If the first post of an anthology is supposed to bear weight then I shall face this expectation head on – in fact I’ll insist upon it. San Quentin was the first American prison I visited. In the summer of 2004, I conducted research at the San Quentin Prison Museum (SQPM), analyzed the exhibits and evaluated its predominant narrative. I found, as with many small museums it suffered from the vagaries of volunteer staffing, poor marketing and unreliable access. Above all, however, the SQPM’s biggest failure was that it employed a historical narrative that ended abruptly in the early 70s and omitted contemporary issues of the California prison system. It was a particularly noticeable failure given the number of problematic issues faced by the CDCR – overcrowding, under-staffing, inadequate health services, dilapidated buildings – and especially noticeable as the named problems were severe-to-acute at San Quentin prison.
The piecemeal SQPM collection was brought together by an appeal and a spirited drive that saw former prison employees alongside local enthusiasts donating artifacts they had acquired in times past. The museum’s narrative ends in approximately 1971 – a year in San Quentin’s history widely considered as its most traumatic. Racial tensions and new variations of Marxism, both inside and outside the walls, were growing and divining credence among disparate groups. It wasn’t so much that the prison, as an apparatus of state, was being called into question; more that the militant Black Panthers, with their cohesive social critique of modern America, led the questioning.
White America didn’t know where to position itself. This was revolution in its most-feared guise and, in so being, paralysed many Americans who were unable to objectively judge the Black Panthers’ arguments.
On the 21st August, an infamous day at San Quentin, George Jackson took over his tier of the adjustment center and attempted an armed escape. The escape failed and he was one of six people who died. The only SQPM artifact to speak of this event was a rifle mounted as centerpiece in a wall-display of weaponry.
This same rifle was discharged by a former prison guard, from the hip, along a tier of cells during the insurrection. It was shot indiscriminately as the guard ran the length of the tier. Of course, the museum label beneath the semi-automatic weapon doesn’t volunteer this information.
The interim president of the San Quentin Prison Museum Association in 2004 was Vernell Crittendon. In mid 2007, Darcy Padilla, a freelance San Francisco based photographer, went to photograph Vernell on his daily duties. The images were to accompany an article by Tad Friend entitled Dean of Death Row in the July issue of The New Yorker. The article does a remarkable job of describing Vernell’s astounding work history, heavy responsibilities, personal amiability and curious (but not fallacious) role-playing. Padilla’s pictures were to accompany Friend’s article, which was and is the most thorough examination of Vernell’s personality, motives and politic. It was a timely piece of journalism as retirement for “Mr San Quentin” approached.
Vernell gave me access to the museum and invited me to tour the prison. He was the only staff member at San Quentin I had any meaningful interaction with, but he played out his multiple roles with aplomb. Vernell was a personal guide and shopkeeper at the museum, historian on the prison-yard, eye witness in the gas chamber, and state department mouthpiece throughout. The first 250 words of my M.A. thesis relied on Vernell as the segue into the issues at, and description of, both the museum and the prison;
Lieutenant Crittendon has thrived as the public relations officer of San Quentin Prison. He is poised, gregarious, proud of office and a great raconteur. His enthusiasm for facts, years and tales of San Quentin blur the man and employee – if a distinction was necessary – and he confesses a long-standing predilection for history.
Vernell is familiar and distant simultaneously. He can always dictate the terms of an exchange but in so doing somehow doesn’t insult his company. Tad Friend, for the New Yorker, expertly summarized how Vernell navigates discussion and parries unwelcome inquiries;
Vernell excels at dispensing just enough information to satisfy reporters, and his sonorous locutions and forbearing gravity discourage further inquiry.
I found myself comforted (never duped) by Vernell’s version of events even when I didn’t believe his words 100%. I always felt that Vernell had said much more by what he excluded and it was my privilege to have witnessed his reticence.
Tad Friend’s economical ten page summary of Lt. Crittendon’s career is, in my opinion, the best reflection of a complex man with shrouded emotions and conflicting duties you are likely to find. What then of Padilla’s task to illustrate the man and the article? She does a fine job. From the evidence of the images on her website (only one of which was used for the article) she had only one window of opportunity on one day to capture her shots. I suspect she shadowed Vernell’s work for a little over an hour for the assignment. Already the odds were stacked against Padilla. We cannot know how well she and Vernell were acquainted beforehand, but prior acquaintance doesn’t necessarily mean an easier time capturing the most faithfully depicting portrait. It is fair to say, however, if Padilla had worked within the walls at San Quentin prison before (which is likely) she certainly knew Vernell. Furthermore, in the interests of another’s professional duties, Vernell was always accommodating.
Judging from the few clues in her principled, varied and continuing series AIDS in Prison, the image below could be from San Quentin. These background hills, however, could as easily be Vacaville or Tracy’s surrounding topography.
Back to San Quentin. Padilla’s San Quentin series captures the solitude of the yard; Vernell is alone in many images. During the days at many prisons the yards are empty. If they are not empty they are more likely being used as necessary routes for groups of traversing prisoners rather than ‘free’ time. When the prisoners are at recreation in the yard (a privilege that differs facility to facility), the staff is at distance unless addressing particular inmate inquiries or directing a group of inmates to their next secure location. Any visitors in the yard at this time (which I have been in San Quentin) are usually following closely the instructions of the guards. Regardless of reasons for being in San Quentin, the slowness of movement from one area to another is characteristic of all people’s experiences. Keys, locks, keys, calls, response, keys, locks, keys.
It is likely Vernell had to hunt out some activity involving inmates to vary the picture content. There is a chronic lack of rehabilitative and counseling programs throughout the stretched CDCR, but in reality, if there is one prison that is trying to counter this trend, it is San Quentin by means of its atypically large pool of Bay Area volunteers, the committed efforts of the Prison University Project (San Quentin is the only state prison that offers a college degree program) and not least the efforts of Vernell himself, “Crittendon helped oversee inmate self-help programs like No More Tears and the Vietnam Veterans Group, and was an adviser to many others. Every other Friday, as the centerpiece of a program called Real Choices, which tries to set wayward urban kids on responsible paths, [Vernell] would escort a group of ten-to-eighteen-year-olds into the prison to meet lifers, who tried to talk some sense into them.”
When Vernell is not photographed alone on the yard (look at the reflection of only him and Padilla in the fish eye mirror) he is taking a back stage to the activities of others. Vernell would not want to interfere in these rare interactions between prisoners and visitors from the outside. Vernell’s approach was typical of a San Quentin staff member; constant observation, constant vigilance and a silent restraint. I rationalized that this was simply a sensible approach – minimize ones own noise and be best positioned to pick up on the small signals/noises around. Words and gesture is used with strict efficiency at San Quentin.
Vernell’s open hand gestures, lumbering gait, deliberate pauses and dramatic referrals to the contents of his satchel are all part of an ensemble he has developed to impose the pace of an interaction and, I believe, to reassure the inmate. He promoted from the ranks of prison guard a long time ago, and so had the benefit of a different type of relationship with the prisoners. He was no longer the enforcer – in truth, he was often the only chance a prisoner had to negotiate a desired variation from system norms. Vernell never did favours per se but he could always see any request, however small, on its own merits. Now he is retired. His formal San Quentin spokesman duties went to his successor Eric Messick. Vernell self-adopted responsibilities were diluted by other staff and may have disappeared altogether. Padilla’s photographs do well to reflect a man carrying out his most unextraordinary job tasks. I think Vernell may be happy that the world has a few images of him to counter those charged press images of him outside the East-gate on the night of an execution.