DARBY — It’s a long way from California’s infamous San Quentin State Prison to Darby in Montana.
But, in the home and study of author and cultural anthropologist Ted Davidson, the sights and sounds of California’s oldest and most notorious state penitentiary remain quite vivid, right down to the day in 1968 when the warden, his deputies and “goon squad” strip-searched Davidson and threw him out.
For the author, his 20 months studying the subculture of Chicano inmates at the prison became both a touchstone intellectual pursuit and a pivotal moment in his academic career.
Davidson wrote his first book, “Chicano Prisoners: the Key to San Quentin,” from his time using what he calls the holistic approach of the “participant observer” among some of California’s most violent criminals.
“I did something no anthropologist had ever done,” Davidson said of the work he began as a graduate student at the University of California in Berkeley. “I had free reign of the prison population, with the exception of death row.”
In his latest book, “Danger and Trust: San Quentin, the Mexican Mafia and the Chicano Movement,” Davidson details how his exploration of a prison subculture landed him in hot water with California prison officials, state and federal law enforcement, the Mexican Mafia and his employers in academia.
He also credits his work with reinforcing his belief that people are simply people and that differences are simply a product of the cultural lens that one applies to them.
“These are normal human beings,” Davidson said. “They are not some kind of monsters.”
To see them the way the dominant culture viewed them, Davidson said he had the guards.
“They viewed Chicanos as a subspecies,” he said.
At the onset of his research, Davidson said he knew he needed to separate the two perspectives. So, when an associate warden at San Quentin offered Davidson an office and a supply of agreeable inmates to interview in private, Davidson declined.
“I said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ ”’ he recalled. “And I went to where the prisoners were, and most of the time I was isolated (from the guards) with one or sometimes a small group.”
What he began to see, with the help of the prisoners’ perspective, was a system of social order that was dominated by the machismo of Chicano male culture.
He began to see the cohesion and division that came from the “family” that was the Mexican Mafia, a powerful gang that Davidson said has its origins within the walls of California’s prisons.
He also began to understand a penal system — then, and now, the nation’s largest — that often manipulated tensions among its prisoners to maintain a status quo.
Tell it like it is
The reason the prison population worked with him, Davidson said, was to help him in his quest “to tell it like it is.”
That goal did not sit well with a prison staffers who were trying to quell a campaign for prisoner rights, Davidson said.
Standing in the warden’s office, which he remembers being adorned primarily with a huge desk, Davidson was faced with the top brass of the prison’s administration and guard force.
They accused him of smuggling contraband documents, namely The Outlaw, an illicit prison publication, the possession of which could land a prisoner in solitary confinement. Worse still, Davidson said, they accused him of taking this homemade newspaper out of the prison and passing it to the underground press in Berkeley.
They were, of course, right on the mark, Davidson said.
He pulled a copy of The Outlaw out of his pants and handed it to the warden.
“That was not the end of things,” he writes in “Danger and Trust.”
“They had me remove my shoes so they could see if I had some sort of hidden compartment in one of the heels. They demanded to see my wallet; they took all the things out of it — including a miniature address book, which they copied along with other personal papers.”
Prison officials hadn’t wanted the world to know that prisoners were planning a strike to press their demands. But, thanks to Davidson’s dealings with the underground Berkeley Barb, the word was already out.
The day after being kicked out of the prison for good, Davidson said, demonstrators showed up outside the prison grounds to protest in solidarity with the inmates. Being the 1960s, it was a good excuse for a counterculture party.
Describing a “songfest involving long—haired, bearded young men and sack-wearing girls,” Gordon Sakamoto of the Ukia Daily Journal reported that the 500 hippies danced in the grass.
“The Grateful Dead rock group set up their electronic gear on a flatbed truck and the music blared for about three hours,” Sakamoto wrote.
“Convicts may have picked up a few strains of it before their afternoon meal. The hippies trickled away as darkness came.”
While public excitement over the state of prisons like San Quentin eventually faded, Davidson said his activism was just getting started.
He spoke to civic groups and university students. He frequented hearings at the state capitol in Sacramento.
This did not sit well with the powerful officials running California’s prison system, Davidson said.
“The San Quentin warden told me he wanted to see me back in there with a number by my name,” Davidson said.
He was fired from one college teaching job because of his stance against the prisons, he said.
When he finally did land another job as a professor, Davidson said, he once again suspected the FBI of putting moles in his classes.
He said he also had potential trouble brewing from the Chicanos.
When he was asked to participate as an expert in the murder trial of a Mexican Mafia member, Davidson refused.
He said he was also approached to advise in the making of Edward James Olmos’ film “American Me” and refused.
In a world full of strife, Davidson writes that he knows there are no clearcut answers.
“I have plethora of mixed, often conflicting feelings, as an anthropologist, as a law-abiding member of the larger Anglo U.S. culture, as an idealist who would like to see conflict in the world eliminated, and as a realist who recognizes that an ideal world free of conflict is not realistic,” he said.