The Men Behind the Bars

The prisoners at San Quentin take center stage in Nigel Poor’s exhibit at BAMPFA.

Re-Creation 1-6-75, by Nigel Poor and Tommy Shakur Ross. Courtesy Nigel Poor, with thanks to Warden Ron Davis and Lieutenant Sam Robinson.

When you hear the words “San Quentin,” a cascade of images comes to mind. 

How about Johnny Cash’s 1969 performance inside the prison — the one where inmates applauded rapturously to lyrics like, “San Quentin, I hate every inch of you!” How about the protesters who, for decades outside the prison’s gates, have shouted and waved signs about the death penalty and prison reform? How about the incarcerees themselves, both past (Charles Manson and Robert Kennedy’s killer, Sirhan Sirhan) and present (like Scott Peterson and Polly Klaas’ murderer, Richard Allen Davis)?

Located in wealthy Marin County, San Quentin is a site that tens of thousands glimpse every day as they drive past on the freeway — but that’s all they get: a glimpse. 

Nigel Poor subverts the instinct to settle for a glimpse by going inside San Quentin and giving the incarcerated a voice, whether it’s working with them to produce the hit podcast Ear Hustle or having them analyze decades-old San Quentin photos that reveal the current inmates’ thoughts on prison violence, prison routines, and prison relationships between fellow inmates, between guards and inmates, and between inmates and their families outside San Quentin. 

All of these insights are on display at BAMPFA, in a new exhibit called “The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison,” which uses audio, video, and photographic “mapping” — where the incarcerated literally write on photos — to reveal life behind San Quentin’s bars. The photos become like diaries or even art criticism, where we read thoughts that might otherwise remain private. 

On one 1976 photo called Mother’s Day ­­— which shows a mom and dad posing and smiling with their incarcerated son — a current San Quentin incarceree, Mesro Coles-El, writes that he detects “a hint of sadness” behind the mother’s smile, and asks, “How can one find happiness when one has to visit her son in prison.” Coles-El also notes the conspicuous absence of something that he believes defines the San Quentin experience: “There’s no barbed wire to announce that this is prison.” 

Poor also has San Quentin’s incarcerated analyze celebrated art-world photos that have seemingly nothing to do with San Quentin, as with the 1993 Hiroshi Sugimoto photo called Carpenter Center, a poetic and almost haunting image of an empty baroque theater with a glowing screen, and the 1987-1988 Richard Misrach photo, Drive-In Theatre, Las Vegas, which shows an abandoned theater. 

“These photos,” wrote Michael Nelson, a San Quentin incarceree in solitary confinement, “reflect today’s absence of gratitude and the lack of appreciation for the history of our past that has led us to our present. Consequently, the two photographs remind me of those who get left behind by not being able to keep up with the changes that lives and breathes throughout time. . . . I think of being locked up in prison where time seems to stand still, while the world outside moves on without me.” 

At the BAMPFA exhibit, we hear audio of Nelson reading his words aloud, and we see the lined pages of his assignment, including his note to Poor, where he apologizes “for the quality of my paper” and notes that he wrote his critique in a part of the prison called “Ad-Seg” — a term for “administrative segregation” or solitary confinement — where “the level of noise here is always at a high volume! I can barely hear my own thoughts!” 

Solitary confinement is a space, however temporary, for San Quentin’s most troubling incarcerees, and Nelson couldn’t access all the materials that Poor provides for those who become her students. 

A professor of photography at California State University, Sacramento, and a member of the Bay Area photo collective called Library Candy, Poor has been working with the incarcerated at San Quentin since 2011. Ear Hustle (20 million downloads and counting) has changed the way millions of people look at San Quentin, and even done the same for Poor herself. Poor admits she had harsh perceptions of the prison before 2011 — before she got to know incarcerees like Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams, who both co-produce Ear Hustle. (Woods was released from San Quentin last year but still co-produces the podcast.) 

“I had all the typical stereotypes in my head, I’m embarrassed to say now,” Poor tells SF Weekly. “I expected guys to be angry, scary, and not engaged in thought outside of their immediate surroundings. I expected a one-note emotional tone. In the podcast and also in the photographic project, people are surprised when there’s humor and joyful things that are talked about and shown in prison.”

You see the humor and joy in Tommy Shakur Ross’ analysis of a 1975 photo that shows three women volunteers preparing gift boxes at San Quentin. Ross calls them “San Quentin’s Angels,” labels some of their goodies “Angel Food cakes,” and says of the volunteers’ coiffed hairdos, “How about those full hairstyles from back in the day?” The humor is also evident throughout episodes of Ear Hustle, including from Woods — whose appearances on the podcast helped convince then-California governor Jerry Brown to commute his sentence. Woods had been serving 21 years of a longer sentence for armed robbery. His release has opened up the possibilities for Ear Hustle to expand its subjects, including what life is like for those who finally make it out of San Quentin.

Looking back at her San Quentin work, it’s also amazing, Poor says, to revisit her previous perception of men’s value in society. “I haven’t always had the highest opinion of men, I’m sorry,” she tells SF Weekly. “And I was wondering how it would be working with just men, and what has been a personal revelation for me working with the guys in prison is that it’s actually given me a much better respect for men, because I’ve been able to have such intimate and emotionally open conversations, and I’ve been able to observe men in a close-knit society, and see how they deal with frustration, and brotherly love, and conflict, and family. I don’t get to see that on the outside. It’s made me much more sympathetic to how difficult it can be to be a man, and how you negotiate all this stuff, especially when there aren’t a lot of women around.” 

Poor and the exhibit’s original curator, Lisa Sutcliffe of the Milwaukee Art Museum, worried that the artwork might become too “precious” when put in a major art museum — but those fears evaporated when the museum gave free admission to those who’d been in prison or had family members in prison, and when the museum expanded its programming — including holding a symposium that examined how the arts can help reform the criminal justice system. “It brought people to the museum who’d never been to a museum,” Poor says. “People felt really welcome. And a lot of people came who worked in prisons. That totally surprised me.” 

The exhibit features a few decades-old photos of inmates who’ve been repeatedly stabbed. Their wounds are disturbing to look at. Still, Poor says, “most of San Quentin seems more like a village rather than a scary place to be,” and it’s this village side that’s examined in Ear Hustle and in the BAMPFA exhibit, which will severely challenge art-goers’ assumptions about a prison they may only know from a distance  — if they even know it at all. 

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