West Block is one of the largest housing units in California’s San Quentin State Prison, and it’s still not big enough. Prisoners are bunked wherever there is room. Walking the wide passageway along the ground-floor cellblock, I can see a hundred double-decker, rusty-spring beds. An inmate in an orange jumpsuit sits on the edge of his bunk smoking a cigarette; another lies stretched out reading a tattered paperback; a third stares into the gray light oozing through grimy windows above. All three men are on “Broadway,” as the first floor of West Block is called, with only two toilets (converted cells), and nothing but time. As a Catholic chaplain, I aim to bring some sunshine into this terrible, depressing place.
A gaunt face, wreathed in shaggy hair, stares out at me from behind the black iron bars. Willie has that tired, dead-in-the-eyes look that tells me he has been here more that a couple of times. As it turns out, this is his seventh incarceration at the Q. He’s nervous and antsy, a little desperate. I ask where he’s from, what kind of work he does, his drug of choice. Heroin, he tells me. Like crack, heroin is especially tough to shake, and I ask if he has tried rehab.
“I’ve been saved by the blood of Jesus,” he declares.
“But this is your seventh time here, Willie,” I say, as he eyes me uneasily. “Without rehab, you won’t-”
Dennis Burke is the author of Doing Time: Finding Hope at San Quentin, to be published by Paulist Press. This article was adapted from that book. He is also the author of the novel Clerical Affairs (Xlibris).