Ivan Gale, Warden says in Tomales: Rape not a major problem in San Quentin, Point Reyes Light, May 30, 2002.
Countering widespread claims that rape is prevalent in California
prisons, San Quentin State Prison Warden Jeanne Woodford said last week
that instances in her prison were virtually non-existent. "I can't say
it has been totally diminished, but it is very rare," she said, addressing
a crowd gathered to hear her speak at the Tomales Regional History
Woodford pointed to the prison's system of evaluating inmates and
separating the violent prisoners from the non-violent ones as the
primary tool prison officials use to prevent rape and other forms of
violence. "If an inmate has a problem with their cellmate we'll move them to another
cell," she said. "We also have single cells for potential predators."
Speaking to forty-or-so West Marin residents, Woodford, née Jeanne
Ballatore, said she grew up in Valley Ford and later attended Sonoma
State University. She became a corrections officer at San Quentin in 1978,
and has been employed there ever since.
As warden of San Quentin, Woodford said she maintains an "open door
policy" in which the prison welcomes members of the press twice a week.
In addition, some 2,000 volunteers that work directly with the inmates
visit the site each year, she said.
Isolating sexual predators
San Quentin also has a Sexually Violent Predators Unit on the site,
which will quarantine potential sexual predators. In fact, the prison is
currently quarantining one potential predator in a single cell, a San
Quentin spokesman said.
While prisoner-rights groups have repeatedly alleged that state
prisons are staging areas for thousands of rapes of both men and women
prisoners each year, one such group last week said that Woodford's
policies appear to be working. Tom Cahill, president of Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR), a
nonprofit based in Fort Bragg, Mendocino County, told The Light that
among the letters the organization has received from distressed inmates,
none have come from San Quentin. "If San Quentin does indeed use the system
of classifying inmates, then it sounds like it's being run the way prisons
should be run by separating the violent criminals," Cahill said. "If
this is the case, I congratulate and thank the warden for this policy."
Several dangerous prisons
Nonetheless, Cahill - who has worked with and studied the state's
prison system for 20 years - said he sees the California corrections
system as one of the worst in the country, alongside Texas. He noted that he
bases his views in part on the numbers and kinds of letters he receives
from inmates. In his view, some of the worst California prisons are Corcoran
State Prison in Kings County, Pelican Bay State Prison in Del Norte
County, Frontera State Prison in Los Angeles County, and Vacaville
State Prison in Solano County.
Statistics of rape are generally difficult to obtain. Many prisons
routinely restrict access by media and the public, and many prisoners
don't report instances of abuse because it will lead to further abuse
from either guards or other inmates. "Being labeled a 'snitch' in prison
is a very dangerous thing," said Lara Stemple, executive director of SPR.
However, research done by Dr. Cindy Struckman-Johnson, a social
psychology professor at the University of South Dakota, concluded that
one in five men in prison nationwide are subjects of sexual abuse, and one
in nine are raped.
Warden reaching out
For her part, Woodford said the current state of affairs at San
Quentin - which this year celebrates its 150th anniversary - is busy, but
well-managed. She described her role as one of "running a small city."
As warden she is responsible for 6,000 inmates, plus 100 new inmates that
arrive every day to be sent to other prisons around the state. The
facility serves thousands of hot meals each day, and has its own school
system and zip code, she said.
Despite the enormity of her tasks and the mountain of paperwork that
follow it, Woodford said she still tries to walk the prison grounds
twice a week to see how the inmates are being handled. She told the
audience that despite the dangers, she does not carry a gun, and often walks
alone to get an unfettered view. "I often try to detach myself from my
aides who are trying to make sure I'm safe," she said.
Programs for inmates
As warden for the last four years, Woodford said she has overseen
several initiatives to bring a measure of self-growth and confidence to
those inmates who want to help themselves.
One new program called "Success Storm" focuses on inmates wanting to
address their problems and prepare for life outside the gates. The
program offers courses in anger management, ethics, and substances abuse.
In another program, children of inmates are allowed to regularly visit the
prison so they cab be tutored by their fathers. Woodford said she is
also developing a program to educate Mexican nationals housed within San
Quentin and graduate passing students with Mexican high-school
Despite the forward-thinking programs, violence does still surface at
San Quentin. County and state officials in recent months have become
embroiled in a debate over whether to close the prison, in part because of
its age and occasional violent outbreaks.
Assemblyman says prison has problems
Assemblyman Joe Nation last year called for the state Department of
General Services to evaluate the facility and measure the costs
involved with upgrading it or tearing it down. "San Quentin is 150 years
old and wasn't built as a maximum security facility, though we house some of
our worst criminals there," he commented.
Nation has characterized the facility as "a timebomb," and cited two
close calls in the last two years in which inmates got out of control.
In one instance, a group of death-row inmates cut through a chain-link
fence and tried to take an officer hostage before they were finally
subdued by other officers.
The San Quentin study called for by Nation was halted late last year
because of lack of financing, and has not yet been resumed.