Prison Keepsake

Image: Laura Copenhaver

Off Highway 101, 20 minutes north of San Francisco, you’ll find San Quentin State Prison. And tucked under the prison’s East Gate, a gift shop.

The prisoner-crafted items are homespun takes on the usual fare. If your documents keep escaping, for example, the San Quentin Paperweight — with a watchtower, rocks and hammer, and ball and chain — goes for $10. And there’s more: jewelry, mugs, and music boxes.

Vernell Crittendon, San Quentin’s information officer, says the shop attracts mostly tourists, but that employees and their families are also customers. “People aren’t offended by the dark humor,” he says. “In fact, we’ve had many positive comments.”

Prisoners choose what to make and then reap most of the revenue — 10 percent is taken off for the General Inmate Welfare Fund, which pays for inmate entertainment (such as movies). The craftsmen spend the rest on art supplies or sundries (deodorant, shampoo), or send money to family on the outside.