A Visit to San Quentin Prison

By CNN Larry King Live | June 7, 2006


LARRY KING, CNN HOST: Tonight, back behind the walls of San Quentin with prisoners who may never leave. Here death row holds some of America’s most notorious killers. What’s it like to do life in a place like this? You’re about to find out in part two of our look deep inside San Quentin like you’ve never seen it before.
It’s next on LARRY KING LIVE.

Tonight, part two of our special series. We’re in the prison courtyard at San Quentin. Right behind my guests is the adjustment center. It has the worst of the worst, the most dangerous prisoners.

Before I talk to my guests, here’s a look at this notorious prison.


KING (voice-over): Notorious and world famous, San Quentin was built by inmates in 1852. Overlooking the bay just north of San Francisco, it houses about 5,500 inmates.

Scott Peterson, the man who killed his pregnant wife Laci and unborn son Conner is on death row here. Serial killer Richard Ramirez (ph) is here too, the notorious night stalker, who terrorized Los Angeles in 1985. Another infamous San Quentin resident, Richard Alan Davis (ph), he kidnapped and murdered Polly Klaas.

All of California’s 638 male death row inmates are here, home of the state’s only death row chamber. It’s where gang founder Tookie Williams was put to death last year. Gangs (INAUDIBLE). Guards have been killed here. Killers, rapists, thieves, you’ll find them all inside San Quentin’s historic walls.


KING: This is part two of our series from San Quentin. Let’s meet our guests. They’re Bryan Smith. He was 18 when he committed the robbery/murder that got him a life sentence.

Jerry Elster was 19 when he shot and killed a man in South Central L.A., convicted of second degree murder. He spent 23 years in prison.

Alberto Losno, serving 15 to life for second degree murder, committed the crime in 1981 when he was 19. He’s been in prison for 25 years.

Al Featherstone, he served two years here at San Quentin. He was imprisoned for assault with a deadly weapon and commission of great bodily injury. His victim was his girlfriend, the attack so brutal she lost an eye. This ex-convict now works as a counselor, church leader. He ministers to prisoners in San Quentin.

And, Jeff Elkins, Jeff was with us last night. He is also convicted of murder and he’s in for life and he returns tonight.

And also returning tonight is Vernell Crittendon, the San Quentin Prison spokesman, who started here as a guard and has worked at San Quentin for almost 30 years.

Bryan, what happened? What was your crime? What happened?

BRYAN SMITH, SAN QUENTIN INMATE: Larry, 26 years ago in August of 1980 me and a couple of my so-called friends participated in an assault, a robbery, and ultimately the tragic death of a very fine and innocent young man.

I’m here as a result of a lifestyle that led to that event and I’m here as a result of the choices that I made on that day and I’ve been in prison every since I was convicted of murder/robbery.

KING: How was he killed?

SMITH: The weapon was a knife.

KING: Did you use the knife?

SMITH: No, sir.

KING: One of the other?

SMITH: Yes, one of my crime partners decided that it wasn’t man enough just to carry a knife around all summer. He decided to use that knife that night and unfortunately and tragically someone died as a result of it.

KING: But since you were there and one of the assailants you count as well?

SMITH: Yes, I was an active participant in the assault and the robbery. In California that’s considered murder.

KING: Jerry, what happened with you?

JERRY ELSTER, SAN QUENTIN PRISONER: Well, my story is like not unusual, you know, the typical guy growing up in the inner cities. I grew up amidst gangs and drugs and a lot of other negativity. There were positive things around too.

But I chose to run with that group or crowd, the negative element. And, in doing so, I got into an altercation one time with an individual and it resulted and I ended up killing that individual.

I think that a lot of young men, especially coming out of the inner cities we’re faced with issues and stuff that we’re not ready to deal with and that was pretty much my thing, what happened with me. I was…

KING: Did they catch you right away?

ELSTER: Initially I turned — I mean afterwards, two weeks I turned myself in to the law enforcement after I found out they were looking for me.

KING: You have — do you think about it all the time?

ELSTER: I think about it all the time.

KING: I mean you killed someone.

ELSTER: Well, I think about it not so much in the sense where I’m thinking of it where it beats me up. I went through a lot of stuff since I’ve been incarcerated and because of my spiritual change, which has given me hope now, I have a hope that I can take that negative and use it, I mean make it out of a positive.

And, being here at San Quentin with all their programs that gave me an opportunity to do that, so what I do is I reach out to youth, through programs like Squires (ph), No More Tears, and stuff and I know that young man, the young Jerry.

So, when I look at a youth that’s going through some of the things and faced with the same kind of confrontation that they were faced with, I’m able to provide them with the necessary tools or helping them to understand some of the confusion they’re going through.

KING: We’ll be talking a lot about what they’re doing here at San Quentin. They’re doing some extraordinary things.

We’ll also talk a lot about life inside the prison. Hopefully as we learn more about this hidden place about which we know very little, it might help prevent someone from getting here.

Alberto, what happened with you?

ALBERTO LOSNO, SAN QUENTIN PRISONER: I, myself, got caught up and lashed out. I had no experience living as far as letting you could say fad in an era that just swallowed me up and basically I followed, like many youngsters today follow and I tried to pacify groups and somehow tried to live up to their expectations of me.

KING: Following the crowd?

LOSNO: Following the crowd and the era that it was back in let’s say late ’70s, early ’80s with that low rider mentality and I got caught up trying to pacify others around me and that led up to his murder.

KING: What did you do?

LOSNO: I participated in a murder as far as let’s say a neighborhood against a neighborhood type of squabble, confrontation.

KING: Gang? LOSNO: You can label it gang, you know. That word sometimes gets really blown out of proportion but at that time, yes, it was a gang- related murder.

KING: Did you, yourself, kill someone?

LOSNO: Yes, that particular day I participated and I’m guilty for my crime.

KING: But you got 15-to-life.

LOSNO: I got 15-to-life with the possibility of parole.

KING: So you’ve been in how long?

LOSNO: Twenty-five years. Yesterday was 25 years, Larry.

KING: Ten years past the 15?


KING: Do you expect to get paroled?

LOSNO: I expect it. I see it and I confess in the name of Jesus I’m also a born again Christian.

KING: Al Featherstone, you’re no longer a prisoner, you attacked your girlfriend. What did you do?

AL FEATHERSTONE, FORMER SAN QUENTIN INMATE: It was an evening at the end of a three-day binge after using drugs and alcohol and went to the bar and started drinking and as a result of that I committed a heinous crime of which I’m remorseful today. I did my best to rectify that attitude and behavior in my lifestyle and now I’m giving back to the community.

KING: What happened to the girl?

FEATHERSTONE: The girl is OK. She didn’t actually lose her eye. It was just a tear duct was damaged. Even though it was heinous and I’m very remorseful about it, I think today if she would look at it and look at what I’ve done she would forgive me in her heart as well as I forgive myself.

And I’m doing my best to rectify that and make sure that none of the other young people follow my example of using drugs and alcohol and end up in a situation out of control.

KING: You haven’t heard from her though?

FEATHERSTONE: No, I haven’t.

KING: And you served how long?

FEATHERSTONE: I served two years on a four year sentence.

KING: We’ll hear Jeff’s story and a lot more when we come back. Don’t go away.


ELSTER: Prison is nothing but like a (INAUDIBLE) of what society is out there, so of course we (INAUDIBLE). You know they got gangs in here but the gangs in here are just like the gangs on the street. They do their own thing. It’s not like the same thing as on the streets out there.

When you come to prison you got a choice to make if you’re going to get hooked up and caught up into all that or you’re going to do your time and try to get up out of here, learn from your mistakes. The majority of guys that come to prison don’t get caught up in the gangs here. They come here. They learn their lesson and they try to get back to society.




SMITH: It took me quite a long time, about a dozen years, to really remove myself from the typical prison culture and decide I don’t want to die in here. And, if I don’t want to die in here, I’m going to have to change my life and I’m going to have to get educated. I’m going to have to try to find some marketable skills. I just recently, five years ago, gave my life to Christ, so that was a transformative moment.


KING: We’re back at San Quentin, a return visit for night two. For those of you who missed it last night, we’ve invited Jeff Elkins to come back. Jeff, will you briefly explain what you did?

JEFF ELKINS, SAN QUENTIN INMATE: When I was 19, I took my friend’s life over drugs and money.

KING: How did you take it? What was happening?

ELKINS: I was deeply involved in drugs and alcohol. I was in debt. And, I killed him a baseball bat and took his money from him. I had no right to do what I did. If I could do anything to change that and bring him back, I would do that.

I spend my life now trying to help other people realize the mistakes that I made and not to get caught up so someone else doesn’t lose their life. The only thing I can do to try to — nothing I can do will ever make up for what I did but if I can save some lives it would make it easier for me to live with.

KING: What was it like to kill someone?

ELKINS: It was horrible. It was terrible. It was a nightmare.

KING: Did you feel terrible at the time?

ELKINS: Afterwards, yes I did. Yes, I did.

KING: Felt remorse?

ELKINS: Yes, I did.

KING: Felt you got what was deserving?

ELKINS: I deserved what I — the sentence that I got, yes.

KING: Vernell, are these prisoners typical or not typical?

CRITTENDON: For San Quentin I think you’ll find that these are men that are — hundreds of men here at San Quentin are just like that are going to through programs who have made transformations in their lives.

I think that’s the real thing. They’ve been involved with our educational program. Many of these men have been able to receive their college degrees just because of the fact that we offer that and we’re the only prison that offers it.

KING: Is this the worst you’ve ever seen, Bryan, this place?

SMITH: No, actually this place has a theme of rehabilitation to it.

KING: So, it’s a better prison than its image?

SMITH: Yes, exactly.

KING: Its image is not good.

SMITH: Its image goes back to the ’60s, the ’70s and the ’80s. This is a level two prison primarily. There’s 2,000 general population inmates and we have several programs, Larry.

I’m the inside coordinator for a program called Project IMPACT. IMPACT is an acronym that stands for Incarcerated Men Putting Away Childish Things. And when we talk about what’s going on in prison when you ask about violence and how horrific can this place be, any actions like that are the result of a grown man chronologically acting like a child. And knowing that, this program addresses that issue directly.

KING: But what’s it like to live here?

SMITH: What’s it like to live here? It’s like I’m trying to demonstrate to myself, to my family, and to my community that my life still has value. I participated in a tragic event and each day I wake up in a cage and each day I set forth to accomplish something.

As long as I’m learning something in here every day I feel like I’m making use of my time. And once I learn something that’s valuable it’s something that I see in the past where I was making those mistakes, simple mistakes that led to a tragic loss of life. I try to share that information with my peers.

KING: Looking at that cage, Jerry, doesn’t it ever get to you?

ELSTER: Well, yes. It can.

KING: I mean aren’t there days you wake up and say “God”!

ELSTER: Yes, it can become depressing but again if you look at the situation we’re in here and they got a lot of guys, a lot of people out in society right that go to work, work in a little booth. They’re not satisfied with their life. They go through changes.

And by being incarcerated and going through this, giving myself that space that’s helped me to look beyond just my present predicament, you know. I don’t wake up and look at a cage as if I’m trapped in here. I look now beyond those cages at the opportunities that I’ve been given to reach out and help others, you know, from my experience.

If I get caught up in the thing about — in a depressed state about me being incarcerated, sitting in this little 8×10, yes, I can fall into a deep depression. I mean I’ve seen men do it, you know.

But if you look beyond those and that’s why a lot of these guys talk about spiritual growth, that spiritual change within a man, when you hit bottom, Larry, when you hit rock bottom there’s no where to go but up.

You have a choice. You can sit there and you can linger in it or you can take advantage of the few opportunities that you do have and reach beyond that and that’s what I’ve chosen to do.

KING: Alberto, don’t you get depressed?

LOSNO: I’ll be honest with you, Larry, yes. I wouldn’t be human. But I look for avenues. I look for avenues. I participate here in the college program and also with the IMPACT program that Bryan discussed.

KING: What time do you get up in the morning?

LOSNO: I get up about 5:30, 5:45.

KING: And what’s there to look for, look forward to?

LOSNO: Well I got to discipline myself or I meditate. I take on a day. I thank God for another day. I look forward to the end of the week because usually on Friday is when we have these kids that come in here from the outside with these youths who are making these mistakes that could lead them here. So there’s where I find my avenue to escape and I speak to them.

KING: Helping people?

LOSNO: Helping the people.

KING: We’ll be right back. And, when we come back, we’ll talk about the — in addition to the worst things about being locked up, we’ll also talk about crime and the possibility of crime inside prison.

This is LARRY KING LIVE at San Quentin, night two. Don’t go away.


CRITTENDON: This is where the level two inmates, the ones that go out to work, to go to our religious programs, our educational programs, this is where they are housed. We have approximately 830 men that live here inside of the north block. About 475 of them are serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole.




CRITTENDON: Some of the most violent individuals that we have at San Quentin are now housed inside of this unit. Their movements are restricted. They are under direct escort whenever they are outside of the cells. They were placed on lockdown because they have caused some type of a disturbance.

This unit will be more noisy than you will find in most of our housing units because these men are confined to their cells for extended periods of time. Also, they don’t have any televisions or radios, so there’s really no distraction or babysitter in that cell for them.


KING: Al Featherstone, is drugs the biggest problem in here?

FEATHERSTONE: No. I think it goes back to things that happened to us in our adolescent stage. We should have developed our coping skills, our communication skills and our problem solving skills.

KING: Not a lot of drugs in here?

FEATHERSTONE: Drugs is not the main front…

KING: Not?

FEATHERSTONE: …the main problem.

KING: What is?

FEATHERSTONE: It’s the ability to deal with difficulties in your life and bounce back and when you’re not able to do that then subsequently you do use some type of narcotic or some type of alcohol to kill the pain. But if you had good coping skills and you were able to deal with difficulties in your life, then there’s no need for drugs.

There’s no need to kill the pain. And when you have good communication skills, when you are assertive rather than being passive or aggressive or passive aggressive, then you’re able to communicate and have good boundaries in your life and so you can deal and communicate with people on a good level.

You have good self esteem. You’ll be able to have (INAUDIBLE) belief in yourself and confidence but you can do and you can change your life and be successful in life.

KING: Jeff, but there are a lot of drugs in here right, aren’t there? I mean logically aren’t there?

ELKINS: Larry, there’s probably drugs wherever you go. People want things…

KING: I know that but are there drugs in here?

ELKINS: Personally I couldn’t tell you because I’m not involved with any.

KING: Never seen it?

ELKINS: I don’t see it. I don’t pay attention to it. I know people that are in here that have drug problems. We hear of things every now and then but it’s not as prevalent as people like to make it out to be.

KING: Vernell?

CRITTENDON: You know, Larry, honestly there are drugs in this side of our prison.

KING: All right, the inmates we talked to last night and tonight they’re the cream of the crop aren’t they? These people are totally rehabbed?

CRITTENDON: They’re representative of hundreds of inmates that we have here at San Quentin. But I really want to say the drugs are definitely here. They’re not in the same quantity that you’ll find in the community but many drugs are inside the prison.

And we do have many men that have substance abuse problems and I think those problems go back to what Al Featherstone was saying. The real issue is their inability to have coping skills to understand boundaries and the drugs are merely the symptom of that.

KING: How do they get into the prison?

CRITTENDON: Drugs can be introduced into the security areas often by the loved ones that come in to visit with them. They can be brought in through packages and mail and on some occasions even employees at the Department of Corrections are guilty of bringing drugs into our prisons.

KING: Seen much violence in here Bryan?

SMITH: No, personally I haven’t seen a lot of violence. Talking about the conditions of prison I think one of the most fascinating things for me is that really this is an extension of the neighborhoods in Oakland and San Francisco and the rural areas up north. When I came to prison in 1982, it was a scary place. Now because of the mass amount of people that are doing time, people come to prison and they see their brothers, their uncles, their fathers, people they grew up with. It’s not as scary as it used to be…

KING: Oh, yes?

SMITH: …back then because there’s just a lot of people here and so it’s amazing how this place is an extension of the neighborhoods that are out there.

KING: Speaking of that, Jerry, do you ever get used to it to the point where getting out might not be so great? I mean this is my life. I live it.

ELSTER: That’s a good question. I mean that’s a question I had to ask myself during my transformation when I started to change. When I first came here I was angry, you know. I was a confused young man, you know, and I set back and I had to ask myself man seriously what are you doing with you life, you know?

You made a mistake. You did a terrible thing. You can’t even really refer to it as a mistake. You did a terrible thing. You took a man’s life and now you’re going to come in here and just — like you asked earlier waste away. You’re just going to just do the time, let the time do you like that.

And I had to come to a conclusion in my life, no, that ain’t what I’m going to do. And one of the most scariest things at that point I had to ask myself seriously was, man, do I want to just get used to this? Is it getting, you know, the life sentence do I take that literally to mean this is my life?

And, the answer I got back from deep within me was no. There is still hope. You can make a difference. You can take that, like I told you earlier, that negative and make a positive.

And that hope not only, I can’t keep that in here with me. I have to find a way to vent that out to others that’s going through the same situation because there’s thousands of peers across the nation in America that went through exactly what I went through and are going through that and they don’t have the answers.

KING: Yes.

ELSTER: If it took me going through this to learn that, to send that out, that’s what I do and that’s what keeps me motivated.

KING: You’re a little bugged, Alberto that you haven’t been paroled. You were sentenced to 15-to-life but you’ve served 25. Didn’t you think when you had 15-to-life you might get out after 15?

LOSNO: I stop. I ponder it. I ponder it seriously but…

KING: What does the parole board tell you? LOSNO: Well, that I’m doing good to keep up the positive program and that there’s a chance for me, so I take that and I continue the program in a positive way and I’ve never lost hope either.

But there’s one thing that I do, do with my extra time and I’m going to piggyback off what Jerry said and Bryan is that I talk to these youngsters when they come in here. There’s a question that you said earlier about if you ever left that cell you get frustrated and you want to just yell out and say “I hate the world” for example.

What am I going to do with that extra energy? And the answer sometimes comes when you get these kids come through that door right here. And like he had said they’re looking for answers.

KING: Yes.

LOSNO: And sometimes they have the questions. They’re just afraid to ask.

KING: Let me get a break. We’ll pick up a lot more on this.


LOSNO: I’m a born again Christian and you hear that a lot too. It’s a cliche really people use it a lot but I believe in God. He’s opened the doors up for me many, many places that I never thought I’d ever find myself at or even needing.

And the Lord has opened up doors for me and not just physically opened doors up for me but the doors of my mind and my heart. That’s why I said I got dreams and I believe I will get out of here.



KING: We’re back at San Quentin. Jeff Elkins, you have family that visits you here?

JEFF ELKINS, SAN QUENTIN INMATE: Yes I do Larry. My mother, my stepmother and my sister when she can with her kids.

KING: And you — last time you told us last night that you married a woman and eventually got divorced.

ELKINS: Yes. We were married for six and a half years.

KING: Why would a woman — why would a man — marry in prison when you’re serving for life and you can’t have cohabitation?

ELKINS: Well, I’m serving 25 to life. I have the possibility for parole. I’ve been eligible since 1994.

KING: And what about marriage, though? Why would a woman marry?

ELKINS: She loved me. We fell in love. KING: But you don’t have the bliss that marriage can bring.

ELKINS: No, but you would be amazed at how close two people can become when they are — when sex isn’t part of the picture. And when you can communicate honestly and openly and intimately through letters and through conversations in the visiting room. We actually got to know people, and we spent more quality time talking to each other than many married couples out there today. See, the thing about prison, it’s designed to destroy families.

KING: Yeah I know. What family do you have? Bryan?

BRYAN SMITH, SAN QUENTIN INMATE: Before I mention my own family, I’d just like to acknowledge that, you know, all of us here represent the loss of a human life. And I think we should take the time to acknowledge the pain and the suffering of not only our victims but the family of our victims and anything, Larry, that we suffer while we’re in prison is not even going to approach or we cannot compare it to the pain and suffering that they have.

KING: Do you contact the victims’ families?

SMITH: No. Currently, I haven’t contacted the victims. It’s actually not legal for us. We have a program here called victims offenders education group. Within that group, we do a process that involves guilt, shame. We write letters, and what we do is we write letters, and we send them to the district attorney’s office. And then they will decide whether to forward them.

KING: What family do you have?

SMITH: I’m one of five siblings. I have a mother and a father. I also have an extended family and a wonderful support system. And I just thank God every day that I have such a wonderful —

KING: Do they all come see you?

SMITH: Yes, we visit in the visiting room. There was a time when we were allowed conjugal visits, and I’d go out there with all of my siblings and my mother and father and we would all spend the weekend. Fortunately, that was a time for us to reflect on the shame that I created in our own family and how we dealt with that. So that’s something that’s currently missed in the system.

KING: Did you visit family a lot, Al, when you were here?

AL FEATHERSTONE, FORMER SAN QUENTIN INMATE: Yes, I had a good support system. I basically was involved in the church. I made my religious conversion before I actually came to prison. And I had a good support system. I had a good church family that came and visited me. And they are one of the main reasons that when I got out, I had a good support system in place. I had a good sponsor when I got out, someone that taught me basically how to even shop when I got out. Because being incarcerated, you lose a lot of the skills that you’re supposed to have. And as a result of the good support system, I was able to go back to school, get my B.A. Degree in humanities and just about two and a half, three years I came back to San Quentin. I’ve been coming back for almost 16 years.

KING: Jerry, you have family visit you?

JERRY ELSTER, SAN QUENTIN INMATE: Yeah, I have my mother, my father, my little sister come and visit me.

KING: Don’t you think you should be allowed conjugal visits?

ELSTER: Well, sure. I was recently married. You know, before that subject came up, I was recently married. I like what Elkins said and it’s so true. If you think about relationships a lot of times you get caught up in the humbug things of society, and those relationships, you guys don’t get to really talk to each other, conversate, spend time with each other. And in here relationships are built like that. Yeah, I mean I would like to have family visits. But I have also learned that it’s so much more to life, Larry, than just sexual intercourse.

KING: You had to learn that.

ELSTER: I’ve had to learn that.

KING: Alberto, do you have family?

ALBERTO LOSNO, SAN QUENTIN INMATE: Yes, Larry. Every weekend, my family shows up like champions. I’ve got three brothers, three sisters. God still, he has blessed me with my mother and my father’s presence. I have lost a lot of family members. I have two beautiful daughters who have made me a proud grandfather, three granddaughters and a grandson that I see here in the visiting room regularly.

KING: Everyone outside of prison hears about being sexually bothered inside of prison. There’s jokes about it, etcetera. We’ll ask about it and we’ll talk about some well-known prisoners right after this.


VERNELL CRITTENDON, SAN QUENTIN SPOKESMAN: The adjustment center is our top-line security here at San Quentin State Prison. We have 102 cells inside. We have identified 98 of the death row inmates that have proven to be a threat to staff safety. Since their arrival to state prison, those 98 men are now housed inside of the adjustment center. Such as Richard Ramirez. The media called him the night stalker. Richard Allen Davis who kidnapped Polly Klaas and some look at it as the linchpin for the three strikes law here in the state of California. Many of the men inside of the adjustment center are hardened gang killers.



KING: We’re back. Vernell Crittendon, are there a lot of rapes in prison. The public thinks it. CRITTENDON: Inside of our state prison systems, you’ll find that there’s a very, very low rate of male rape going on inside of the prison system. That is something, though, that the media has played on in the past in movies and things of that nature, which has added to that reputation. But it is not something that’s a reality inside of the prisons on a large scale.

KING: Would all of you agree with that?

Yeah, it’s true.


KING: You’ve never been confronted with it?


SMITH: Yeah, I’ve been confronted with it. As you know, I showed up in the penitentiary at a very young age. And I was tested along those lines. And, you know, you have to fight for who you are. And you can’t let somebody dictate what they want you to be. That was in 1982, though, Larry. The expansion of this prison system 26 more prisons and hundreds of thousands, there’s not a lot of sexual pressure on people today.

KING: Did you expect more when you came?

ELSTER: I did. Just like society out there, the millions of viewers that’s viewing this program had their preconception of what doing time or what prison is about. I had all these ideas of what prison was going to be about. Reflected to me from society and from the media and stuff like that. So when I came to prison, I thought that would just be running rampant. I have been in prison, incarcerated 23 years and have not once seen or even experienced anything like that.

KING: Let’s talk about some well-known people in here, the night stalker is here.

Yes, we have Richard Ramirez is here. I was actually in his wedding.

KING: He got married here?

CRITTENDON: He, in fact, did, yes, met his wife.

KING: He’s on death row isn’t he?

CRITTENDON: He is on death row. He’s housed in the building just behind me now up on the third floor.

KING: How’s he doing?

CRITTENDON: Richard Ramirez, I think he’s had better days. The adjustment center is the top security here at San Quentin and I’m sure he would prefer to be over in a less restrictive environment. KING: Polly Klaas’ killer is here, too, right?

CRITTENDON: Yeah, Richard Allen Davis is another inmate that I know that’s come from Sonoma County. He’s also here at San Quentin and is also housed in the building directly behind us, the adjustment center.

KING: And also, of course, Scott Peterson, we mentioned him last night. Is he adjusting?

CRITTENDON: You know, Scott Peterson really has made an adjustment to death row. I recall the very first day he showed up on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th, about 3:45 a.m. And when he first stepped foot into the cell, there on the first floor behind me in the adjustment center, I can remember as he gave that blank stare and plopped down on the bed and just stared impetuously at the wall. Now you see him today he’s laughing and joking.

KING: Really?

CRITTENDON: With the other death row inmates, he’s establishing relationships and rapport with our correctional staff that work in the death row. And he’s adjusted very well to life at San Quentin.

KING: And he’s writing to one of the jurors?

CRITTENDON: He’s received still a regular flow of mail. Nothing like he was receiving when he first arrived in those early months, but he’s still receiving a consistent amount of mail, particularly from ladies.

KING: Do you guys talk about famous prisoners much?

ELSTER: Once you’ve been here, that’s like, you know, talking about your shoes. I mean, prison is prison. You come here and you realize that all that stuff you heard, it’s mostly just glam and that’s what happened to our kids out there. They hear that stuff, they watch these shows or they think that prison have the gangsters of the gangsters. Then you come here and see somebody’s dad, or like Elkins was talking about, brothers and mothers. Cousins, you know, you see regular people in here.

KING: The big house.

FEATHERSTONE: Yeah, this is the place for losers.

KING: Losers, right.

FEATHERSTONE: No matter how much we glorify it on the outside, when you get here, you’re just a loser. You know, you’ve got time to do. And the best thing for a man to do once he get here is to accept Jesus Christ in his life and begin to make the necessary changes that he can have some peace of mind.

KING: When we come back, what’s it like for a woman to work here? We’ll meet her. Don’t go away. JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: Coming up at the top of the hour on “360,” a CNN exclusive. New evidence, photographic evidence, of what happened in Haditha. The incident there left 24 Iraqis dead and charges are now being leveled that marines killed them in cold blood.

Also tonight, another exclusive, the parents of murdered college co-ed Imette St. Guillen speak out for the first time about what happened to their daughter. They recently returned to Imette’s college to receive her diploma and now talk about the bar bouncer accused of taking their daughter’s life. All that and more at the top of the hour on “360.” See you then.



JULIUS DOMANTAY, SAN QUENTIN INMATE: You wake up one day and say, you know what? You know, you look at these bars, the smell of the tears, and everything that’s around you. You wake up, and you say, this is not the life that I want. You know, this is prison. I shouldn’t be here. I always have hope that I know one day I will be out.


KING: We’re back with our panel, and we’re now joined by Jody Lewen, director of the college program at San Quentin. She’s also executive director of the prison university project at San Quentin. How’d you get involved in all this?

JODY LEWEN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, PRISON UNIVERSITY PROJECT AT SAN QUENTIN: I started coming in as a volunteer instructor in 1999. I heard about the college program coincidentally and was very interested. Taught for about a year, and then the fellow who was coordinating the program quit, and I ended up taking over the college program.

KING: Were you a teacher?

LEWEN: Yes, yes. I was actually a grad student at UC Berkeley at the time, and I started coming in, in the evenings to teach as a volunteer.

KING: What surprised you most about the prison?

LEWEN: The normalcy of the students, of the people here.

KING: The normalcy?

LEWEN: Yes. Yes. I mean there’s something very jarring about the realization that there are so many compassionate, intelligent creative people inside. I think that was disturbing.

KING: Have you ever been bothered?

LEWEN: You know, I grew up in Manhattan, you know, so I think every once in a while, you might walk by somebody who gives you kind of a funny look, but the overwhelming majority of people here are perfectly pleasant. And most of the time I feel like I have a few hundred older brothers when I walk around here.

KING: These men have talked about how it’s a lot like society.

LEWEN: Um-hmm.

KING: Only they can’t run away from it.

LEWEN: Right. I think the difference — I think the difference is that it’s an environment that’s structurally almost designed — not necessarily deliberately — but has the effect of bringing out the worst in people very often. It’s very, very difficult and often unsafe to trust people in this environment. And once that’s true, anybody placed in that situation is not necessarily going to behave the way they otherwise would.

KING: Jeff, do you think society believes that the prisoner can adjust, can be better?

ELKINS: Larry, when the kids come in, the youth, the first thing I tell them, I ask them, do they know where they’re at? And they usually say “San Quentin.” And I tell them, “welcome to the garbage can of society. Because society would rather be focused on their own interests than trying to do things to help people stay out of places like this.” The biggest industry in California is the department of corrections. And it’s the most lucrative business in California. If more attention was paid to educating people before they come in and to aftercare programs, when guys get out, do you realize that a guy gets out with $200, and he’s expected to — if he gets paid every week he’s got to live for two weeks on $200.

KING: What do you make here? There’s a furniture factory here, right?


KING: What do they pay you?

FEATHERSTONE: They may start at 30 cents — you may start at 30 cents an hour and work your way up to 95 cents. When I — I get the same expression you give me, that’s what I get when I tell the kids that. They get to talk about how hard it is out there for them and how they’re not going to flip burgers and stuff, and I let them know, man, I mean, you come in here, you’re going to be glad to get that 30 cents an hour job.

KING: Do they still make license plates?

CRITTENDON: In Vacaville State Prison, they make the handicapped license plates. And at Folsom Prison, they also produce license plates. Unfortunately, we have some of our adjustment center inmates —

KING: They’re making strange sounds now. CRITTENDON: — are producing some background noise for you.

KING: Just letting off steam? Are you guys amused by this?

LEWEN: I think they may also be sort of playing on what they imagine your listeners expect prison to sound like.

KING: Because I hear someone yelling my name.

LEWEN: They know you’re here.

KING: I don’t know if that’s comfortable or not. I’m big on death row, huh?

ELSTER: Larry this is a small part of what the world is like. This is a little miniature part of it.

KING: And that’s a miniature part of this, right?

ELSTER: That’s a miniature part, exactly. Exactly.

SMITH: Larry, I’d like to highlight something about the college program. And also they have a GED program here and a literacy program. And one of the most profound experiences that I’ve experienced in prison was walking along — you know, we don’t have the knapsacks like they do on the universities out there. Some of us use pillowcases, prison pillowcases. I was carrying my books, and I had just finished a term paper. And I was going into a biology class to take a final. And when I walked across that yard over there, I wasn’t in prison. I was thinking about what that final was going to be, what the questions were, and it was an out of prison experience.

KING: That’s tremendous.

SMITH: You know, I think education is one of the things that need to be highlighted.

KING: We’ll be back with our remaining moments at San Quentin. Don’t go away.


KING: We’re back. What about those who say that these are prisoners, they all killed somebody. They shouldn’t be allowed an education or any kind of privilege of life, television, anything.

SMITH: Well I think it’s important to realize that 90-plus percent of the people that are in prison will be returning to our society. And if we’re going to be here, you know, every day I wake up in a cage. And punishment is the theme that the people — they want us punished. But some of the hardest time I’ve ever done, Larry, was doing homework, studying, going to a vocational electric construction school, going to plumbing school. Those were the hardest years of my confinement, hanging out on the lower yard. And there’s a phenomenon down there about there’s a lack of truth on that yard. Playing dominoes, playing basketball, that stuff — that was easy for me to do. So the public needs to realize, first of all, that most of the people that are incarcerated will be returning to society.

KING: Well said.

SMITH: And while we’re here at 30 plus thousand dollars a year, let’s create some change. Let’s change some lives.

KING: Jody, are the teachers paid?

LEWEN: The teachers are not paid. All of the teachers in the college program at San Quentin are volunteers. Most of them are graduate students or instructors, faculty members at UC Berkeley, Sonoma State, San Francisco State, Stanford.


FEATHERSTONE: Larry, its $34,000 plus to house a man for a year. It’s another $4,000 to keep him on parole. If the system would spend more time giving men skills — developing skills within them so when they go back to society, they would be able to function. As Jeff said earlier, there’s only $200 of gate money when you leave here. And you’re expected to rebuild your life on $200, and they do not prepare you with skills to be able to survive in society.

Myself, when I got out, I had to understand that I had a trade. I was a metal cutter, sheet metal cutter. So I was able to do pretty good. But then there came a time when I got older and I couldn’t really do the sheet metal work, so I had to go back to school and reeducate myself. And as I began to go back and educate myself, I found that there’s a whole new horizon that I had never discovered before through the power of education. I think if the system would provide more education for men, then the recidivism rate would be less.

LEWEN: I just want to also echo that. Prison education is crime prevention, and it’s about public safety. So even if you personally feel that you just want to see people kicking rocks and suffering for the length of their sentence, you really, I think, eventually you realize as you get more involved in the field, we’re really, as a society, making a choice. We’re going to prioritize public safety, or we’re going to prioritize, you know, vengeance.

KING: Jeff, you’re going to be paroled, you expect?

ELKINS: When God says it’s time for me to go, I’m going.

KING: Bryan?

SMITH: I’m confident that one day I will be released and be a productive tax paying member of society.

KING: Jerry?

ELSTER: Yes, I believe I’ll be paroled. And the thing that I’m here, while I’m here, I’m going to continue to live a positive life, pursue positive things and keep the hope I got so when I get out there, I can do something and make a positive change.

KING: Alberto?

LOSNO: I boldly confess it, I put my hope in Jesus Christ and I know I’ll be paroled someday, God willing.

KING: You were paroled, right, Al?


KING: How did they tell you, you were paroled?

FEATHERSTONE: Well, at that time, they just simply gave me an opportunity to go to the counselor, fill out my parole plans.

KING: I mean did someone say to you “you’re paroled?”

FEATHERSTONE: No, I had a determinant sentence. In 1977 they came out with the SB-42 where you got a determined sentence and they ended the indeterminate sentence. And so I knew how much time I had to do when I came here. As a result of that, I was able to go back to society and do pretty good with my support system in place.

KING: Why do you like working here?

CRITTENDON: I like working here because one we’re truly providing public safety. We’re also involved with changing lives at San Quentin. I think we serve as a model for the rest of the nation on how lives can be turned around. Not all the lives, maybe not even most of the lives. Because a lot of these men, they choose not to take that journey. And as a result, they are housed in buildings like behind us.

But those that do wish to take the journey, they need to have the space, and they need to have the time, and the intervention in order to make the change in their lives. And that’s one of the things that we get not only from these men, but we really get it from our partnerships with people like Jody Lewen, Rudy Corpus who works out there as a community activist out in our community. Elected officials that are also coming in and supporting these kinds of changes.

KING: Bryan Smith, Jerry Elster, Alberto Losno, Al Featherstone, Jeff Elkins, and Vernell Crittendon and Jody Lewen, we thank them all for this extraordinary second night here at San Quentin. It’s a place, as I was telling Vernell that I fully expect to come back to and see more of — and see more people like this who give us a four- letter word, hope. “ANDERSON COOPER” is next. Good night.

Attribution: This originally appeared on CNN on June 7, 2006. Read Story

Please note that the Prison University Project became Mount Tamalpais College in September 2020.