Trapped in the Dungeon

February 5, 2021
Adamu Chan, Slate

An aerial view of San Quentin prison, with tents set up in the yard.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

San Quentin State Prison has been, for some time now, the site of the worst public health crisis in California’s history. As a newly released report by California’s Office of the Inspector General details, the state transferred incarcerated people from another prison into San Quentin without adequately testing them, seeding an outbreak that killed close to 30 people and infected more than 2,500 others. I was incarcerated at San Quentin until October and witnessed the horrors of this outbreak firsthand, including the deaths of beloved community members, and the infection’s long-term health impacts on many others.
During “normal” times, the prison is presented as a symbol of the California Department of Corrections’ commitment to rehabilitation, even though most of its educational, self-development, and vocational programs are not available in the system’s 34 other institutions. Because of its proximity to San Francisco, San Quentin is a popular place for free people to tour, with groups coming into the prison three or more times a week.

In June 2019, I was part of a group that gave the cast of the Broadway musical Hamilton a tour of San Quentin. They had just begun their San Francisco residence and came to the prison to meet some of the incarcerated people who make up the arts community inside. I remember the phase of the tour that takes visitors into the “Dungeon,” a decaying rock and clay brick structure that was built by people incarcerated at the prison in 1854. Used for solitary confinement until the 1940s, the Dungeon is now framed as a relic of San Quentin’s punitive and barbaric past. It is a popular stop on the tour route, as it allows visitors to feel like they can crawl inside the experience of the incarcerated.

We, the tour guides, and they, the tourists, congregated inside the dark brick chamber, with just a sliver of ambient light emanating from a distant barred window facing an opposing brick wall. The air inside felt stale, and I started to imagine all of the souls that once resided in this icy entombment. The door closed, and from the pitch black stillness there was an explosion of nervous laughter. Just as quickly as unease set in, we all rushed out of the unlocked door and back into the sunshine of the prison yard.

I could hear refrains of “What a relief that we’re out of there,” and similar sentiments emanating from the crowd. I couldn’t help thinking about the clever trick that was being played on all of us in that moment where the prison yard suddenly felt like sanctuary.

The fact that the Dungeon still exists is no accident of fate. In 2009, the state built a 5-floor, $136 million hospital on the site of a crumbling brick structure that housed the prison’s receiving and release (R&R), library, and then-shuttered Dungeon. The design of the new building, curiously, and without regard for aesthetics, left certain aspects of the original architecture intact, creating an unsightly hodge-podge of 19th-century brick transposed on a modern façade. Of the remnants that still stand, the Dungeon is the only structure wholly intact – the library and R&R have been replaced by new iterations.

The Dungeon, billed as a solemn memorial to San Quentin’s bygone cruelty, hopes to distract us from the brutality of the present. Its preservation was intentional within the design of the new structure — the hospital representing a progressive and humane shift in attitude toward the incarcerated; the Dungeon, as part of the same structure, hearkening its antithesis. We empathize with the imaginary prisoner of some distant past, while the presence of the hospital eases our fears about the present by suggesting that the institution is taking care of its residents and helping them to heal, calming our analytical inclinations and what our eyes are screaming at us.

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Trapped in the Dungeon
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