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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Intimacy, Manipulation, and the Maintenance of Social Boundaries at San Quentin Prison

  • Author(s): Lindahl, Nicole;
  • et al.

San Quentin is an infamous prison in US history, the subject of myths, cautionary tales, and cable network specials. And yet ask the men living inside its walls, and they will insist San Quentin is the best place to do time in California. Beginning in the mid-1990s, San Quentin’s gates were opened to volunteers from the San Francisco Bay Area interested in providing educational and therapeutic programs. The implementation of these programs disrupted the routines and norms governing social relations within San Quentin and provided a rich window into the daily operation of the prison as it responds to pressure. In this paper, I identify and analyze three narratives which surface in the official discourse used by institutional actors to describe the prison environment and compare these narratives with observations of daily life behind San Quentin’s walls. Ultimately, I argue that in contrast to popular portrayals of prisons, which depict prisoners and officers as locked in depraved and antagonistic relationship patterns, the very structure of San Quentin, and perhaps prisons more generally, is highly conducive to the development of intimate bonds between these groups.

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