The Marshall Project - Rarely Seen Images of the Real San Quentin

By: Pete Brook

The pictures, for the most part, are prosaic, like outtakes from a yearbook photo shoot. One shows five members of an amateur rock band. Another depicts uniformed football players gathered for a team photo. In yet another, a man is shown carving an ice sculpture. Occasionally, though, the subject matter is much darker.

One photo comes with caption information: “Martinez Killed in Yard, 1963.” It shows empty bleachers and what appears to be blood spatter in the foreground. The yard is in San Quentin Prison. And once you know that, there is nothing prosaic about any of the photos.

There are at least 10,000 negatives, most of them unprocessed, that date from the late 1940’s to the late 1980’s, stuffed into cardboard boxes and unexamined for decades. The negatives came to the attention of San Quentin’s public information officer, Lt. Sam Robinson, about four years ago. He showed them to Nigel Poor, a professor at California State University, Sacramento, who had been teaching a history of photography course at the prison.