Managing IT at San Quentin

At San Quentin State Prison in California, technology manager Dan Marshall has installed wireless networks and virtualized servers. But his first job is to keep himself safe. Part 2 of 3.

Dan Marshall, a staff information systems analyst at California's San Quentin State Prison, doesn't mind working around the physical obstacles to installing technology at a prison dedicated when Abraham Lincoln was president. He's happy to be putting in technology there at all.


Walking through a dim cement passageway connecting San Quentin's cafeteria on one end and the Treatment and Triage Area at the other, Marshall cheerfully points out IT impediments.

"You can see from the size of this place putting technology infrastructure in here is not easy," he says, sweeping his arm to indicate the surrounding complex of I-beams, razor wire and stone buildings pocked up and down by chipped paint. It's not only the size and sprawl of the facility that presents challenges. "If it was your typical office building, we'd be dealing with drywall. Because it's prison"—here Marshall laughs—"they're much more into stone and steel."


Marshall is installing new technology at San Quentin as part of a court-ordered overhaul of California's prison health care system. In 2001, 10 inmates at nine prisons, including San Quentin, accused the state of violating the Eighth Amendment with medicine that amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. In 2002, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson agreed with the inmates, pronouncing California's prison healthcare system unconstitutional.

The state settled the case, agreeing to fix the problems. But by mid-2005, Henderson concluded the state had made no progress. Inside the prisons, one inmate dies every six to seven days. Henderson appointed a receiver—a federal overseer—to hire new people, change processes and install basic information technology found even in small rural hospitals in the United States. The aim of the receivership (officially the California Prison Health Care Receivership) isn't to offer criminals state-of-the -art health care. It's to do no harm.

Safety Comes First

To deliver even basic medical care, doctors and nurses at San Quentin needed a network. Marshall opted for wireless networks using Nortel gear. His office, underneath the warden's office, now serves as the communications room, with cabling and servers inside. He's set up clusters of virtualized Dell servers, running VMware with an EMC SAN, to control the wireless infrastructure as well as for print and file serving.

While scouting for places to put wireless access points Marshall remembered that runs of fiber optic cable had been installed but never turned on. Four years ago, the state had installed fiber in most prison buildings but the project lost funding before the needed switches and hubs could be bought, according to John Hummel, former CIO with the receivership (he resigned in February). "Dan had this beautiful spiral, all truncated and ready to go," he says.

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