Death row officer reflects on nearly three decades working at San Quentin

(Hover cursor over to pause the slide show, otherwise photos change every six seconds.)

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
and Lt. Sam Robinson, AA/Public Information Officer
San Quentin State Prison
Photos by Eric Owens, CDCR staff photographer
Office of Public and Employee Communications

(Editor’s note: In 2002, the department published a “Day in the Life” story featuring Correctional Officer Mike Begley as he worked on death row. At the time, the story won State Information Officers Council awards for photography and feature writing. In January 2017, Inside CDCR caught up with Officer Begley, who still works on death row, to discuss what’s changed during his nearly three decades working at San Quentin State Prison. You can read the original 2002 story here.)

San Quentin Correctional Officer Mike Begley is quick with a smile and a firm handshake. He’s worked at California’s oldest prison since 1989. For all but two years of his 28-year career, his workplace has been death row.

Above, Officer Mike Begley visits his old desk on East Block in January 2017. Below, he works the desk in 2002.

“I’ve worked on death row off and on since 1991,” he recalled. “I worked nine years in East Block and I don’t know how many years in here.”

Nowadays he is a security and escort officer for North Seg, which houses 68 inmates.

“It’s kind of like an honor block for condemned inmates,” he said.

Most of those who worked for years on death row have since retired or moved on to other posts at the prison. Officer Begley is a rare breed, an officer who has spent most of his career on what he calls “the row.”

“There are a lot of new people here at San Quentin. I walk out and don’t recognize anybody. That’s a big change. In the last few years, a lot of people have retired. Makes me wonder what I’m still doing here,” he said, cracking a smile. “I’m planning to retire next year.”

How have things changed at the prison since you started?

“The prison has gone from a custody side more to an emphasis on the medical. That’s the biggest change. Also, we went from Level IV to reception.”

How has death row changed over the years?

“It’s gotten a lot bigger and we now get a different type of inmate. They are younger guys, too, coming in. Also, there are a lot of different programs (for inmates) now. Before, everything was contained to East Block for condemned inmates back then. You didn’t really take them out for anything else.”

What is a typical day like for you in North Seg?

“We come up here in the morning and do an exchange with First Watch. We do our feeding and a security check to make sure everyone is OK. We typically do our cell searches after that. We have nurses come in and start giving medications. Then we start escorting inmates to visits. They have attorney visits and contact visits. Then we run our yards out. Then we’d have medical clinics and run our escorts for many different reasons.”

What is your most memorable moment?

“The most memorable was the (level of public interest in the) execution of Robert Alton Harris in 1992. I was fairly new. There was a lot of media and I had never seen anything like that. Of course, the prison hadn’t seen anything like that for many years either.”

(Editor’s note: It was the first California execution in 25 years. Read more about the inmate, his crimes and the execution,

What is the most fulfilling aspect of your job?

“Probably the different people and different cultures here. San Quentin is very diverse. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, people get along here. Most everybody you work with, you get along with.”

What common misconceptions do you think people might have about your job?

“The biggest thing for people on the outside is they just don’t understand. It’s like a city within the prison. We have a police department and fire department in the prison, you know. This is an important job and out on the street there is such a misconception about the job. You have to take this job seriously. You have to care about what you do.”

What advice do you have for new staff?

“I would tell new COs, you can be a tough guy if you want to be, but it’s going to make for a very long, difficult career. You have to be yourself. Also, you have to treat these guys like they’re people, regardless of what they did. Your job is to keep them safe. If you’re going to say you’re going to do something, do it. Keep your word.”

How do you keep your perspective when working in a prison?

“We see a lot of pretty heinous things in our career. People try to manipulate you every day. The longer you are here, the more you learn how to adapt to it and learn. You work your way up. This is a good place to work up here (in North Seg). I’ve known some of these people my whole career.”

How has technology changed in the prison over the years?

“Everything is on computer now. Writing reports have been a challenge, personally. A lot of younger guys come in here and it’s no problem for them. It’s what they know.”

How common is it for an officer to work so long on death row?

“It used to be very common for people to work most of their career on the row. A lot of people who were here for a long time left when they started all the programming (for condemned inmates). It just got too hectic for them.”

What would you like the general public to know?

“People who work here, correctional officers and free staff, are here to support our families. We aren’t a bunch of knuckle-dragging Neanderthals.”


18 Responses

  1. John Schick, CC-I (Ret) Saturday, July 1, 2017 / 11:08 am

    I worked AD-SEG/SHU for about a year. It was NOT fun. I was a new employee, and thought it would be a good experience. I did learn key control REALLY well, but the stress was awful! So, for a guy like you to put in all those years in that place is pretty darn amazing. I toured SQ in 1982 as a new C/O. They refused my request for a then (Death Row) tour, and the Gas Chamber. Bummer! Anyway, I finished my career as a CC-I in 2007 . No regrets. It was a good move. Get out of there, and enjoy your well deserved retirement. It’s AWESOME out there!

  2. C/O N. Porras San Quentin State Prison Thursday, April 20, 2017 / 7:44 am

    Officer Begley, great article and great job. Well said, brother! The Max Shack will miss you when you leave. Wanna wish you the best in life and enjoy it ’cause you deserve it, sir. Happy retirement and many blessings to you to come. The “Q” will sure miss you and you are a great officer.

  3. Lena Monday, April 3, 2017 / 3:06 pm

    enjoyed the story, it takes a special person to be a great officer and adapt to that type of invironment.
    Good luck on your retirement next year.

  4. Steve Worrell Thursday, February 23, 2017 / 12:54 pm

    Mike, Great answers on the article….Enjoy your retirement Brother….S Worrell

  5. W.S. Rigg Sunday, February 19, 2017 / 3:57 pm

    Officer Begley, good job with your article. A job well done Sir. Back in the day I transferred to the Q as a Sgt. in 1986 from CIM. That is when I really learned what my job was, thanks to all the staff like yourself. Thanks for the job you do. I miss the Q and the staff.

  6. POLANCO,G Sunday, February 19, 2017 / 6:54 am

    Mike, great job. Way to represent the old guys.

  7. CT Smith Saturday, February 18, 2017 / 4:02 pm

    Great officer and great article. Well said. Luv u brotha!

  8. Julia Saturday, February 18, 2017 / 12:24 pm

    I am on the outside looking in, and it sure is refreshing to hear you say positive things about the way you conduct your mental processes about folks who made a mistake! One mistake and it could’ve been anyone. At least the inmates are paying for their wrong doing. So many people will not pay or spend time for a mistake because of the unwritten and foolish rule “snitches get stitches.” I hope one day the breach broken between law enforcement and the publicv can be restored! Thanks To all of you who work behind prison walls.

  9. S. Nguyen Saturday, February 18, 2017 / 10:27 am

    Great job, Begley!

  10. Pete Gonzalez Friday, February 17, 2017 / 12:03 pm

    The “R” in the CDCR was not mentioned, as free staff we do our best to provide an education to these people whether they’re condemn or lifers. Our job is to improve inmate chances to have a fighting chance once released. To reintegrate successfully in society and maybe just maybe with an education and craft skills they will not leave any more victims behind. By the way many of these inmate/students demeanor has improved towards all staff once they feel better about themselves due to their new found education/skills. Which in short keeps us all safer and we get to go home to our loved ones safe and sound.
    Thank you Mr. Begley for all your years of service and I believe you have seen how education vs. just warehousing these guys has made major strides in producing less violent inmates.

  11. M. Barajas Friday, February 17, 2017 / 9:36 am

    I’m glad there are other officers who feel the same way about our job. Nicely said!

  12. C.O. K. Cummings Friday, February 17, 2017 / 8:48 am

    Great article on a great officer! I appreciate you and all the North Seg staff who guided me when I was new and trying to figure things out. Thank you.

  13. Brian Cox Thursday, February 16, 2017 / 1:04 pm

    Mike you’re and always have been a great Officer, I miss you and our crew from all the SQ projects that we worked on. Thank you for making my job easier. Awesome article..

  14. J. R. Lewis Thursday, February 16, 2017 / 11:26 am

    Good Job on the article. Next year will be a sad day to see you retire. It has been a joy working with you off and on for the past 12 years of service. Thank you for the assistance walking on the roof and four flights of steps to get to North Seg Condemned Inmates.

  15. A.Scarpa Thursday, February 16, 2017 / 10:23 am

    Wow, those pictures brought back some memories. Begley, thanks for helping me out when I first got started with the Dept. I have nothing but good things to say about you!

  16. L. Sanders, ASW Thursday, February 16, 2017 / 10:06 am

    It’s so refreshing to hear the positive statements about how important it is to be human while we work in this difficult environment. As a mental health clinician I so appreciate Officer Begley’s account of how to do this work well. I am thankful that I work with individuals who agree to protect me everyday. I am also aware of how misconstrued those who don’t work for the department think of Officers and at every juncture I advocate for an accurate account of the wonderful people I work with on a daily basis. Thank you Officer Begley for all your years of service and the wonderful example you are setting for new COs! Well done and well said sir.

  17. K.L. Hefner Thursday, February 16, 2017 / 9:37 am

    Nicely said, Officer Begley. Thank you. I am sure staff and all inmates that have worked with and around you have appreciated your demeanor and authenticity.

    • Ed Thursday, February 16, 2017 / 11:34 pm

      Thank you for your service and your example to the rest of us.

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