TIme on the Inside: the reality of prison

Paul Sutton has been taking San Diego State University students to prison for 24 years.

It’s the ultimate hands-on experience for criminal justice majors and others interested in law, social work and related careers. Several times a year, Sutton, a criminal justice professor, leads small groups of SDSU upperclassmen on a five-day tour of California’s toughest incarceration facilities, including San Quentin, Folsom and Soledad.

San Quentin
Students speak with James, an inmate at the
California Men's Colony in San Louis Obispo

Any student who has heard the clang of prison gates closing behind him will tell you this: walking among convicted murderers for the first time rivets your attention like a rifle shot.

In the harsh sunlight of the prison yard, a thousand eyes examine you. Your skin prickles with awareness of the inmate walking beside you. He is a tour guide – the reward for 20 years of good behavior. While he tells his story, you juggle apprehension, disbelief, intrigue and compassion.

Later, after several hours of conversation with him and other inmates, you leave the prison, grateful to be walking free in the cool night air. Glancing back at the dark towers outlined against the sky, you suspect this day may have changed the way you look at life.

Humanizing the convict

Good and bad, these inmates became human for us.

— Morgan Gire,
SDSU alumnus,
now a deputy district attorney

Morgan Gire remembers being changed by the prison tour. A deputy district attorney in Sacramento County, Gire graduated from SDSU in 1996 with a degree in criminal justice. Now, a decade after his prison tour, he can still recall the smells and sounds, but his clearest recollections are of the inmates he met.

“Good and bad, these inmates became human for us,” Gire said. “I remember thinking about the dichotomy between the heinous crimes they had committed and the polite manner with which they called me ‘sir.’

“When I did the tour, I knew I was headed in this career direction. The experience helped me appreciate that people’s lives depend upon a fair and responsible system of justice. I’ve also kept the sense of each prisoner’s humanity and that has helped me do my job.”

Gire is among 2,000 SDSU alums and students who have spent time inside California’s prisons with Paul Sutton. Typically, the groups leave at dawn on Monday and travel by bus to eight prisons, returning home on Friday night, exhausted and enlightened.

Visceral reaction

“I walked into the prison tour with my beliefs and values firmly held in my physical, mental and emotional being, and came back struggling to find a way to put them back together so that they made sense again,” Samantha Arlen wrote after joining the prison tour last year.

Students tour Delancey House

Sutton hopes for this kind of reaction. He wants students to see, smell, hear and feel the reality of prison life. His tours stretch the definition of education, challenge ingrained beliefs and force an examination of society’s treatment of those who break the rules. In the end, students also confront their own humanity.

“They meet people they knew they would hate,” Sutton said, “but whom they come to understand and respect. The discoveries are agonizing— and through that unwelcome anguish comes incredible personal growth. The students find themselves committed to making a difference in a world that was previously distant and irrelevant to them. My greatest hope for the prison tour is that it awakens students to their own humanity and emboldens them to act; ultimately, that it empowers them to make a difference.”

From civil disobedience to criminologist

Sutton’s commitment to making a difference was an outgrowth of the anti-war protests he joined as an undergraduate at the University of Kansas. With degrees in history and political science, he considered law school, but was recruited for a new Ph.D. program in criminal justice at the Albany campus of the State University of New York.

Prison guard at Folsom
A Folsom prison guard speaks with students

For nearly 30 years, Sutton has written about criminal law and procedure, sentencing, criminal justice and the media. He appears regularly on the KPBS programs “Full Focus” and “These Days.” Last year, he organized a film festival for the American Society of Criminology and initiated efforts to publish inmates’ poetry and essays. Sutton is also editing "Prison through Tomorrow’s Eyes," a film shot during the March 2006 prison tour.

Can prisons be fixed?

With his film and prison tours for students, Sutton wants to build awareness of the deplorable condition of the California corrections system. Decades of a "lock-em-up" approach to crime have swelled the prison population to double what California’s 33 facilities were built to hold. Thousands of inmates bunk in hallways, classrooms, gymnasiums and other space not intended as housing.

San Quentin
San Quentin

Maintaining the system costs California taxpayers $8.75 billion every year. Moreover, California's recidivism rate tops most other states’. About 70 percent return to prison after being released.

“Corrections is a sort of monolith that simply crushes all in its path, especially those forces that would change its course,” Sutton said.

The situation inside the prisons is so severe that a federal judge has given California until June to address the overcrowding or face the prospect of a court-imposed population cap.

My hope is that the prison tour awakens students to their own humanity and emboldens them to act.

— Paul Sutton,
SDSU criminal justice professor

Though Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently unveiled a $10.9-billion plan to build new prisons and remodel some existing facilities, critics see it as a high-priced band aid for a patient in need of emergency surgery.

So, Sutton keeps the issue alive – in television and radio appearances, through his many projects and by putting SDSU criminal justice students directly in contact with the inmates imprisoned in California. This month’s tour will be Sutton’s 83rd. And like their counterparts a decade earlier, today's students continue to be moved by what they witness behind bars.

Inmates at
Convicted murderers speaking to visitors in the chapel
of the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo

“The prison tour has made me want to step in and change the entire system single-handedly because many of the problems seem to have such simple solutions,” wrote Christina Stiffler, a student who, before she visited the prisons in January, believed “criminals were scum and society would be better without them.”

The tour changed Stiffler’s view on prisons and prisoners. She now believes “in creating a program to inform the public about the realities of prisons. Once the public starts to realize the facts, it will be easier for politicians to change the laws and recreate a system of rehabilitation and reasonable punishment. You cannot change what people believe, but you can give them the cold hard facts and hope they rethink their position.”

Related information


  • Story by Coleen L. Geraghty
  • Photographs courtesy of Paul Sutton and John Kelly
  • Graphics by John Signer
  • Edited by Happy Aston
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