The Phil Collins classic, In the Air Tonight boomed through his car’s stereo system as Terry Hunter slowly cruised through a quaint bay side hamlet.
Neatly maintained, narrow fronted double-story houses, built right on the street, lined the right side of the road, while small ripples from a morning sun-drenched San Francisco Bay lapped onto the shores on his left.
Terry launched into a deep, long yawn. His weary eyes dropped to the dashboard clock glowing 7.10am. It had been a long night, but finally after five and one half hours of lonely driving, he was almost there.
When the popular 1980 song hit its signature drum crash crescendo, Terry was unable to resist. He channeled his inner rock band drummer and belted out the popular drum break on his steering wheel, then sang along in a flat, monotone voice,
‘I can feel it com-ing in the air tonight…Oh Lord…’
His brief drumming interlude invigorated him slightly. A grin emerged as his head nodded in time to the music.
After rounding a bend in the road, excitement washed over him when he noticed the characteristic buildings of his intended destination up ahead.
The narrow road on which he traveled terminated at a large set of black wrought iron gates. A satisfied smile filled his face as he read the large sign erected to the left of the gates - “California State Prison San Quentin”.
While stationary at a stop sign, Terry took a moment to take in the sight of the infamous prison before him. Its commanding presence resembled that of a medieval castle, with its crenelated parapet tower front and foremost and its surrounding fortress walls.
This was the first time he had seen this prison, or any prison for that matter, so he was both excited and apprehensive. He had no idea what to expect once he stepped into the unknown inside these great walls.
Terry’s excitement and anxiety levels rose with increased synchrony as he followed the signs directing him to the bay side visitor’s parking lot.
A steep access road led down into the open air parking lot below the main road. It was shared with a steady flow of people, most of whom were women, walking in the opposite direction from the car park towards the first check point – the visitor registration building.
Despite the early hour of the morning the visitor parking lot was already three-quarters full and filling fast. Such was the magnificence of this Point San Quentin location that even the poorly maintained visitor’s parking lot, located right on the shores of the bay, afforded stunning million dollar views of the bay and the San Rafael bridge.
Terry parked in a space along the fence line, closest to the water. He took a moment to admire the magnificence of the post card perfect coastal panorama. A brilliant cloudless blue backdrop framed the bordering distant hills and the glistening waters of San Francisco Bay.
He alighted from his vehicle and stretched, breathing in the fresh salty sea air. It was calm with no wind, not even a light breeze could be felt off the water.
Squawking seagulls hovered casually over the shoreline as the ripples gently lapped onto the shore. The serenity before him was in stark contrast to the confines of prison life only yards away.
Shortly after popping his trunk an inquisitive seagull landed on the roof of Terry’s vehicle, where it stood eagerly monitoring his movements. He smiled at the presumptuous feathered scavenger. Its beady eyes were trained on Terry’s movements, presumably on the off chance he may have something edible to discard.
A second gull gracefully glided in to join the first gull on the vehicle roof. The brazen confidence of the gulls suggested that the daily activity in the visitor parking lot was a regular source of treats for the birds.
‘I haven’t got anything for you guys…’ he said to his curious winged visitors. He was particularly amazed at the size of the seagulls up here on the bay. By comparison, they were about twice the size of the gulls on the coast down home in LA.
Terry removed his wallet and peeled it open to check he had the maximum allowable fifty, one dollar bills. He hid his other larger bills in the trunk, along with his wallet, mobile phone and all other banned property, then followed the procession up into the Visitor Registration building.
After a short uphill stroll Terry entered a crowded, outside covered corridor with its dusty, dirty concrete floor. There were two long lines of people, mostly women, queued in front of him waiting to be processed. Terry joined the shorter of the two lines.
While he waited, his curiosity heightened. He tried to take in as much of the experience as he could. He glanced along the lines. Most of the women waiting to be processed were of African American or Hispanic appearance – young and old.
The small number of women seated on wooden benches along the side were either noticeably pregnant, or elderly, while other visitors brought their children with them.
Apart from the pregnant, elderly or the infirm, everyone was forced to stand and queue and endure lengthy waits in sub-standard conditions that lacked any form of comfort or consideration to the visitors.
Terry could only imagine how unpleasant this waiting environment would be during the more challenging winter months, especially if the icy winter winds ripped through this undercover area.
There were no prejudices here. Regardless of ones gender, race, color or socio-economic status, everyone was treated equal – and that was clearly second-class. Whether this was inferred, or intentional, that was how Terry felt: unimportant.
He considered if the prison subscribed to an unofficial mindset that if one was visiting a lowlife inmate, of whom prison guards held in little regard, then by association, the inmate’s visitor must also be a similar lowlife and unworthy of any respect or basic comforts.
A short middle-aged lady with long grey hair standing in front of Terry glanced back at him and caught his eye. Her smile at him was reassuring and calming.
‘First time here?’ She asked.
Terry smiled. ‘Is it that obvious…?’
She nodded slightly, but politely refrained from answering. She indicated the undercover corridor they patiently stood in. ‘They call this “The Tube”,’ she said. ‘For obvious reasons...’ She said as her eyes scanned over the curved roof line of the long narrow corridor.
‘I take it you’ve done this before,’ Terry asked.
She smiled. ‘I’ve been coming here for a little over ten years…’
Terry’s raised eyebrows gave away his obvious astonishment. The woman smiled in understanding of his apparent surprise. ‘I’m a volunteer. I visit condemned prisoners to give them some company… someone to talk to….visit them on their birthdays, things like that.’
‘Ah…’ Terry nodded. ‘I see. That’s very good of you.’
‘Look…despite what crimes they have been sentenced for…’ the volunteer began, ‘these men are people like you and me, but often they are victims of circumstance. Abusive childhood, poverty, it doesn’t really matter why…they are still human beings and the conditions they are kept in here are deplorable.’
She aggressively flicked a despondent hand in the direction of the prison. ‘I wouldn’t keep a dog in those conditions. Some of these men are the nicest, kindest men you will ever meet,’ she said. Terry nearly choked on his saliva. ‘Admittedly, some are broken beyond repair, and yes, they probably belong behind bars…but not in there; not in that dump. But there are others who have spent a lifetime in a small cell…They’re not the same people who committed those crimes decades ago. I’ll even go as far as to say that there are many men on Death Row who are innocent.’
Terry’s face tightened at her last comment. ‘But...they were found guilty by a court…’ he said.
‘Courts get it wrong all the time…All-the-time,’ she said holding a firm stare at Terry.
He didn’t know what to say to that. The woman was obviously very passionate about her beliefs, and he was not going to argue a point over something of which he had no idea or expertise.
‘Anyway…are you going to mainline or condemned?’ she asked.
‘Um…’ Terry thought for a moment. He nervously scratched his eyebrow in contemplation. ‘Oh, ah, Death Row, so…that would be Condemned, wouldn’t it?’
‘That’s right. Good for you. Well you’re in the right line then,’ she said. ‘That line is for mainline prisoners,’ she motioned towards the other line.
Terry nodded. ‘OK. Thanks.’
‘This line will move quicker because we are required to have appointments…they don’t,’ she added. Terry smiled and again nodded his appreciation.
While he waited he glanced down both lines. The visitors impatiently shuffled the distribution of weight on their feet. The young children became bored by the extended wait. The shrill of their loud voices echoed through The Tube as they occupied their time by excitedly running up and down the crowded corridor, ignoring their mothers’ feeble orders to stand still.
The lady in front of Terry turned again and caught his attention. She motioned with her head towards the front of the other line. ‘See that women second from the front...?’ She said quietly. Terry’s eyes drifted to the young twenty-something year old African American girl in question. Before he could answer the woman continued. ‘She won’t be allowed to enter the prison dressed like that,’ she said. ‘Too revealing.’
‘Is that right?’ Terry said, more out of politeness than interest.
‘Aha…’ she nodded. ‘Too much cleavage on show. Shirt too tight. Fingernails too brightly painted. Her jeans look like they’re painted on and she has way too much make-up. She obviously dressed to impress her man inside…but most of these guys haven’t seen a woman dressed like that for years…it’s not fair to them, so they will make her change into something more conservative, or leave – it will be her choice.’
Terry nodded as he regarded the young female. He didn’t think she looked too bad actually, but he could understand what the lady volunteer referred to.
As if on cue, a frumpy female guard emerged from the office and approached the young provocatively dressed female. A close, quiet conversation took place between the two.
Judging by the visiting woman’s surprised glances down at her clothing and at her fingernails held out in front of her, the volunteer was spot on. The woman relinquished her position in the queue and disappeared back out to the car park. Terry never saw her again.
Terry glanced at his watch. Although his line moved faster than the other one, he became concerned that he would miss his 8am appointment.
After what felt like an eternity Terry finally arrived at the office door. He was next in line to be processed.
Following a brief wait at the front of the line, which continued to grow behind him, the door opened automatically to the resonating sound of an electronic buzz. Terry anxiously entered the unknown.
Two guards glared at him as he entered - a seated African American male guard and a standing female guard. The bald-headed male guard’s short sleeve shirt appeared two sizes too small. Its sleeves stretched tightly around biceps thicker than Terry’s thighs.
The guard held out his hand. ‘ID,’ his deep voice grunted.
Terry presented his California Driver’s Licence to the male guard, who verified his details in a computer, to confirm he was an approved visitor.
‘You’re visiting Malcolm Carter at 8am,’ the guard said without lifting his eyes from the screen. That was actually a question rather than a statement, asked so brief and abrupt it was as though the guard was being charged by the word to speak.
The responsibility of processing hundreds of visitors daily must be boring and mundanely repetitive to these guards, but Terry considered, as a first time visitor, they would certainly make what is an intimidating experience more enjoyable with some pleasantries.
‘Um…yes that’s correct,’ Terry nervously replied. His eyes flicked to the female guard standing to his left. She held his stare, before regarding him in an assessing up and down glare.
He didn’t know why, but for some reason he was intimidated in this type of authoritarianism environment. He immediately felt subservient when he entered their domain for the first time.
‘You’ll be going to East Block Visiting,’ the male guard said. Terry nervously nodded his understanding, although he had no idea where East Block Visiting was, or how to get there.
The guard lifted a single page and handed it to Terry.
‘Have a good visit,’ he offered routinely.
The female guard pushed a plastic tray towards Terry. ‘All valuables, shoes and anything metal…’ she pointed at the tray.
Again with the limited sentence structure, he thought as he placed all his possessions into the plastic tray to be x-rayed.
While his possessions slowly traveled along a conveyor belt, Terry cautiously stepped through the airport-style metal detector. He had nothing to hide, but regardless, he still momentarily held his breath as he passed through the detector, cringing slightly, hoping like hell the thing didn’t go off. It didn’t.
The female guard lifted Terry’s bankroll of bills from the tray and counted them out, presumably to ensure there was no more than fifty singles.
Once everything successfully passed inspection and Terry had gathered his possessions, the female guard stamped the back of his hand.
Terry’s frowning eyes fell to his hand where the stamp failed to leave any marking. ‘I think your stamp there is out of ink…’ Terry said, examining his hand.
‘It’s all good...’ the female guard replied. ‘It’s invisible ink.’
‘Oh... OK,’ Terry said with obvious confusion. ‘Do you mind if I ask what that was for?’ he asked.
The seated male guard responded. ‘We have a saying here at the Q…’ Terry’s focus shifted to towards the seated male guard, as he continued. ‘If you glow...you go…?’ the male guard said.
Both guards chuckled to each other at their obvious in-house humor.
The female guard must have noticed Terry’s confused expression. She indicated a small ultraviolet light to her right. ‘If you pass your hand under one of these lights before you leave today and your stamp glows…you’re right to leave.’
‘I see…’ Terry nodded his understanding. ‘Thanks’.
The female guard motioned towards a door to her right. ‘Have a good visit,’ she instructed.
After exiting the confines and tensions of the small office, Terry found himself at the large San Quentin sign and the black ornate gates he noticed earlier when driving. He took a moment to breathe in the fresh air and compose himself.
He had traveled through many international airports in his time, all with stringent customs and border protection procedures involving metal detectors and x-rays, but none was as intimidating, or as stressful as what he just experienced in there.
Maybe it was because it was conducted at a prison, an unknown world to many like him that is synonymous with violence, hatred and extreme discipline.
Terry entered through the gates and commenced the 200 yard walk up the hill to the main prison complex. As he walked he considered the similarities between visiting another country and visiting this prison.
This prison had armed guards protecting its borders. It had strict border entry requirements. It has several communities and divisions living within their impenetrable concrete borders, and they had their own laws that governed those communities. They even had their own ruler - the Warden, who was the law in this community.
As Terry strolled up the steep roadway, he took the time to appreciate the magnificent bay side vista. Half way up he passed the mini lighthouse-guard tower, which snapped him back to reality. The thought of a prison sniper watching him stroll casually up the hill towards the prison building was unnerving. He had no reason for concern if they were watching him, but it was still an unsettling reality.
When Terry approached the main part of the prison his eyes scanned across the various prison buildings visible from the road. It had been around for as long as he could remember, but it was the date “1890” on a brick above the main entrance door that confirmed just how old the prison was.
Terry paused and took a deep breath. It was finally happening. In a very short time he would be sitting face-to-face for two and one half hours talking to a convicted death row killer.
He first learned what little he knew about Malcolm Carter around three months ago. Terry’s Internet research located information about Carter’s 1987 conviction for murdering five women over a six month period.
Although intrigued, Terry was unable to locate any specifics in relation to Carter’s 1985 crimes. In fact, most website hits Terry located were media sites reporting on the capital punishment sentence Carter received, and the mixed opinions his sentence generated from media commentators and public alike, due to executions remaining a controversial issue in California.
Eager to learn more for his research, Terry decided to write to Carter to request the inmate’s permission to visit him and chat with him about his twenty-seven year old crimes, although he didn’t expect a reply.
Much to his surprise, Terry eventually received an Approval to Visit letter from Malcolm Carter around eight weeks later. In the letter Carter made a number of conditional requests of Terry, one of which included an order for some food and snacks Terry had to bring with him for their meeting. Carter wrote that the food and snacks could be purchased from vending machines inside the San Quentin visit rooms.
Terry felt his pulse rate quicken as he took his first daunting steps inside the main prison building. The air temperature was noticeably cooler inside the complex.
He passed a sign that read “Main Visiting” and followed a sign directing him down a long corridor towards East Block. At this point he was on his own. There were no other visitors around he could follow. He felt lost in this strange world of concrete and steel. It was unsettling knowing he was being watched covertly as be moved about the complex.