Sadie, a saucy senior in a short skirt waiting to be processed at the visitation center outside the front gate of "The Q," doesn't really want her lifer mate on the receiving end of a lethal injection. But if the state drops the pellet on the California Department of Corrections' (CDC) model Family Visitation program -- as a relentless string of Assembly bills, budget riders, and regulatory maneuverings is attempting -- she says his life of sexual solitary would be a fate worse than execution.
"I wouldn't care if they took [the conjugal] visits away, if I had a date that he would get out," says Sadie, whose man doesn't have a parole date. Under the proposed rules, inmates without parole dates would be denied family visits.
A feeling of paranoia envelops the program, with all women interviewed for this article asking for anonymity out of fear of reprisals from equally paranoid, media-shy prison officials. But paranoids tend to be better prepared, and the wives could give any Boy Scout a lesson in readiness, considering the hoops they must jump through as outlined in the prison's Family Visiting Procedure brochure.
Many times, the wives say, visits are canceled if the presiding sergeant spots one of numerous suspicious items the wives might try to smuggle in: ice cream of any kind; cash in denominations higher than $1 in their wallets; stuffed animals; massage devices; denim clothes, or clothes in the colors of blue, gray, green/forest green, camouflage, orange, or black; gum or incense; or reading material -- especially academic material -- other than TV Guide and religious literature.
Some even contend that the visits are abruptly scuttled whenever the temper of the "visiting sergeant" in charge of the program is piqued, although most say San Quentin is one of the friendlier facilities in that regard.
The wives' predilection for anonymity doesn't end at the prison gate or when they talk on the record to reporters. If a prison wife is "out" in her community, she's frequently branded as some type of low-budget whore, welfare scam artist, or a trashy combination of the two. It can also mean that she finds herself suddenly unemployed when her boss discovers. Her children also are targets, often being castigated by peers as "con kids" and suffering attempts by family members to wrest control of custody.
Donna pulls up to the checkpoint in an elderly Datsun, a National Rifle Association sticker gracing its back side window. She piles out with her 9-year-old daughter, who knows the drill by now: She shies away from the camera so her face won't be captured on film.
Today, Donna and her 9-year-old are celebrating the family's birthdays -- mom, daughter, and the incarcerated stepdad -- with fixings for a meal of rosemary chicken. There are extra sheets to cover the couches in the trailer.
Donna wasn't married to her man when he was sent to prison for life, but she was there the day the SWAT team and the Sheriff's Department arrested him.
"We were both forced to lie on the ground with guns pointed at our heads," she says. "After I realized he was going to prison for life I had a lot of family pressure -- I was going to have my son [from a previous relationship] taken away from me by family members," says Donna, who drove down from the North Bay for the visit.
After he was sent to the slammer, Donna left town, only to be discovered years later by a private investigator hired by her boyfriend who tracked her down in a small Midwestern town. There, she ran a church nursery and had given birth to another child, the 9-year-old who accompanies her to San Quentin.
The fact that her beau hired a PI from the cellblock to locate her was a beacon of love calling her home.
"And then they found out the 'church nanny' was leaving to marry a murderer at San Quentin, but I'm so glad we're back together," she says. "So I had to uproot [my daughter] from the ideal life I worked so hard to make to come out here, and now our life is a complete hell, except for the minutes we're with him.
"There's a stigma in that if people find out, you lose jobs, you can't rent places," Donna continues. "I can't be a nanny out here. Who would hire a nanny whose husband's serving life for murder?"
Outside the front gate of the prison, a half-dozen women queue up for an inspection by the visiting sergeant inside the San Quentin Handicraft Shop, which doubles as the point of embarkation for all visitors and the retail outlet for crafts made inside the prison. If they pass inspection, visitors are dispatched through a small door to wait for transportation to the cellblock or the family visit "condos," as the wives euphemistically call the eight trailer-size units. (The wives note with some enthusiasm that days earlier a couple of jailbirds flew the coop from the Handicraft Shop after churning out some of the souvenirs hawked by the prison.)
Sadie drove about 250 miles to spend a scant few days with her incarcerated consort, and Margaret logged seven hours south, toting her three kids for a visit with the old man in a visitation unit the other wives laughingly call "Camp Run Amok."
Standing outside of San Quentin on this dreary day is like huffing a cloud of dirt, with the murky brown water of San Francisco Bay sloshing up on the imposing shoreline.
"Yippy yi yay, ti yay, we're open for business!" shouts the visiting sergeant.
The women line up beside their numerous cardboard boxes of groceries, cooking supplies, and clean linens that will drape everything from beds to couches in a sanitary shroud. Beth, who came from Sacramento, says a typical visit costs the wives well over $100 for groceries and the like.