Behind the forbidding walls of San Quentin State Prison, stationed on a finger of land between Larkspur and San Rafael, lies an unexpected creative project manned almost completely by inmates. With the help of volunteers and specialist Larry Schnieder, San Quentin prisoners make an in-house television station, SQTV.
Founded by Dick Corolla and Wanda Ramey, the latter of whom was the first female news anchor for KPIX, as a film project in the early 1980s. The duo had come to San Quentin to teach inmates about news-style film production. A staff of volunteers began working with prisoners to create a series of programs for San Quentin's population, and since then SQTV has developed a number of programs, each with a different educational focus.
"Inmates were found to have the right to education," Schnieder explained. "One way to educate them was to provide cable TV to them. Now, when the public looks at prisons, they think our cable is the same as theirs, and there's a resentment. We don't get Showtime, or HBO, or the Playboy Channel."
Schnieder, who is paid for his full-time commitment to SQTV, oversees the inmates who produce the channel's various programs. "Our major emphasis is education. We serve a number of vocational and academic programs, all of which are supported through our budget from the college program."
Programs include Another View, a news weekly which keeps inmates abreast of all of San Quentin's programs, from educational and self-help series to interviews with guests and inmates who have celebrated recent achievements -- everything from earning their GED to learning how to read. They are also planning a holiday program which will honor the many faiths of the inmates -- everything from Kwanzaa to Hanukah and Ramadan.
Schnieder's team of five inmates produce a number of programs, which run from 8:00 a.m. until 1:00 a.m.; the other five hours feature an informational bulletin board which also plays radio music in the background. "About 80 percent of the men here have televisions in their cells," he said. "They're only allowed one electronic device, so many of them don't hear the radio."
Lonnie Morris, an inmate who works as SQTV's production coordinator, helps to plan programming and make sure all the shows come off without a hitch. "I always had an affinity for TV and movies," he said fondly. "I was the kid who always rewrote the scripts when I watched movies." When he first came to San Quentin, there weren't any positions open at the TV station, but he kept returning and finally found a job there. "I always felt I could do a good job," he said.
Morris says the job was more difficult than his bright-eyed kid dreams had imagined. "You see things and think, 'I could do that,' and when you get into what it takes, it's much more difficult. Even so, he said he loves everything about the work. "I like the creative aspects. You get an idea, and you get to see it through to its fruition. It's a way to channel my creative energies."
A number of local chapels donate programming to the TV station, and it's Morris' job to coordinate those. He also develops self-help programs, like one which will feature inmates in the Squires program. Through Squires, prisoners speak with at-risk youth and give them tips on how to avoid the kinds of mistakes they made as adults. "I hope to get them to talk about the work they do, and the fulfillment they get from Squires," Morris said.
Eric Washington, who works as the video/production technician for the station, has earned the name "High-Tech" for his ability to fix things around the studio. Much of SQTV's equipment is older, and tends to break down from time to time. "I have my hands full here, there's so much to do," he said with a laugh.
"I gave up another job to come here, as well as a decrease in pay," Washington explained. "After I learned about how to work with the lights and some of the other equipment, they encouraged me to diversify." Washington got the idea to produce a book review program, called Book Talk, because he is such an avid reader.
"It's the first show like it here," he said. "It's worked really well." Since its inception, Book Talk has encouraged a number of inmates to read more often. According to Don Goodlin, the prison's librarian and guest speaker on Book Talk, he's seen an increase in inmate visits to the library as a result of the show.
"We've gotten all thumbs-up all the way," Washington continued. "It teaches people to read for education, and for fun. It's changed a lot of people and their reading habits. Plus, when people see us in the yard and then see us on TV, that has a positive impact on them."
Book Talk discusses any of the 20,000 books available to inmates from the library. Goodlin says there are some restrictions on the subject matter -- prisoners aren't allowed to read books with sexual content, or with information on how to disarm computers or make bombs -- but recent reviews have covered horror books, action/thrillers, science fiction and fantasy. A third regular on the show, Juan, reviews a variety of Spanish-language books, which comprise a whole section of the library.
Ernest Morgan, the video librarian and a cameraman for SQTV, has only been with the station for two weeks but is excited about everything he's learned. "I don't have any television experience, but I'm a certified machinist. It was kind of hard to get a job here because they would rather choose people with experience. But I think I've surprised [Schneider]. Anything you push me into, I can quickly learn."
SQTV's library includes a number of educational videos on everything from mathematics to history and biographies of inspirational luminaries like Babe Ruth and Jesse Owens. Morgan started working with the cameras as well, and says that nothing he's done since joining the station has presented any difficulties for him. "It's a headache," he laughed, "But I'm quick to pick up on things, and I have fun. I'm surprised by how easy everything is to operate."
Even though he's new to the channel, Morgan says he's been inspired. "I have a few ideas, but being low man on the totem pole, I'll keep them to myself," he said shyly. "When I see a need I'll address it. We're a very close-knit family and I wouldn't want to step on any toes."
Schnieder says he knows of a few former SQTV employees who have gone on to work in similar fields. One, he says, now works on a news crew for a national network affiliate, and another works for a computer-based production equipment company. "These skills provide avenues for careers. It can mean work as a peer counselor, in drug rehab programs, or working with this kind of equipment," he said. Both Washington and Goodlin said the skills they're learning now should lead them toward fulfilling jobs once they're released.
In addition, Schnieder says the programs on SQTV try and show inmates that their situation isn't permanent. "We had Ronnie Lott come in for an interview, and he told a story about the importance of not giving up in life until the game is over. When you get knocked down, you get back up again. We had Mike Saito, a martial arts and eastern philosophy specialist, talk about issues of discipline, organizing one's life and understanding oneself."
"We put a positive spin on things. You can turn your life any way you want it to go. Just think about what you want to be, and where you want to go," he continued.
All of the inmates say that working on the TV station has been a turning point for them. Morris tries to bring a message of inspiration to the programs he produces, like one he described called Formula for Success. "I want to find out how people progress rather than being devastated by difficulty. I want to show that there are options to crime and violence," he said.
"I would have been soured on life, in desperation of nothing to do [without this job]," Washington said. "If you feel no worth in what you do, you can't change. It's helped me to see a better way of life. When I leave, I know I'll take it with me."
This article was originally published in the San Rafael News Pointer.