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San Quentin

Updated on November 8, 2014

San Quentin State Prison

San Quentin is California's oldest and best known correctional institution. The prison today includes a reception center for new commitments, a parole violator unit, general population units, and a minimum security work crew unit. The state's only gas chamber and death row for all male condemned inmates are located at San Quentin.

.....California Corrections Institution

There is a certain mystique surrounding San Quentin. Perhaps it is because it is the oldest California prison, operating since 1852

Tales abound from multiple famous prisoners, such as mass murderer Charles Manson, and country music legend Waylon Jennings.

The prison compound is so huge, it has its own zip code. The entire facility includes a fire department, school, and working plants for inmates who receive 'on the job' training.

While I am no fan of prison life, or gangs, or the death penalty for that matter, there is a lot of history here and I believe the story of San Quentin is a powerful one that needs to be told.

Photo above titled "Duck escaping San Quentin State Prison" by Pepino1976


A poem by Michael Finner, death row inmate at San Quentin

A Landscaper's Wish

So this is how it ends

I'm down to my last drop

I'd like to pour another splash

in my coffee cup

Thought I'd get more out of life

Than life got out of me

Don't let anybody tell you that

Forgiveness comes for free

I'm really looking forward

To seeing the other side

My life here on this earth

Has been less than an e-ticket ride

I used to work, fish, write and sing

I'd do all the things simple joy could bring

Seems as though it's all down the drain

There's nothing left but eyes of pain

I'd pray "please God, make this go away"

As though a huge bad dream

I often wake all full of sweat

In blood-curling screams

So this is how it ends

An empty iron flask

Sorrow, grief, redemption

All hide beneath my mask

Strangers staring back

A glass panoramic view

One last "good-bye"

No tears to cry

I'm someone they once knew

As I depart, one final breath

Am I finally free?

Please void my invitation

To the Devil's waltz

For a site beneath an olive tree

Oh' Blessed Silence

To help Michael Flinner's family pay for his defense, please visit

1937 Movie

"San Quentin"

Out Of The "Pen"

Into The Jaws Of Death !

San Quentin Prison Lit

A Prison Author

An article by Michael Flinner

For longer than any of us know, prisons have been a fertile setting for musicians, artists, and writers alike. Some works by prisoners have been counted among great classics in literature. Books which describe prison life inspire audiences far beyond prison walls.

Although some of the finest prison authors remain unknown, and in many cases unpublished, the country's highest courts recognize the importance of these works.

The writings primarily focus on the prison experience itself, and generally provide a testimony to both the struggles of the human spirit and the magnitude of the system of justice.

The success of several prison authors came with a price, many were eventually executed, some innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted.

It wasn't until 1968 that legislation formally took it upon themselves to abandon the concept of "first amendment death" and reinstated protection to manuscripts written by incarcerated men and women.

Different types of prison writings began to emerge, heralded as convicts found their voice, one that so many people in the outside world were willing to hear. It is the very voice of the prisoner alone, that bring their personal, intimate experiences to the world.

Destined to shape our society, the prison experience for many, is the past, the present, and the future of what their individual lives will hold.

United States, birthplace of all modern prisons some two centuries ago, has managed to transform prisons into central institiutions of society, both in influence and scale. From within this transformation, another provocative type of writing blooms, far more descriptive, disturbing, and desperate than the known prison literature of earlier periods. And unbelievably, these pieces rise to the occasion, much like their forerunners, revealing amazing creativity and perpetual strengths in humanity.

Prison journalism plays an important role for many people. Newspapers provide prisoners with information on programs like legal matters, events, health care, and articles on a vast array of issues. The overall tone of both magaine and newspaper articles, vary depending on the source, the publisher, editors, etc. These are outlets for those of us who tend to tell it like it is.

The unique thing about these outlets are the voices, much like mine, that are coming from beyond the walls of prisons throughout the United States.

We are not the voices of people who claim to be experts, or even those who once may have been in prison and now pretend as if they never were. No, we are those who often disagree amongst ourselves, the very voices of the men and women most involved and, directly feeling the effects of our incarcerations.

Our voices have been conveying some interesting messages. We have written about our desires to further our individual educations, wanting to get paid for our work, some have written about opportunities and various programs to help not only ourselves, but others, build new constructive lawful lives. Some simply want to write, much like me. My message is clear.

I've heard people say that prisoners are ignorant, don't get the big picture, and if they had any smarts at all, wouldn't be in prison.

Education and current information is undeniably the best method I know of to get people involved, to help those who are less fortunate, avoid dangerous situations.

What a cruel joke fate has bestowed upon many of us. "We're doing this for your own good, doesn't seem to work anymore."

As a Death Row inmate, you may not believe how I could have ever endorsed the Death Penalty. I once believed in the Ultimate Punishment.

Aggravating circumstances outweighing mitigating ones was no reason for me to change my view simply because it was my life in question. Obviously, the people of this great state think the world will be a better place with my death. I didn't say safer, I said better.

The thought of finally attaining a sense of tranquility after embracing death and losing the struggle, is very tempting.

Perhaps the prospect of accepting and inviting my greatest fear, death, into my life, I virtually eliminate everything that governs my fate, disconnecting me to my very existence, leaving no controls over my mind or emotions.

Such thoughts are terribly short-lived. Like many others, I've found a reason, perhaps only apparent to myself, why I must live.

Despite being well-educated about the numerous disparities in our criminal justice system, I'm constantly astonished at the depths of my plight, nearly immeasurable, the realization that I'm only here for one reason, to die.

Will I ever fully appreciate the sanctity of life as I remold myself from the wreckage that mine has become?

Clear to me after living amongst condemned men, is the myth behind the very notion that Capital Punishment serves as a deterrent to murder.

A sick sense of justice, and perhaps some emotional closure for victim's families, may be the only useful purpose one could imagine for the necessary evil in these state-sanctioned killings.

Does the Death Penalty permit living victims to venture beyond the devastation in the loss of their loved ones? In the context of the criminal justice system, with its many decision makers, American Society remains profoundly afflicted by the combined potential impact of current social and criminal justice policies regarding the imposition of death as a punishment.

Recent and ongoing revelations of the persistent fallibility of the Death Penalty have had an extraordinary impact on the public's view of Capital Punishment.

More than 600 men and women await execution here in California, the largest Death Row in the nation. California's rate of serious errors in Death Penalty cases is far above the national average, where, two out of three convictions are overturned on appeal, primarily because of serious errors by defense attorneys or because of police and prosecutorial misconduct.

Even more disturbing is the Federal Habeas Corpus Reform Act, the law which expedites the Death Penalty process and, ironically as a result, reduces the very opportunity that courts have to look for these errors, thus exacerbating an already unfair set of guidelines and regulations.

Throughout the nation, politicans are scrambling for ways to restore faith in a broken system. Having successfully convinced the public for so long that the Death Penalty was an effective crime-fighting instrument, these same politicians are now trying to discern how to respond to the dramatic change in public attitude.

The ever lonely struggle against the Death Penalty appears to have turned a corner. As the public continues to lose faith in a flawed and unjust system, it becomes our responsibility to continue exposing its fallibility and to press toward alternatives.

Concerns regarding fairness and the huge risk of executing the innocent has led the way into discussions about imposition of a moratorium on executions in this state.

The Federal government and at least 11 other states are conducting thorough reviews of their own systems. Moratorium legislation of some type or another remains pending in some 18 states and, Federal legislation seeking a moratorium or other reforms have been proposed in the United States Congress.

It is the moral integrity which continues to be on the line in this nation as each and every execution under our current system tests our shared commitment to due process and equality under the law.

So many problems of unfairness and violations of said due process are inherent in the administration of the Death Penalty. Because of this, one must oppose Capital Punishment.

Even if you're not categorically opposed, you may still share the concern about fundamental fairness.

Whether you like it or not, it is a proven fact that innocent people have been put to death, and each execution amid so many questions of simple fairness, creates a tremendous crisis that demands immediate attention.

I oppose the Death Penalty but, I want you to make up your own mind.

Even if I'm unable to convice you that the Death Penalty should be abolished, I hope that you will take the time to become informed and consider helping me address the severity of perpetual problems associated with Capital Punishment.

When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

This is why I write. The voice. I'm a prison author.

Michael Flinner currently resides on Death Row at San Quentin State Prison in California.

Michael Flinner

CDC V-30064

San Quentin State Prison

San Quentin, CA 94964


© by Michael Flinner

San Quentin State Prison Viewer Photo

San Quentin State Prison Viewer Photo
San Quentin State Prison Viewer Photo

Weigh in on the Death Penalty - Is it more punishment to face a life behind bars?

Some San Quentin inmates say the Death Penalty would be easier to face than a life spent in prison.

What do you think about the death penalty?

The Dealth Penalty - Do you support it or not?

See results

Overview of Prison Grounds

Overview of Prison Grounds
Overview of Prison Grounds

Steamer Landing - Road from Ship to Shore

The discovery of gold meant a great influx of new people to the California. Unfortunately, including a number of unsavory people, Many of whom would eventually require incarceration. These circumstances led to the creation of one of the most famous prisons in the nation.

Before a permanent facility was erected, convicts were housed on prison ships.

What's your take on San Quentin?

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    • MJSchrader profile image


      7 years ago

      Thank you KK for a great lens!

    • MJSchrader profile image


      7 years ago

      Thank you KK for a great lens!

    • kateloving profile image

      Kate Loving Shenk 

      8 years ago from Lancaster PA

      I am somewhat obsessed with prison reform. I enjoyed this lens!!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      NewsCollective offers exciting new approaches to sourcing content online bringing together Journalists and Publishers worldwide, empowering them to create, share, aggregate, publish and transact. For more details log onto and our blog


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