Critical look at Justice

Prisons tour offers students critical 
look at justice system

San Diego Union-Tribune, February 7, 2005, page 1

By Steve Schmidt

FOLSOM – Deep inside the granite walls of storied Folsom State Prison, a group of hoodlums and killers stare at 20-year-old Kenna Schupbach.

The SDSU junior stares back.

She's exploring the grimmest corners of California and wants to take in as much as she can.

Schupbach and 23 other students from Montezuma Mesa recently toured eight correctional facilities as part of a San Diego State University course that offers an unflinching look at the state's troubled prison system.

What they found was enlightening – and sobering.

"It gives you insight you can't get in a book," said Schupbach.

That was the idea when Paul Sutton, a criminal justice professor at SDSU, created the weeklong course in 1984. The novel course, titled Prisons in Theory and Practice, is offered several times a year. Recent events, however, give it added punch.

In his State of the State address last month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger promised to overhaul California's network of lockups, the largest state prison system in the nation.

A series of reports issued last year depict a system dogged by ineffective parole programs, scant financial accountability, pockets of rogue guards and other problems.

Many experts complain that California's 32 prisons remain more fixed on warehousing and punishing inmates than on rehabilitation.

"The answers we're providing aren't working," Sutton told students at the start of a recent five-day tour.

Traveling by charter bus, Sutton and his students put in marathon days touring prisons from San Luis Obispo to Folsom to Soledad to a women's facility in Chowchilla.

The undergraduate criminal justice majors stood in cell blocks and met with murderers. They saw guards band together after the killing of one of their own.

The students tested the boundaries of their empathy and their views on the meaning of justice.

"The tour really opens their eyes and minds to a world they thought they knew something about," Sutton said. "It rips the mask away."


At the front gate of California Men's Colony near San Luis Obispo, Everett Wolfe and many of his classmates are nervous.

They've never been inside a state prison and here they are, flanked by Sutton and several correctional officers, stepping into this fortress by the sea.

"I've got some anxiety," admits Wolfe, 26.

Inside, the male prisoners eye the guards, the guards eye the prisoners and both groups size up the wide-eyed college students, nearly all in their early 20s.

Several longtime inmates help as tour guides through the 50-year-old facility.

There is Tommy "Blackie" Guerrero, 48. He's been in the joint 24 years for second-degree murder.

There is Ron "Chainsaw" Hayward, 61. He's been here 25 years, also for second-degree murder.

They smile and shake hands with the students. They point out parts of the prison: the huge kitchen, the bare yards, the print shop, the shoe factory.

These tour guides in prison blues come off as, well, disarmingly nice.

"I can see they're real people," student Ky Vo said later. "I got very comfortable, very relaxed."

It's an issue many students wrestle with: How do they reconcile the friendly felon in front of them with the monstrous deed he did?

Sutton tells them to avoid generalizations. Prisons remain full of curs, con men and ne'er-do-wells, but they also house convicts bent on honest lives.

Hayward says he's here because he murdered a man who had sexually assaulted his wife. Does that make him a monster? After 25 years in prison, should taxpayers still pay to keep him locked up?

The state penal system houses 163,500 inmates at an annual cost of $31,000 per convict, according to the California Department of Corrections. Most are men. Most can't read better than a middle-schooler. Many arrive as drug addicts.

After more than an hour at California Men's Colony, the tour is cut short. Prison officials order inmates to their cells and the students are rushed out.

The sudden lockdown is ordered as a precaution. Earlier that day at a state prison in Chino, an inmate fatally stabbed a veteran guard.

The Jan. 10 killing was the first fatal assault on a California corrections officer in two decades. The victim, 43-year-old Manuel Gonzalez Jr., was the father of six.

In San Luis Obispo, Hayward and Guererro return to their cells. The SDSU students return to their bus.


Three days later, on a morning tour of Folsom State Prison, word of the Gonzalez killing comes up.

Keys jangling on his hip, prison Sgt. Kevin Huttner notes the risks of working behind bars. He's been hurt in the line of duty repeatedly. "I'm a prison guard," he says. "It's just part of the job."

Huttner, 50, has worked at Folsom for nearly 30 years. His father worked here once. Leading the SDSU students through the hillside prison, little seems to surprise him anymore.

He recalls what the lockup was like in the 1980s. Gang activity went from bad to worse. Folsom saw as many as 300 stabbings a year as inmates were shoehorned in. Food and feces covered the walls.

"It was probably the bloodiest time in our history," he tells students.

About the same time, the state kicked off a construction binge, creating 21 prisons during the next 20 years.

Today, says Huttner, Folsom "is a lot nicer."

Stabbings are down. Folsom's most dangerous convicts have been moved to other facilities. More correctional officers, members of the state's influential prison guards union, take pride in themselves as highly trained professionals.

Even veterans such as Huttner have had to complete classes in sensitivity training.

"I can bring you all to my warm and fuzzy place now," he jokes with students. "It was humiliating, but we needed it. It had gotten very hard-core here."

The students tour Folsom's pride and joy, the license plate factory. Inmates here manufacture every license plate issued in California, stamping out as many as 45,000 a day.

Inmates at Folsom and other prisons, however, complain that budget cuts have left them with little to do. Prison administrators last year eliminated hundreds of vocational classes throughout the state.

Instead, many convicts are enrolled in a new course that encourages them to set short-and long-term goals.

Prison officials acknowledge it's not enough. With a high rate of recidivism, state officials say, convicts need better preparation for life on the outside.

The governor wants more emphasis on rehabilitation. But it's not clear how the cash-strapped state will pay for improvements in parole and other programs.

Sutton is skeptical that change is in the wings. "Nothing is going to change because (Schwarzenegger) isn't willing to pay for it," he tells students.

Meanwhile, many convicts kill time. Maybe that's OK, says student Ronnie Gonzalez. "Prison is prison," he says. "They're supposed to be punished."

Touring a four-story cell block, Gonzalez and other students peer into a long row of Folsom cells.

It's close to noon and some inmates are in their bunks, wearing little more than boxers. A few glower at the students.

One convict turns on a small TV he bought. He watches an infomercial on kitchen knives.


It's early afternoon and the guards at California State Prison Sacramento have seen an inmate overdose on speed and another suffer a heart attack.

As the SDSU bus pulls up, an ambulance pulls out.

Guard Chuck King says a measure of mayhem is part of the job.

Showing students around, King is bothered that the death of the Chino guard isn't getting more attention in the press.

He says many Californians think correctional officers are "crooked, that they're knuckle-draggers. . . . They hear a lot about the ones that screw up, but they don't hear about the heroes."

Like the slain guard.

"It's really depressing," King says.

Later, he introduces students to prisoner Richard Ford.

The 65-year-old grandfather was once as crooked as they came. He's serving a life term for a 1983 contract killing. He was also convicted of attempting to murder a stripper.

Both crimes happened when he was a detective for the Los Angeles Police Department.

Ford says the work warped him. He thought himself above the law. He says he took part in beatings and other crooked acts in the name of keeping killers, rapists and other bad people off the street.

Now he lives with them.

"God got me," he says. "He put me right in the middle of the people I hated."

By the end of the tour of prisons, students see more gray than black or white.

It's easy to see convicts as pure evil until you meet complex folks like Ford. It's easy to judge guards as thugs until you talk with someone like King.

When it comes to fixing the California prison system, professor Sutton tells students to look beyond the simple-minded solutions often touted by politicians and others.

It's one thing to demand reform, he says. It's another to craft a practical road map to make it happen.

"Obviously, what we're doing now isn't right," says student Ronnie Gonzalez. "It's not working."

Subpages (1): Doing Time