If You’re Going To San Quentin, Be Sure Not To Wear Anything In Your Hair (Part Two: Arrival)

I woke up pretty early Saturday morning. Mornings are not my friend, so normally it takes at least two snooze sessions to get me out of bed. But the morning of February 11, my eyes popped open the second my iPhone “ripples” alarm went off.

I tried to eat something. My stomach was in knots. Even choking down a protein bar was a challenge. My hotel room had a microwave, so I made myself a cup of herbal tea.

I’d planned my outfit before I even left Orange County, but I was still nervous about all those San Quentin apparel rules.

I had on grey pinstripe pants, a light blue button-down shirt with tiny white polka dots, and a black cotton cardigan sweater. I made sure to wear a bra without an underwire (like I need a bra that supportive anyway). I also checked that my shirt wasn’t see-through.

I usually wear a layering tank top under a button shirt, but the San Quentin dress code specifically forbids tank tops. I assumed they meant no tank tops as your actual shirt, but the rules for the x-ray procedure state, “You must be down to your last layer of clothing,” and I wasn’t taking any chances on my first visit. I wonder if a camisole would still count as a “tank top.”

My visit was scheduled for 9:00 am. I gave myself ample time to get from my hotel to the prison.

After my practice run the day before, it only took about fifteen minutes to drive there. I was parked in the visitors’ lot by 8:30 am.

The lot was busier than the day before, but it wasn’t a madhouse like I’d feared. Considering that San Quentin State Prison can house over three thousand inmates, I expected the place to be packed on a Saturday.

At The Visitors’ Intake

There were about two dozen people standing around, or sitting on the wooden benches. About ninety percent of the visitors were women, and a lot of them were probably moms of inmates. I did not envy them visiting their sons at San Quentin.


I sat in an empty spot on the bench closest to the entrance and asked the women sitting nearby if this is where you wait when you have an appointment. One woman nodded and smiled. Another told me she liked my hair. I thanked her and made a comment about all the clothing color rules and how I was happy that didn’t apply to hair.

The women laughed (yup, that’s where I got the idea to write that in the last post), and the four of us started up a casual conversation. The lady sitting next to me leaned closer and gestured toward a young woman standing against the wall. “She’s never going to get in with jeans,” she tisked.

The place started filling up with more visitors, and I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do next. Along one wall were two glass doors an equal distance apart that led to the check-in room and metal detector. Even though the doors went into the same room, it appeared that each door had its own check-in station.

The doors were locked and could only be opened when a guard pushed a security buzzer from inside the room.  The door would buzz; a visitor would open the door and go inside. How anyone knew it was their turn, though, was beyond me.

I put out a general inquiry to the women around me, asking if they were also visiting condemned prisoners. This seems to be the official term used in San Quentin correspondences when referring to death row inmates.

I wonder if that sounds any less threatening?

 It turned out they were all visiting general population inmates and I was sitting on the wrong end of the building.

The Death Row Visitors’ Section

I made my through the people and past the doors to the death row visitors’ section (no wristband needed), and noticed there was an invisible line of division between the death row visitors and everyone else. It was less crowed at this end and it looked like one of the doors/check-in stations was designated for death row only.

A pretty thirty-something woman with perfectly straightened long dark hair smiled at me when I sat down on the bench. Her heavy “hit the town” makeup was perfectly applied. She looked like she was going on a date

“I was on the wrong side,” I shared with her.  “This is the condemned side, right?”

Organizing The Visitors

She nodded and asked my appointment time. She was also scheduled for 9:00 am, and she explained to me how the process works, for which I was extremely grateful.  It reminded me of when I used to help other visitors at the OC Jail by explaining the workings of the lockers. Oh memories.

Within your time slot, you check in by order of arrival. The first person to arrive with a 9 am appointment, for example, is the first person to be checked in during that appointment time. It’s up to the visitors themselves to keep track of the order.

“Hit the town makeup” was the first 9 am to arrive that morning. It turns out you are actually supposed to arrive 30 minutes before your scheduled appointment. I was informed that the prison was running uncharacteristically late that morning, and the 8:30 visitors hadn’t all been checked in yet. I was used to visits running late from going to the OC Jail. I wasn’t bothered. That was the norm.

I found out later that Daniel had started to worry when it got to 9:15 and I hadn’t shown up yet. He’d gone to ask one of the guards to take a look outside for me, but realized he didn’t know my current hair color.

Now that I was finally in the correct waiting area, there were four women ahead of me for the 9:00 time. The one who was supposed to be second said she’d noticed me when she got there earlier (the hair color again), and that meant I’d arrived before her. So everyone agreed that I would be the second 9 AM visit to check in. There might not be honor among thieves, but there is honor among inmate visitors.

Getting Through The Door

When it was my turn, I couldn’t seem to muster the hand/ear coordination it took to pull open the door when the buzzer sounds. After my third attempt, someone else opened it for me.

On visiting day two, I handled the door fine. On that first day though, I was still nervous about getting through security. I’d already seen one woman have to come back out two times because of the number of keys on her key ring. She finally just put her keys in a locker. She was allowed to take the locker key in.

I’d taken my car key off my key ring at the hotel. That was the only key I had on me. It was inside a clear plastic sandwich bag alongside my driver’s license, a small comb with no handle, and twenty-five dollars in quarters and singles.

You’re allowed to bring fifty dollars, but I didn’t think I’d need that much in the way of vending machine food. You can also buy photo tokens for two dollars from a machine next to the check-in. Daniel told me he’d already ordered tokens, so I didn’t need to get any this time.

I saw a couple of women carrying clear plastic purses instead of sandwich bags. I’m going to look into getting one of those.

The guard looked at my driver’s license. A second later, he handed me a print out with Daniel’s picture and his information on it.  There was also general name and address information about me. Then, the guard looked at me and pointed at my head.

“Sorry. No sunglasses.”

“Yikes. I’m so lame,” I sputtered because I’d completely forgotten about them after pushing them up on my head when I came inside the building. My fair skin immediately flushed like I’d just downed a double shot of chilled Patron. “They’re pretty cheap. I can throw them away if you want.” I pulled the sunglasses off my head and headed toward a large trashcan.

The guard chuckled and pulled out a small plastic basket that contained a few other forbidden items.  A pen. A cell phone. I remembered that Daniel told me his mother had to take the bobby pins out of her hair.

I placed my sunglasses in the basket and thanked him for not making me go back to put them in a locker. He told me I could get them on my way out.

I went over to the x-ray machine and stuck my sandwich bag in a plastic bin. It headed down the conveyor belt to be thoroughly examined.

For my first attempt through the metal detector, I’d forgotten to take off my shoes. I was wearing Doc Martin Mary Janes with the big silver buckles, which obviously set the buzzer off. After swiping the wand over me, and discovering my shoes, the guard started to laugh. He was the second one to find my antics amusing, and he wouldn’t be the last. I took off my shoes and put them on the belt to follow my coin and comb bag.

I chided myself internally, “Have you not been on an airplane in the past sixteen years? Hello?”

I cleared the metal detector on my second go, and I balanced on one leg and then the other to put my shoes back on.

I found out when I came back the next day that I should have received a wrist stamp at this point in the process.  I also noticed a sign on the second day that said, “Don’t forget your stamp.”

Oh well. The stamp is obviously another measure to insure inmates don’t escape.  I guess an inmate and a visitor could attempt to trade clothes during a visit. This was not a concern with Daniel and me.

The two of us wearing each other’s clothes is more of a hilarious mental picture than an actual escape threat.

Behind The Walls

I’d made it through prison security and was pointed toward an exit that leads back outdoors. Even though I was just a few feet from where I’d entered the visitors’ building, I was now officially inside the gates of San Quentin State Prison.

I walked toward the massive guard tower that stands between the prison and the outside world. The sun bounced off its whitewashed bricks. I squinted and shielded my eyes with my hand. I wished I had my sunglasses. My eyes are super sensitive to the light even on a cloudy day, and that day was bright and sunny.

The air was crisp and fresh coming off the bay. It was a beautiful day.  But I was looking forward to spending it indoors. Locked inside a little cage with my friend, who is a murderer.

(Outside San Quentin photo credit: Nancy Mullane)

If You’re Going To San Quentin, Be Sure Not To Wear Anything In Your Hair (Part One: Prep)

In California, a lot more effort is required to visit a prisoner who is on death row versus visiting someone in a county jail.

When Daniel Wozniak was in the Orange County Jail, there were rules and regulations that had to be followed to visit. Daniel had to put me on his “visitors list.” During the visit, I needed to put my possessions in a locker, go through a basic metal detector, etc. My visits with Daniel at County were non-contact visits, but the contact-visit people went through the exact same process I did.

Getting Into San Quentin (Without Committing A Crime)

San Quentin State Prison is a completely different animal. Just north of San Francisco, San Quentin is the oldest prison in California (opened in 1852), and it’s the only one to house a death row for men.  Prison is much more intimidating than jail, and there are so many steps necessary to visit an inmate.

Long before I could actually visit Daniel at his new home, I had to be approved by the prison. The inmate needs to request a visiting form, and then he mails it to the visitor. Daniel sent me the form, I filled it out, and mailed it to the sergeant in charge of visiting. After about a month (the normal waiting period), Daniel was informed I’d gotten the A-OK, and it was his job to pass that information on to me.

Once a visitor is approved, an appointment needs to be made. In the OC Jail, visits were granted on a first come, first served basis. On visiting days, an inmate was allowed only one visiting session a day. I often saw people being turned away by the deputies because someone else had beaten them to the punch.

There was no fear of that happening at San Quentin. I needed to make an appointment. Normally appointments are done by telephone, with assigned days and times to call and reserve for the upcoming weekend. However, since I live in Orange County, which is a six to eight-hour drive from San Quentin, I wanted to set up an appointment farther in advance.

For that, the visitor can make a visiting request by mail, if it is done at least one month ahead. Include a self-addressed stamped envelope if you’d like a direct reply, otherwise the sergeant will inform the inmate that an appointment has been scheduled.

I first learned about San Quentin being on lockdown a couple of weeks ago because I was added to a visitor’s mailing list when my request was accepted.

I was approved for extended visits on both days I’d requested. I was scheduled from 9 am – 2 pm, on Feb 10th and 11th.

I booked a hotel in the city of San Rafael, which is about five miles from San Quentin State Prison. No surprise – the hotel did not list San Quentin  in the local attractions section on its website. “We have a pool, a weight room, and we’re just a hop, skip and a jump from California’s death row.”  Conveniently, I have some very close friends who live in the San Francisco area, so I made plans for my non-death row time as well.

The Rules

Before I could pack my suitcase, I needed to learn a completely different set of rules from the ones for visitors to county jail. The restrictions on clothing were much more stringent. This is from the CDCR’s 28-page guide booklet for visitors:

At least the restrictions about color were limited to clothing and not hair, because I was sporting an array of all the Barbie furniture hues at that time. Phew!

Practice Run

For this first visit, I decided to drive from Orange County instead of flying. I wanted to have control over as much as possible. I might not be allowed to wear chambray blue or shower shoes, but I can make sure I don’t have to deal with a cancelled flight or lost luggage, and I wouldn’t have to worry about getting a cab or an Uber to get me to the prison on time.

Obviously, I had some concerns that I would somehow, some way, mess things up. I didn’t want to be denied the visit after all this preparation. I was also really looking forward to seeing Daniel again, and I know he felt the same way about seeing me. This was going to be our first unrecorded conversation.

I figured I’d drive up a day early so I could do a practice run and make sure I would be able to find San Quentin  from my hotel. Anyone who knows me would not put it past me to get lost, even though the prison was less than six miles away. Daniel told me his mom got all twisted around when she’d visited him the first time. He couldn’t understand how that was possible, since the prison, which occupies 275 acres on Point San Quentin, juts right out into North San Francisco Bay. “How can you miss the place?” he asked me on the telephone.

I’ll tell you how.

Your car’s navigation system just drops you onto a little tree lined road and says, “You’ve arrived at your destination.”

There were little blue and yellow and white beach cottages along the road and I was reminded of trips to Catalina Island.  I was not at my destination. I couldn’t even see the prison from that spot.

At least I knew to head towards the water. I started to see the prison peeking through the trees, but I had no idea how to get to it, and find its “front door.”

I ended up on E. Sir Frances Drake Blvd, where I, too, felt like I was attempting to circumnavigate a large land mass. I finally found a small road that went downhill into the prison. Admittedly, I was pretty sure this wasn’t the main entrance, but at that point it was the only entrance I could see.

The guard, who stood in front of a guard shack to my right, opened the gate for me. I couldn’t exactly tell if he wanted me to stop or not, but I figured I’d better ere on the side of safety. I needed directions anyway, so I rolled down my passenger side window and asked if this was the correct entrance for visiting.

“Who are you visiting?” He wasn’t hiding his irritation.

“A prisoner. A death row prisoner. Umm, not today though. Tomorrow. Today I’m doing a practice run, so I know where to go tomorrow. Is this where I go?”

“No. You need to turn your car around.”

I pointed to an open area just inside the gate. “Can I just pull in there and flip around?” My car is not small and I am not tall. At this point, there were other vehicles lined up behind me, including a UPS truck.


“OK. Sorry.” I proceeded to do a fifteen-point turn to get my car heading back to Frances Drake.

I ended up driving kind of alongside the prison looking for another entrance road. Somehow, I ended up missing the surprisingly small sign marking the turn I needed to take.

That’s when I got stuck driving across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. The sky was clear and blue. It had rained the day before, but now the sun was out. It was a lovely scenic view… That’s what I told myself to keep from feeling like an idiot.

It wasn’t until I headed back across the bridge that I finally got a full view of the prison in all its glory. The place is huge and menacing. Photographs don’t do it justice. I can’t imagine being driven through its gates and knowing it would be your home for the rest of your life.

When I got back on the prison side of the bridge, the sign to turn was more clearly marked (or I knew to where to look this time).

I drove slowly through this residential area for a couple of blocks. I knew the property around there had to be super expensive. Waterfront views in the San Francisco area to not go cheap. A small three-bedroom house can easily fetch over a million dollars according to local real estate websites.

I finally got to the very end of the cul-de-sac, and there was the prison, The largest piece of real estate in the neighborhood. In 2009, there was even a proposal that the state should sell San Quentin and re-build the prison on property that didn’t have an ocean view. That didn’t happen.

This wasn’t an official visiting day, but there were still a number of cars in the visitor parking lot. It was the first of three large lots, but the only one you could enter without going through a guarded and gated checkpoint first. The white wooden guard shack was weathered, but no less intimidating. I carefully drove down the steep narrow road entering the lot and parked my car.

Self-Guided Tour

I walked halfway back up the road and looked at the wooden building that had a small “visitor entrance” sign over the door, that was probably hung up in 1972, and not touched since. The place was grungy and deserted.  A puddle of water on the cement floor told me the roof probably leaked during the most recent storms. I didn’t want to imagine an alternative scenario that would cause a floor puddle.

On the right side of the narrow interior was a wall of beat up blue metal lockers.  Who knew the visiting area at the Orange County Jail could look so clean and modern by comparison? County had plenty of plastic molded chairs for the waiting visitors. San Quentin had a couple of old benches.

I spent some time looking around and snapping pictures of the numerous informational bulletins hung all over the wall. Many of the signs re-iterated the clothing and other visitor rules I’d seen online. If the guards deem your clothing to be unacceptable, you can borrow some used clothing they have available for such a circumstance. It reminded me of how my son’s middle school has a similar policy when kids forget their PE clothes. The loaner PE clothes are pink.

There was a locked door heading into an office check point and metal detector. I figured I had the gist of the place, and I was glad I’d made this practice excursion. It made me feel less stressed about coming back the next morning.

Ye Olde Prison Gift Shoppe

On my way out of the parking lot, I saw a small wooden sign shaped like a pointing hand hanging outside a building just in front of the main prison gates. It said “Hobby Gift Store.”

I parked my car alongside the road next to a one-hour parking sign. I had to check it out. A San Quentin gift store was the kind of thing that would have grabbed my attention long before meeting Daniel.

Unfortunately, the store was closed, but I could see inside the front window. The store was a place to sell crafts and art work made by the inmates in classes. (Daniel later told me there is a long waiting list to get into those classes. They are very popular).

I took a couple more pictures before a guard came around from the gate and suspiciously asked me if I needed help. Once again, I explained that I was taking a test run for my visit the next day. I guess I could have said I’m a writer working on a book. That’s true, too.

I decided it was time to get out of there for now.  I was going to be spending enough time around the place that weekend. I took a deep breath of fresh air and headed back to the hotel to get some writing done. Along the way, I stopped at the Redwood Café and got a grilled cheese sandwich and a café latte to go.