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Frequent Prison Miles

Professor takes 103rd tour of California facilities

Since coming to California in 1983, Paul Sutton, a retired criminal justice professor at San Diego State University (SDSU), has seen the inside of more prisons than many CDCR employees who have spent their entire careers with the department.

Sutton just recently concluded his 103rd tour of a California prison. Over the past 30 years he has taken more than two thousand criminal justice administration students from SDSU on what the students describe as a “fascinating and mind-blowing” experience.

Being able to view the different way each facility ran and it’s different parameters regarding level of security was fascinating,” said Barbara Rudd, a fourth-year criminal justice major at SDSU.I enjoyed every bit of it, but the most amazing part was being able to view our state’s history of prisons all in one week.” 

When Sutton moved to California to teach at SDSU he became the resident expert on prisons – although he hadn’t actually been to a California prison. He was known for his Emmy-winning documentary “Doing Time,” based on a New Mexico penitentiary, that he made while a sociology professor at the University of New Mexico.

His first class of students asked to tour a California prison, and so began the weeklong tradition. In the spring of 1983, Sutton took his first class of students to eight California institutions. They carpooled in six cars, Sutton described it as “one of the worst, but an incredible tour.” In the days before portable GPS devices or smart phones they relied on paper maps, which sometimes didn’t show the prison, resulting in some wrong turns.

Despite the challenges of the first tour, Sutton continued the tradition and eventually graduated to 15-passenger vans. Today’s tours now travel in executive buses, which makes for a much more enjoyable excursion. The tour typically leaves at 5:20 a.m. on a Monday from San Diego and returns about 8 p.m. on Friday.

In the early days of the tours the students visited all of California’s institutions. Now that CDCR has expanded to 33 institutions, the five-day tour hits about 18 prisons. The institutions include both male and female facilities, minimum-, medium-, and maximum-security institutions, and the Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco. 

“I’m big on getting these students exposed to the reality of the situation that they will one day deal with and they’ll be a direct or even indirect part of,” Sutton said. “They need to know what goes on inside prison and understand the complexities that make it much different than the ‘lockup’ world we see on TV.”

The tour has settled into a schedule that accommodates two prison tours a day. The institutions include San Quentin, Folsom, California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, and Correctional Training Facility in Soledad.

At CMC, the tour is conducted by some of the inmates, usually lifers, who have shown good behavior. The students “are scared to death going in because all they see of prisons is what’s on TV and shows like ‘Lockup.’ By the end, they’re amazed by what actually happens inside the prison walls,” said Sutton.

“It was a wonderful experience, a true eye-opener of prison in California. The whole prison tour was a stand-out moment” said recent Criminal Justice graduate Magdalena Hernandez. 

A couple of years ago Sutton filmed a documentary, “Prisons Through Tomorrow’s Eyes,” in which he interviewed students before, during and after the tours to capture their changing perspectives.
“Typically, by the end of the tour, they’re at 180 degrees from their original viewpoint,” said Sutton. The film is now an official selection at the Cannes Film Festival in France.

Although Sutton is retired he plans to continue offering students the opportunity to tour CDCR facilities.