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Louis' lock-in

Louis Theroux in San Quentin prison

When Louis Theroux went to San Quentin prison he found a bizarre self-contained society where "straight" men fall in love, gangs are divided along strict racial lines and an inmate can be assaulted for the most minor mistake.

On a sunny day last summer I passed through a metal detector, entered a portcullis-like gate (called a "sally port") and walked into one of America's oldest and most notorious prisons, San Quentin, in California.

I was chaperoned by one of the guards - for security purposes - not to mention a three-person camera crew - for documentary purposes. But I still had butterflies in my stomach.

I'd be doing a 10-day "hitch" for my programme. The idea was to get a glimpse inside the strange, secret world of hardened offenders and the lives they lead "inside".

I'd been warned about the risks involved: we were to stay together as a group at all times; no wandering off. If one of the team had to use a toilet, we would all wait.

Louis Theroux in San Quentin prison
Gangs are divided along racial grounds
Among the odd requests was that I couldn't wear blue - no jeans, no denim shirts - because it was too similar to the uniforms of the lifers. In prison, the clear distinction between the people doing time and those just visiting is paramount - assuming you want to make it out alive.

Never having been to prison before I had various preconceptions, most of them taken from films and books. I had vague ideas about gangs, prison rape, assaults on guards, guys chalking up their time on their cell wall.

Mainly I was expecting a grim and depressing world of people without hope. Over the next few days some of these preconceptions were confirmed - and more of them were challenged.

Going in, the first thing that strikes you is the strangeness of the physical environment. Much of San Quentin was built in the mid-19th Century and it's a little like being in a medieval-walled town. There are interconnected yards, in the largest there is a baseball diamond and a pristine tennis court. Overlooking them are huge warehouse-like brick buildings full of cells.

Through doorways you see guys in blue sitting at desks taking classes, playing instruments, reading in a library. In the yard men are working out doing pull-ups or sitting round. Then in the background - a little surreally - prisoners in handcuffs are being escorted to hearings. Above, in a continuous ribbon around the prison walls, is the gun rail, staffed at all times by armed guards.

'Battery chickens'

In a way, the appearance of San Quentin is slightly misleading. In the open areas it feels fairly relaxed, but that's because you're only seeing the most trusted prisoners. The vast majority of the inmates are locked away, spending up to 23 hours a day in their cells - as you realise when you walk into one of the cell blocks.

In terms of scale and the way they're organised, walking into one is a little like walking into a barn full of battery chickens. The cells are arranged in long rows on metal tiers, going up five levels. There is constant noise, especially if they spy a camera crew.

Initially I'd been worried it might be a problem that prisoners wouldn't want to speak to me. The reverse was the case. They shout and ask if we were from Lock-Up, a US cable show. "Man, I'll give you a great interview."

San Quentin prison
The prison was built in the mid-19th Century
We spent the first few days walking around the different sections, grabbing time with whoever caught our eye. In Carson section - San Quentin's "hole" for persistently unruly prisoners - I met some of the most hardened criminals.

These included a character named Playboy Nolan, who was being disciplined for repeatedly "gassing" officers - spraying them with his urine as they walked past his cell. Also David Silva who, with a twinkle in his eye, described using "torture tactics" on his victims during burglaries.

In Alpine section, which houses "PC" prisoners - those in protective custody because they're at risk of attack from other inmates - I met some of the ex-gang members who are now targets themselves. Also, the sex offenders who live in fear of their lives for being viewed as the lowest of the low by other inmates.

Where I could, I got interviews with active gang members, who described their motivations for being part of the gang culture and explained some of the arcane rules of taking part.

'Racial loyalty'

The rules of the gangs were some of the strangest things I heard in prison. The gangs are organised racially - white, black, Hispanic - though there are also two very large and opposed Hispanic groups, the Northerners and Southerners.

Johnny Cash
San Quentin, I hate every inch of you
You've cut me and have scarred me thru an' thru

Johnny Cash's San Quentin
Mostly, it's about having physical protection from fellow gang members and being provided for. In return, naturally, you're expected to do their bidding, which chiefly seems to mean assaulting whoever your higher-ups tell you to.

The gangs create camaraderie through racial loyalty, in a quite bizarre way. A white skinhead gang member - part of the Barbarian Brotherhood - casually told me he'd have to beat me up if he saw me taking food or cadging a smoke from a person of another race.

I met another skinhead who'd left his gang because they'd asked him to stab his cellmate for, get this, borrowing a black man's dominoes.

As time passed what I began to see was how being excluded from the outside world had led to new and unlikely kinds of relationship growing up on the inside. I'd known going in that sex went on between prisoners and that guys who on the outside were straight had gay sex for lack of female companionship.

Louis Theroux in San Quentin prison
Theroux spent two weeks talking to inmates
What I hadn't realised was how consuming these relationships could become. I met Rob, a Californian in his 30s and doing time for a laundry list of driving and drug offences. Straight all his life, he'd been assigned a cell with an older transsexual called Debra and ended up falling in love with her.

Rob was so into Debra he was convinced the relationship would keep going when they were both released. Debra seemed a little more realistic. Just as I'd got my head round this I met Chris Mitts, a gay, Jewish car thief in his 20s, who'd just started a relationship with a straight ex-neo-Nazi gang member, who was married with kids.

With the strange warmth of the relationships between the inmates and their surprising receptiveness to us, it was easy to get lulled into a false sense of security. Most of the time, after my first couple of days at the prison, I stopped thinking about my safety.

'Heckles and shouts'

But a couple of times a day an alarm would go off all over the prison, usually meaning a fight had broken out or that officers were having trouble getting prisoners into the cells. Wherever they were, all the prisoners had to lie down, and the atmosphere would thicken and I'd be reminded where I was and what the risks were.

On one of my last days, I was in a small and overcrowded yard with the inmates of Carson section. There'd been a little debate over whether it was safe for us, given the number of people that were out but we went ahead. We wandered about chatting to inmates and I found myself in a little area which seemed to be given over to sex offenders.

I was talking to one of the guys, trying to get him to tell me what he was in for, when the alarm sounded. Even my chaperone looked nervous as he gave us the signal to get out. As we picked our way through the prisoners, all of them now lying down on the ground, there were heckles and shouts of abuse directed at us.

What had seemed a relatively benign environment now felt scary and dangerous, and I was relieved when we all made it safely back outside the yard. A few days later I left for good, still not quite believing the strangeness of San Quentin's world-within-a-world and very grateful that I at least had the option of going home.

Louis Theroux: Behind Bars will be broadcast on Sunday 15 June at 2200 BST on BBC Two.
[Originally broadcast on 13 January, 2008.]


Below is a selection of your comments.

I did a stretch in SQ a few years ago. All in all, not as horrible a place as one would think. Movies exaggerate and distort. I learned the score early on and taught myself Spanish -- got me out of many a tight spot, and pretty soon the gangs looked to me as a kind of neutral party. Once you make it clear you won't do hits and you won't bend over for anyone, you're left alone, and if you can prove that you're useful, you're respected. Two things can get one by in SQ: either by encasing oneself in the most impenetrable artificial solitude, something akin to psychosis -- or one earns a little respect.
Henry W, Portland, OR

I'm endlessly fascinated by how many amazing stories there are in the world that Louis and his team explore. Can't wait to watch his latest programme.
Martin, Bristol

I live round the corner from the historic 'Clink' where Dickens' father was incarcerated; one does not have to be a criminologist to understand that locking up any animal for extraordinarily long periods does little good to anyone in society whether a zoo or a prison. Maybe this programme would show that this is not a meaningful means of prevention nor an effective "therapy" of offenders one and all. Looking forward to it.
Nicholas Xenakis, Borough, Southwark, London, England

If a person in prison is able to racially segregate the prisoners by races, then there is something wrong with the type of incarceration. Maybe we should have the Government of Singapore run our prison system on contract, they know how to put prisoners in place and keep them behaving within norms of society.
Chandru Narayan, USA

The white, skinhead gang you are referring to in this article is the Aryan brotherhood, not the Barbarian Brotherhood. The Aryan Brotherhood is one of the most organized, ruthless prison gangs in the U.S. Prison system.
Christian Tobe, Alexandria, VA

It is common of all prisons that they are a world inside a world. From the outside it looks virtual, but when you are in it, believe me it is real. Prison is a great leveller. It is irrelevant what your background or education is. A con is a con (except the sex offenders). This leads to friendships with types you might not even meet, never mind like on the outside.
Paul Roberts, London

It was interesting to note Mr Theroux's dwelling upon the nineteenth-century origins of the physical San Quentin; doing so immediately brings to mind the fictional and common-lore criminals of the books and TV shows of all of our younger days. This was, no doubt, his intention. But the parallels do not stop there. The somewhat barbaric pass-time of visiting prisons and asylums by Victorian Brits, and most likely their trans-Atlantic counterparts, seems quite sickening to modern sensibilities. Indeed, my initial reaction to this news item was that Theroux's programme was a little too close to my great-grandparents' generation's apparent taste for leering at the "others" from the safety of middle-class conformity. That was, as I said, my initial reaction. It didn't stop me reading the article with great interest; neither will it stop me making sure I watch the next of Theroux's painfully compelling documentaries. I am morally repelled, and yet eager to scour the TV screen in the hope of seeing the real "hardened criminals" from the security of my martini-mixing lounge. We are proud of our moral "advancement," or so it would seem, but we actually change very little. The nineteenth century doesn't really seem too far away at all ....
Matthew, Durham, UK

I lived in Marin County for a number of years and had occasion to visit San Quentin a few times. It is another world where the daily routine is survival. However the individuals who occupy that world are not in there because they have dandruff ! Perhaps while there Louis should have looked into the Delancy Street project a short car ride from San Quentin where he would have found another world that embraces similar individuals but which continually turns them back into society as functional members who contribute positively to their own future and that of society's and the amazing thing is that they do it themselves with no government funding or involvement. Now that's worth some time and a camera crew we in this country could learn a lot.
Bill Mitchell, Lennoxtown. Scotland

...and we wonder why people come out of jail and commit crimes again and again. The state of the US is clear - the colour of your skin does seem to matter more so over there than in the UK. Divides are being placed in towns and cities across the countries based on colour and nationality. Sadly I see the US way of life steadily heading our way!
Amit Kalra, Hitchin

I think Louis and his whole style of interviewing is great. Although he is not on TV as much as I would like, maybe that is part of the attraction when watching his programmes; What will he say, what will be the reaction etc. Can't wait to watch his latest offering. I have seen programmes on S.Q before and it doesn't look like a very 'nice' place to be, so looking forward to seeing what they make of Louis and vice versa.
Dave Montgomery, Poole

A well-written account and appearing to be un-hyped. However, I would have been interested in hearing from the guards as well. Is their divide as great, are they emotionally or psychologically affected by the location, inmates and range of crimes? Perhaps it is as hard for them as it is for the inmates - who deserve it if guilty? Matthew Heath
Matthew Heath, Stourbridge, West Midlands

Have to say that Louis is probably one of the best at this sort of thing. I haven't watched it yet but can imagine how Louis will ask questions that I wouldn't. He is a very brave or more likely very stupid. But have to give him credit.
Leon Bailey, London, UK

Isn't it amazing how in extreme situations, human beings learn to get by and cope in a variety of ways? What I find interesting is that the relationships described are built on some of our most human fundamentals: on our drive for sex, and groups based on race. After all, this simplistic system makes it immediately and abundantly clear who is friend and who is foe - all you have to do is look. Congratulations to Louis, his crew and the BBC for daring to bring us such interesting and informative viewing.
Debra, Cupar, Scotland

I remember visiting San Quentin as a member of a chess club in the 1960's. No doubt the prison population was different at that time. We never felt threatened. They were good players and we lost the match. Plenty of time to study the gambits.
A Stewart, Gulf Shores, Alabama

As usual Louis has hit on another great idea! I will look forward to his classic act were he gets the interviewees to tell him everything, while he takes the Mick. Smashing!
Michael White, Bangor, Northern Ireland

Very interesting, opens your eyes, makes you wonder what you would do in a similar situation
Johnny Hood, Dundee

A fascinating insight into San Quentin, but I don't think too many people will have any sympathy with the sex offenders living 'in fear of their lives'. I am looking forward to watching the programme
Ray Freeman, Paignton, UK

I can't wait to see this programme. I've never really thought about what goes on behind bars, but reading the above has made me think as a mum of 4, that these people are someone's Son, Brother, Uncle and Dad, and as well as there own issues, have to deal with day to day life in a world no-one advises you or prepares you for.
Louise , Cambridge

During my internship to America in 2005, I had the chance to visit San Quentin! It was interesting to have read your experience there, as I was able to relate. I visited the prison with my sister, and my mentor from the Federal Defender's Office, Sacramento. We noticed how the gangs were organised racially - white, black, and Hispanic! These inmates were roaming around the prison, and therefore we were also given a strict dress code and instructions. I noticed the looks in several inmates' eyes...looks of anger. They must have felt like animals in a cage and viewed us to be tourists visiting a zoo! If i was in their place...that's how i would have viewed it! Anyway...it was interesting to read someone else's experience of San Quentin!
Neha Tewari, Birmingham

What's most scary is that we have prisoners like this in the UK but not the whole of life sentences that the US uses to keep these men off the streets. Our 'Playboy' Nolan's or David Silva's come out again, just as nasty and vicious as the US versions.
Andy Kelly, Thornton-Cleveleys

Good job, Louis Theroux, for shining a light in such a dangerous place. I just got out of prison in Arizona and at my blog I've written about things similar to what Louis discovered at San Quentin. A transsexual I knew actually carved out his testes in prison.
Shaun, Widnes Cheshire UK

Once again, it looks like Louis has made a thought provoking, entertaining and stimulating documentary. His style is so relaxed yet he manages to get to the heart of the issue. I really look forward to watching this on Sunday- Cheers Louis!! Keep up the good work!!
Mike McGarry, Liverpool, UK

Great report from good old Louis, cant wait to see the show!
Steve Buckland, London

As a Brit living in America, it is articles and programmes like this that make me wish I could see British TV here! While "Lock Up" the show referred to is great, I would love to see this!
Debbie Friedland, Orlando, Florida USA

And your journalistic point, Mr Theroux, of this programme?
David Scheinmann, Leeds

A fascinating insight into San Quentin, but I don't think too many people will have any sympathy with the sex offenders living 'in fear of their lives'. I am looking forward to watching the programme
Ray Freeman, Paignton, UK

Should we really be encouraging the dramatisation and publicity of these offenders? Let us remember that the victims of their crimes may be watching and our first duty of respect is to them, may of whom may have lost loved ones or had their lives altered forever by these criminals. Has this occurred to Mr Theroux during his continued documentary endeavours which so far are based largely on feeding western society's morbid curiosity?
John, Edinburgh

Sounds like a thoroughly captivating programme, what I don't understand about Americans is that they believe forfeiting ones life is the ultimate penalty to be given to a prisoner. Speaking personally if I had the choice of spending the rest of my life in San Quentin or loosing my life I would prefer the latter, living if that's what you can call it every day wondering whether today might be your last must be the most frightening life anyone could have.
Andy Atkinson, Manchester

I am a big fan of Louis' documentaries, and this one sounds like another great! Will definitely be watching!
Joanne, London, UK

Did Mr Theroux mishear the name of the prison gang called the 'Aryan Brotherhood'? The 'barbarian brotherhood' is not listed at the ADL website and sounds like it may have been either a joke or a misunderstanding.
Reader,




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