George (The Bishop’s Folly, 2014, etc.) offers a memoir about his time spent working at an infamous California prison.
In 1971, a failed escape attempt at San Quentin State Prison in California resulted in violence and, later, a trial for six suspects known as the San Quentin Six. The events of that day were nothing short of brutal and included multiple deaths; as inmates attacked guards with crude weapons, their goal was often to cut their adversaries’ arteries. At the time of the escape attempt, the author worked at the Sierra Conservation Center, a minimum security facility in Sonora. Later, after he transferred to San Quentin, he had firsthand contact with the San Quentin Six, among other famous criminals, including Charles Manson. George takes readers on a journey that includes a variety of hardened criminals (including weapon-toting members of the Aryan Brotherhood and a man with the unfortunate nickname of “Pincushion”) and never questions the severity of prison life. The author strikes a good balance throughout, showing contempt for both unrepentant murderers and their often inhumane conditions, and he comes across as a man who did his best to stay human and do his job, despite the unthinkable characters around him. Some conclusions seem obvious (e.g., “A prisoner, one who has been locked up for ten years, does not think like a normal person”). However, many events prove the old adage of truth being stranger than fiction, as when counterculture figure Ram Dass came to the prison to lead a meditation “with full beard, cheerfully serene smiles and wearing light, gauzy Yoga attire.” An ending chapter on Manson (and a somewhat puzzling poem about him) feels tacked on, but at less than 200 pages, the book is a highly readable account of one man’s unique experience in a strange, often terrifying place.
A novel glimpse behind the scenes of an incarceration facility during a radical period in American history.