In summary

California’s whopping $14.4 billion prison budget and the governor’s $360.6 million price tag to “transform” San Quentin into a rehabilitation center seemingly overlook the existing problems with the prison’s infrastructure. Maintenance needs topped $1.6 billion in 2021, and the issues inside are slow to improve if they do at all.

Guest Commentary written by

Kevin D. Sawyer

Kevin D. Sawyer

Kevin D. Sawyer is an award-winning incarcerated journalist and former associate editor of San Quentin News.

On each of the five floors of the west block building at San Quentin State Prison is a maintenance sheet that lists year-round problems. 

“Water leaking in cell from chase again” was written by a prisoner on a maintenance sheet on the first floor. “Sink drain needs cleaned (sic) out,” another wrote. “Wall, sink, toilet area leaking,” wrote an occupant of another cell. 

Steven Baumgartner’s toilet does not flush properly. 

“It’s been doing it ever since I’ve been here, and I’ve been here for a year,” he said. He reported it six months ago. “In fact, I was going to report it again.”

There are so many unhealthy conditions of confinement that have existed so long that they’re practically invisible to men there. Well, invisible to some.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to convert San Quentin into a rehabilitation center does not address the deplorable living conditions at the 171-year-old prison. 

The list of problems on the maintenance sheets in the west block span time periods from a few days to several weeks or even months. Some problems don’t get fixed. 

“Hot water won’t shut off – second request,” a prisoner in cell 1-W-33 wrote. 

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s whopping $14.4 billion budget and the governor’s $360.6 million price tag to turn San Quentin into a rehabilitation center has seemingly turned away from the existing problems with the prison’s infrastructure. Little has been said about the $20 million the governor promised for “various improvement projects,” but maintenance needs topped $1.6 billion in 2021.

The overcrowded prison places an excessive strain on its aging infrastructure. Each cell was originally designed to hold one prisoner. Today, most cells are doing double duty, housing two men.

It’s not easy to have work done. Harry Terry, who lives in a cell on the first floor, asked maintenance to look into a lack of hot water in his sink. He told me his toilet button sticks, too, and that he has listed the problem twice. 

“It’s been at least two or three months,” Terry said. “Now I’m just living with it.”

Correctional officers say they call maintenance “if it’s an emergency.” For everything else, an inmate building clerk collects the maintenance sheets to create a record and write a work order.

Every floor has maintenance problems. I counted 12 on the second floor; none on the third (because a new sheet had been placed there); five on the fourth floor and 10 on the fifth. The problems are wide-ranging: cells in need of paint, no hot water, lights burned out, sinks clogged, water leaks, ventilation problems and toilets clogged or having low pressure. 

Toilets present a particularly gross sanitary problem when they do not flush properly, due to problems with water pressure. 

For years, prisoners in the west block have been waiting for San Quentin to repair the leaks in the first-floor chase where standing water has been accumulating – along with dust, dirt and possibly mold from years of moisture. 

In the dining hall, we have to be cautious where we sit. We often have to look up and make sure pigeons are not ready to bomb our meals with droppings or feathers. On the walls, under a gun rail, paint has been peeling for years.

At some level, the conditions in the west block have a criminogenic effect on some of the men who live there because the underlying message received is that no one cares. 

Money will not fix these problems, though. People will.

This commentary was published in partnership with Prison Journalism Project, which publishes independent journalism by incarcerated writers and others impacted by incarceration. Sign up for Prison Journalism Project’s newsletter, or follow them on Instagram or X.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions: