors for the Penal Law Project choose which prison to take students to each semester, CLIC Administrative Director Lauren Crane said.

Last semester when she was co-director, they went to New Folsom Prison.

“It is an eye-opening experience,” she said. “They need to see their clients’ living conditions. People don’t really talk about prisons.”

The students must work 120 hours in the semester to complete their internships, she said. They answer a lot of mail regarding the AB 109, which Governor Jerry Brown passed into law in 2011.

The bill released many state prisoners to county jails or out on supervised release, in an effort to release overcrowding in prisons.


Risa Johnson can be reached at [email protected] or @risapisa on Twitter.

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