San Quentin is beautiful from the outside. It sits on a sun-drenched point jutting out into San Francisco Bay, a short drive north from the Golden Gate Bridge, at the end of a small road overlooking the water. Right up to its front gate sit quaint houses with spectacular views, which go for around a million dollars each. The prison itself, built in the 1850s by a gang of prisoners who lived on a boat during its construction, could pass for a sturdy old college, its thick stone walls just elegant enough to give the impression that rarefied things are going on within.

True, in a sense. Despite its status as a byword for “tough prison,” San Quentin today is a place that many prisoners in California want to get into. By the appalling standards of California prisons, San Quentin is well above average, boasting an array of educational and vocational programs, many types of health counseling, and even arts and media programs that are the jewel of the state prison system. For men who have spent years working their way down from crowded, violent, scary max security facilities, San Quentin can be a destination to strive for.

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It is still a prison. It houses California’s only death row. The state has not executed anyone since it killed Clarence Ray Allen by lethal injection in 2006, but executions are set to return soon. Though death row is a cell block unto itself, its presence is constant. Whenever a death row prisoner is taken out and moved through the prison, all the other prisoners are required to turn and face the wall as they pass.

Entering San Quentin, you pass the refurbished hospital building, and shortly come upon the prison yard, a wide open space with a crowded basketball court and less crowded tennis courts, a workout area with pullup bars and a heavy bag, and a large, mostly dirt baseball field, which is patrolled at all times by a flock of vocal, dirty-looking geese. The geese can come and go as they please, but choose to stay. The yard has the look of recess at a big middle school, except all of the students are full grown men wearing dark blue pants emblazoned with “CDCR” in yellow letters. At midday it’s bathed in the bright California sun, making it all seem more tolerable than it probably is.

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In the back corner of the yard, on wooden benches next to portable trailers used as offices, I meet two inmates. Both are close to my age. Both, like me, work in journalism. Unlike me, both have been in California prisons since they were teenagers.

In Antioch, California, in late March, 2003, 18-year-old Adnan Khan and an acquaintance, Rick Page, decided to steal a small amount of weed from a man named Kevin McNutt. Khan’s original plan was simply to grab the weed and run, but it went awry, and Khan punched McNutt during a brief struggle inside McNutt’s van. Then McNutt got out of his van and Page stabbed him repeatedly, killing him. Though Khan did not commit the murder himself, his role in the incident earned him a sentence of 25 years to life under the state’s felony murder rule. California is tough on crime.

At the time of the crime, Khan had been homeless for months, sleeping in cars, parks, and friends’ couches. His parents broke up when he was young, his father disappeared, and in 2001 his mother moved away with her new husband, leaving Khan with relatives for a while before he set out on his own. That brief time as a rootless teen would be his last taste of freedom for at least a quarter of a century.

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Today, Adnan Khan is 33 years old, with the carefully razored dark hair and handsome features of a television reporter. He has a gentle, solicitous manner. He has spent his entire adult life in prison. He started his sentence at a max security, level four prison, the toughest in the state. As soon as he arrived, his cellmate told him that they were on lockdown—an indefinite period of confinement in cells that can last “anywhere from an hour to a year.” An inmate had been killed in the prison chapel. “It told me that no place is safe in this prison,” Adnan says. “So I told myself that I needed to focus on survival, not rehabilitation.”

He learned hypervigilance. He learned to be wary of the slightest sign of violence. And he learned how to cope with the emotional demands of prison, and how to try to build a simulacrum of life—leaving his former life behind. “For the next 25 years, or maybe the rest of my life, this is my world, and I have to adapt to it. It does hurt. It hurts to miss my sister’s wedding. It hurts to not meet my niece and nephew. It hurts to have family passing away and not being there. It hurts.”

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Eventually, through good behavior, Khan made his way to San Quentin. His first day there drove home the difference between this and the other prisons he had experienced. At the picnic tables in the yard, he encountered two inmates continuing a conversation they’d had in a class. “One guy asks the other guy, ‘Hey bro, what was your idea about masculinity you were talking about?’ I’m like, ‘Masculinity? What the hell are these guys talking about?’ And the other guy says, ‘Oh man, masculinity, that’s a learned behavior. Men aren’t born angry, men aren’t womanizers. Men do cry.’ I’m like, who are these guys?” At that point, another convict walked up and slammed his folder on the table in anger. Khan immediately went on high alert, only to hear the inmate exclaim, “Man, I got a B-plus on my college paper!”

The second man I speak to at San Quentin is Shadeed Wallace-Stepter, known to all as Sha. Like Khan, he is now in his mid-30s and has grown up in prison since the age of 18. He is sly, funny, and matter-of-fact. He grew up in a large extended family in the Bay area. His parents split up when he was five, and the family moved in with his aunt in Oakland, who was a drug dealer. The house was chaotic, full of drugs and people at all times. I ask him if, in prison, there are parallels to the sort of life markers that people on the outside experience in young adulthood: college, first job, first relationship, etc. He ponders for a moment. “I think about my first lockdown. The first time I saw somebody get stabbed. The first time I got a visit from somebody,” he says.

Adnan and Sha’s ability to rattle off facts about San Quentin’s extracurricular programs—the yoga classes, the drama classes, the sports leagues, the group therapy that mines traumatic experiences of the past—with the practiced smoothness of tour guides make them both perfect ambassadors for the possibility of rehabilitation. They have found their calling in the form of “First Watch,” a program that allows them and other inmates to create polished works of video journalism about life inside San Quentin. It is fair to say that these works represent some of the most well-informed prison journalism in America today. (First Watch began as a project of the nonprofit initiative #cut50, but Sha and Adnan have since helped start a new group called Re:store Justice, focused on criminal justice issues in California.)

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On the day that we visited, Adnan and Sha, along with a cameraman, were filming a new segment called “Cellfies”—a prison version of “MTV Cribs,” in which an inmate shows off his cell and its many customizations. It is the sort of segment that strikes the high-low balance of prison life, the mundane and even funny day-to-day realities that persist in the midst of a grim institutional setting. “When it comes to prison, we’re not just in here stabbing each other. We’re not raping each other,” says Sha. “The majority of us are just regular guys doing regular stuff, waiting for the opportunity to get out of here.”

For the inmate journalists, filming is no easy task. They must scrupulously schedule every interview and be accompanied by a prison staff member wherever they go. Though Adnan had been in San Quentin for years, the “Cellfies” segment was the first time he had ever set foot in that particular cell block. The cell was located several tiers high, on the “bay side” of the facility—the only place in the entire prison with a view of the water, which filtered in dimly through long, dirty vertical windows. The highest tier, topped by a fence and razor wire, was about 20 feet below the roof. On the first floor not far from the entrance was a desk where the C.O.’s congregated, like any bored workers in the middle of a long shift. Their area was surrounded by a three foot wide painted yellow buffer reading “OUT OF BOUNDS.” Against the wall were small, individual cages made of fencing, where prisoners are placed if they do something wrong. Each tier consisted of a long row of 4-by-9 foot cells, each holding a pair of steel bunk beds and a desk, sink and toilet. The cells are shockingly small; a man lying on the bed could easily reach his arm out and touch the opposite wall.

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Each cell on the tier is identified by a two digit number painted next to the door. Each cell has a sliding door, each side divided into five sections by four horizontal bars. Our little film crew crowded along the narrow catwalk in front of a cell inhabited by an inmate named Travis, a wonderful lesson in how to maximize space. Shoes hung on the front bars in clear plastic bags. A shelf in the back was neatly lined with criminal justice textbooks. A fan was mounted on the wall. Though most cell floors are painted black, Travis had his done in an enchanting marbled shade of emerald green. “I mixed up wax and paint and sponged that on,” he said. “I wanted a different look.” On his wall hung banners for the LA Dodgers and Oakland Raiders, drawn by hand on white shirts. Like almost every cell, his had a special prison television with clear plastic casing, so that it could be easily inspected for contraband. Everything was exceedingly tidy.

So many acquaintances stopped to greet Adnan that he felt the need to clarify: “He’s saying ‘hey, con.’ Like convict. Not ‘hey, Khan.’” One of those acquaintances was sitting in a breezeway between buildings, in the standard-issue heavy blue pants and blue cloth jacket. He had grey hair and a beard. Like Adnan and Sha, he had been convicted when he was teenager. He had been in San Quentin since 1969. “This man’s a legend,” said another prisoner. The man just nodded. He didn’t want to give his name.

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After the filming wrapped up, and the equipment had been deposited in a back room for safekeeping, we all walked out towards San Quentin’s exit. The sun was still shining. The breeze was blowing in off the unseen bay. When we reached the front courtyard, we came to a bright yellow line painted on the ground. At that line, all of the inmates stopped. The outside journalists walked on, and the prison journalists turned and went back in.


Video Shot, Produced and Edited by Myra Iqbal. “Cellfie” excerpts courtesy of First Watch.