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 Center.

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 diplomas.

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.