San Quentin Part 1: The Fish Tank
Updated: Jul 1, 2022
When I was a boy, my dad took me on car rides in the wide-open desert on the Navajo Indian Reservation.
As we drove, he often blurted out stories about his days in San Quentin State Prison in the late 1940s. He talked as though I knew everything about his life there. At first, I had no idea what crime he had committed, but over time, I was able to piece things together.
Dad never talked about the “Q” around my mom or siblings. The stories became a part of the web of secrets he shared with me, usually as a means to recruit me into criminal activity, since he frequently stole from the government and forced me to be his lookout.
He described his days in the fish tank, the jobs he had in prison, what daily life was like for inmates, and the crimes his cell mates committed. Dad claimed he should never have been in prison because the bastard he tried to kill richly deserved it. He was sad the bastard managed to live. Any fool would’ve understood why he needed killing.
Dad seemed entirely unfazed that the man’s death would have gotten him the death penalty. Since I was born nine months after he got out, it unnerved me that he was so cavalier about his near miss with the gas chamber.
None of the cons were guilty of the crimes that got them locked up, according to them, but they often bragged about crimes they had gotten away with. Dad laughed about the stories he recalled hearing in the yard, where cons talked freely out of earshot of the prying ears of the guards, also known as the screws.
Arriving at San Quentin
Dad’s stories about the Q fascinated me, but his descriptions of the fish tank and how it worked were among my favorites.
The fish tank was the cellblock where new inmates (fish) were locked up until they were processed into some other category. It was high security, of course, because all but the deadliest inmates were assigned there first.
From Thurston Crow:
You can’t imagine what goes through a man’s mind on the bus ride to prison. The diesel tour, they call it.
That might be the toughest part of all, the swelling up of the stark reality that this is it. You’re going to wake up in the Big House for untold mornings to come. There’s no escape. By that point, you’ve pushed the fury, or whatever dominated your brain when you committed the crime, so far back so many times that you would swear you didn’t do anything wrong.
You even use more passive ways of talking, like turning “when I committed the crime” into “when the crime was committed.” It doesn’t matter—even if what you did was justified.
When the bus unloads at the entrance to the prison, your life as you know it is over. Before the day has ended, you’ll be locked up in a six-by-ten-foot cell. With another inmate. He’ll already be there, in the top bunk.
The new fish are forced to strip off their clothes and get their heads shaved. This also strips the man of what remaining dignity he has and reminds him his life has drastically changed.
Next, the fish parade in front of inmates in charge of laundry. The inmates scream, “What’s your size?” If they don’t understand the answer, or the prison doesn’t have the proper size, someone will throw a random set of clothes to the fish. They are either the right size, or in my case, much larger than necessary, but never smaller. Mostly the clothes are baggy and have to be hitched up with a string.
Inmates usually stay in the fish tank their first 30 days in prison. Soon after they arrive, they’re tested by the other inmates, like I was, so they learn quickly to focus on staying alive. I just tried to wake up every day.
We had regularly scheduled classes and interviews for eight hours every day to learn about dominant and compliant personality types. The idea was to teach us to take responsibility for our own conduct and not return to prison after parole. A noble idea that touched me in all the right places.
I don’t remember the name of my first teacher and interrogator—a low-level examiner with standard questions, read from a sheet.
He was a miserable bastard trying to hang on to the last job he’d ever have. A totally incompetent asshole who wanted me to understand a few fundamental things, and he pushed very hard on them. Every inmate received the same treatment.
He began by saying that anybody could tell me what to do and I’d do it because I was a victim of my feeble, though highly intelligent mind. I was putty in the hands of my manipulators. And I needed him to point my moral compass in the right direction.
What a complete joke that was. This dumbass could barely read the questions on the sheet. With his brilliant guidance, he taught me how to manipulate the prison system to make the most out of my time. All I wanted was to get out.
I took endless tests to evaluate my personality type. Was I healthy? Was I a homosexual? Did I see demons in the Rorschach inkblots? Did I secretly yearn to be my mother’s lover? Did I fake my intelligence test? Was I moral, amoral, or immoral? And did I know the difference? Did I hate humanity? Was I an aberrant personality?
What was my skill to earn a paycheck? Probably not so hot. He tried to make me believe that when we went to the big yard, we would be in an individualized program to become a big hit in society when we were paroled.
It didn’t quite work that way.
There were damn few jobs where you could learn anything worth knowing. Most of the men went to the rock pile, where they made little ones out of big ones with a sledgehammer. Others washed laundry all day or mopped thousands of square feet of concrete or washed endless numbers of pots and pans.
These jobs might not help you stay out of prison, but they would motivate you to try.
Sometimes Dad abruptly stopped talking or changed the subject. I always wanted to hear more, but I knew not to press him.
In my next post: Dad’s first and biggest break in prison.
Read more about my larger-than-life father in my award-winning memoir, The Pale-Faced Lie. Find out how he groomed me to be his partner in crime and what happened when I finally stopped helping him.
“Cinematically gripping.”—Kirkus Reviews