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A Review of Chicano Prisoners: The Key to San Quentin by R. Theodore Davidson

Updated on February 24, 2015

The ethnography Chicano Prisoners: The Key to San Quentin by R. Theodore Davidson delved deeply into the culture of the prisoners held at San Quentin; one of the largest prisons in the California Prison System.

The main purpose of this study was to distinguish the Chicano prisoners from the rest of the people being held at the legendary prison and the everyday lives prisoners lead and the life cycle they go through. The study is mostly focused in on that one specific subculture but it also explores subgroups within that subculture. While the main point of the study is to focus in on that one group and shed some light on the culture they live and embrace everyday, the study also picks up on quite a few other things and is highly educational in many other regards. One of the study’s main goals was to clear up misconceptions the common public have about the prison and the people it contains. It clears up all types of murky beliefs of indeterminate sentencing, how the prison came to be, the type of funding it receives annually, and the surveillance the prisoners are under. It also clearly defines the difference between an inmate and a convict which is very important to understand if you want to have any real stable knowledge on anything having to do with the prisoner culture. Before I read this ethnography there were certain things I was pretty sure I knew about prisons and the people that are kept there and I was surprised at how many misconceptions I, myself had.

Another focus of this was to give people a basic layout of the prison. Without that, it’s difficult to really visualize what you’re reading about. The way Davidson described the cells really helps you get in to where each individual prisoner lives his life every day, “The cells are 11-by-4 ½- foot reinforced concrete cubicles with 7-foot ceilings. The open end is covered by 13 steel bars which extend from the floor to the ceiling…inside the cell are found double-deck steel bunk beds, a toilet (without a toilet seat or cover), a wash basin with cold running water, two shelves across the back wall, and a light fixture on the wall opposite the beds” (Davidson 10). You can tell that Davidson wants you to see what the prisoners see and live where the prisoners live.


Davidson spared no effort when it came to really understanding the culture shock that prisoners go through when they transition from a normal freeman, to their sentencing, to becoming a new prisoner upon entry to the prison, to gaining their new prisoner identity. The main point he was trying to get across was the absolutely gargantuan cultural change these people go through. They go from being completely free to being put into an entirely different culture where they have no choice but to completely throw away the culture they’ve grown up in and lived their entire lives as a part of and learn a brand new one they have to fully embrace. This study dives in to the emotional, psychological, and often physical struggles these people go through as a result of this transitional culture shock.


The book then begins to give information on the daily schedule and routines the prisoners follow each day. It talks about when they eat, what they eat, which times of the day they’re in their cells, where they work, which times they work, and when the day ends for them. This is important because since one of the author’s main purposes was to show what the basic prisoner’s life entails this information is highly usable and necessary.

Since a lot of the study is focused in on the life cycle each prisoner faces, there was a part of the ethnography that talked about how sentencing works (when it comes to how much time they are required to serve) and parole hearings go. It talked about the criteria the people who administer the parole hearings go with and how it can be very unfair to certain prisoners, mainly Chicanos. Davidson tells about how at one point during his participant-observation study he was sitting in on a parole hearing. He watched as one prisoner was sentenced to more time because his primary language was Spanish. The prisoner was giving very short, and apparently insufficient, answers to the English-speaking parole administers.

There is a part of the study he conducted that was based on the homosexual activity that takes place in the prisons. He talks about what is and is not considered socially acceptable by each subculture within the prison. I found this part to be very interesting because while everybody knows that certain homosexual actions take place I don’t think people often really understand how many rules there are within each social clan and that there are certain norms each has to take up. This is especially true when it comes to Chicanos. In the Chicano culture machismo (an exaggerated sense of masculinity) is very important, therefore when playing into such aforementioned urges one must never take on that of the role of a woman.


Family is a group of Chicano convicts that is considered to be very macho and powerful. Family is mentioned over and over in this ethnography because it is key to understanding the Chicano prisoner culture. The activities of this group influence many things that go on inside the prison. The formation of Family came from Chicanos (inside and out of the prison system) having concerns that prisoners were being subjected to physical and mental abuse by the staff. They are basically a tight-knit group of Chicanos whose main goal is to look out for one another. Without understanding Family you really can understand relatively nothing about the Chicano culture.


The study goes into the subcultures of the prison and pulls out four categories. There are the convicts, the inmates, the hoods, and the gunsels. Each are very different and have their own culture that holds its own morals and ethics from the others. It goes into which ethnicities and races usually fit in to each category of type of prisoner. For example, African-American prisoners are usually inmates and Chicano inmates are almost always convicts.


A rather large section of this study was focused on the economy and currency the prisoners use inside the system. There are both legal and illegal types of currency prisoners use and there are both legal and illegal things said currency is used on. It talks about how inmates make legal money and how they get illegal money and what it’s used for. Motives and the ways illegal types of currency are made are also discussed.


The last thing the ethnography addresses is social control. Both sociopolitical and the power then staff has. It talks about who really has the power (when it comes to prisoners in charge) and who are just the front-men. A very intriguing thing this study talks about are the different ways the staff at the prison exercise control over the prisoners. They use both legal and technically illegal ways, they just have to look for the right loopholes.


There were times when the organization of this study didn’t make a whole lot of sense but overall as a whole it was consistent. The beginning the study was pretty broad and focused on the entirety of the prisoner life style by talking about the basic layout of the prison. Then, it started to move into talking about the life cycle of the prisoners by going into the culture shock they feel and parole hearings. The study then shifts into the different races and subcultures inside the prison; it discusses the Chicano-Black continuum which tends to shed a lot of light on the parts the follow it. The study then goes into Family and the impact Family has on the Chicano culture and the prisoner economy. The very end deals with sociopolitical control and social controls the staff uses. The author presents the data in a way that makes sense and is mostly consistent with what he’s talking about and the points he trying to get across to the reader.

From an anthropological perspective this was a great ethnography. The author used terms that the prisoners from different subcultures use to explain many different things about the culture and help you understand. The author really distinguished between the different ethnic groups to show the differences and how many subcultures there really are. He was also very careful with his wording, for example, he never called an inmate a convict or a hood a gunsels, he knew what he was talking about and made everything super clear so there was no confusion.

One reason this was such a good ethnography was before Davidson sat down to write it he went out and solved many common misconceptions people have. He also explains why it is so important not to have misconceptions about the prisoner culture. In anthropology it’s much more important to understand concepts than to just randomly memorize fickle details. Davidson does a very good job of allowing the reader to do this because he gives very specific examples from his participant-observation that make sense and help you better to understand what he’s trying to get across. I was pleased with this ethnography because it packed a lot of information from his study into a fairly short record. There were quite a few anthropological terms and concepts used in this study that made everything even clearer such as; subcultures, racial diversion, socially acceptable sexual roles, and acceptable everyday attitude and appearance. Most importantly though, this was great because there was absolutely no ethnocentrism included in this, it was strictly information. There was also no bias. He didn’t have a loved one in the system he held sympathy for and he didn’t have an axe to grind against the prison system either.In conclusion, I highly recommend reading this ethnography on the Chicano prisoners at San Quentin.

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