San Quentin, the notorious penitentiary with the largest men’s death row in the United States and the oldest prison in California, is not a place you’d expect to find on someone’s travel itinerary. That is, unless they’re in the market to purchase their very own prisoner-designed music box, or a quirky San Quentin-themed paperweight depicting the watchtower, rocks and hammer, and a ball and chain.
Not always recognized for its dark humor, this legendary prison has been home to several nefarious killers-turned-celebrities, including Sirhan Sirhan, Stanley Tookie Williams (executed in 2005), Richard Ramirez, and perhaps the most infamous criminal of our time, Charles Manson.
While many would give this institution a wide berth, those who are fascinated with the concept of confinement can visit the prison gift shop and handicraft store. The gift shop carries the usual souvenir fare; t-shirts, mugs, and shot glasses embossed with prison-themed images and hoosgow-related quips.
The handicraft store is full of items made by inmates: desktop clocks, music boxes, money clips, and more, which the incarcerated men make by hand. Roughly half of the 750 people currently on death row at San Quentin participate in the prison’s Hobby Program. They collect revenue on their sold items that can in turn be used for sundries, art supplies, or to send home to their families. A portion of their sales go into the General Inmate Fund, which pays for things like movies and other forms of entertainment for the general population.
No affiliation with a resident of the penitentiary is needed to visit. Both the gift shop and the handicraft store are open to the public. The gift shop is just outside the east gate of the prison.
Know Before You Go
The gift shop is just inside the east gate of the prison, and is open Monday through Friday.
Visitors should bring cash, as the shop doesn’t accept credit cards and only takes exact change.