San Quentin State Prison has long been a central locale in American life. In the 1930s, it became Hollywood’s go-to prison, home to salty crooks played by Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney. During the Black Power era, leading prison radical George Jackson met his fate there. The prison’s Marin County location places it in the middle of the resource-rich Bay Area, making it accessible to visitors like the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors and even Mark Zuckerberg.
Now, a new documentary, 26.2 to Life, brings audiences inside the storied walls of what denizens call “The Q.” As the title indicates, the film is about incarcerated marathon runners, many of whom are serving life sentences. They’re part of San Quentin’s 1000 Mile Club, whose members train with volunteer coaches for an annual 26.2-mile race consisting of 105 taxing laps around the crowded prison yard.
Unlike a marathon, the documentary runs only 85 minutes—and the experience for viewers is far from grueling.
Directed and produced by Christine Yoo, 26.2 to Life recently premiered at DOC NYC, an annual documentary film festival now in its 13th year. The Daily Beast contributor Hella Winston is also a producer of the film, which is viewable online through Nov. 27. Along with Rahsaan Thomas, who co-hosts the popular podcast Ear Hustle from inside the prison, San Quentin’s accomplished runner Markelle Taylor—who recently ran the New York Marathon after being released from The Q in 2019—is featured prominently in the film.
Upbeat but not Hollywood-sappy, Yoo’s first feature vividly conveys the determination of prisoners who are down but not out, as the unorthodox club gives them new reason to put one foot in front of the other. In the process, 26.2 to Life delivers a subtle but important message regarding mass incarceration in the United States—namely, that many people inside prison have been there far too long, and “marathon” sentences are quite often excessive.
One of the many unique qualities of 26.2 is that rather than draw on criminal justice activists to deliver that point, Yoo elicits the key insights from the marathon coaches and runners themselves. While it is not surprising to hear prisoners say their sentences are too long, the outsiders’ views lend added weight.
Frank Ruona, coach of San Quentin’s 1000 Mile Club, is a veteran marathon runner and trainer who retired after a successful career in the construction business in Marin. His repeated reference to the members of his team as “inmates”—a term that was recently banned in New York State after prison reform advocates argued against its dehumanizing effects—shows that Ruona is not an activist.
As Ruona explains in the film, his work with runners at The Q nonetheless led him to become “more attuned” about the prison system as a whole. “I’m frankly pretty appalled when I read that the United States has five percent of the world’s population [but] 25 percent of the prison population,” Ruona says. “I think there are a lot of guys in prison who really don’t belong there.”
“I’m frankly pretty appalled when I read that the United States has five percent of the world’s population [but] 25 percent of the prison population.”
— Frank Ruona
Yoo also sits down with Diana and Tim Fitzpatrick, two of Ruona’s fellow volunteer coaches, in their comfortable Marin living room. In Diana’s view, many of the runners have been “reformed,” and she would welcome them into her home. “But,” she says, “many will never get out—and what’s the point of that?”
The grim cellblocks of San Quentin stand in sharp contrast to life outside prison walls. Yoo’s team secured unusual access to shoot inside the facility, and the results are remarkably intimate.
When Markelle Taylor washes out his running clothes in his tiny sink, and when Rahsaan Thomas sits atop his bunk bed surrounded by a mountain of paperwork, viewers get to see firsthand the everyday deprivations of prison life.
Yoo tells The Daily Beast that it took several months before the San Quentin administration granted her team such a rare amount of access. She says the prison’s officials are “proud of their programs and want people to see what community engagement can do in terms of rehabilitation and recidivism.” Even so, Yoo says, “I was always clear with myself and my team that we would not be making a PR film about San Quentin.”
Although by no means the best runner in the group, Ear Hustle’s Thomas—known on the yard as “New York,” because he grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn—is the most insightful. “I’m supposed to be miserable,” he says from his cell. “I’m supposed to give up. I’m supposed to die in here.” Instead, Thomas committed himself to writing for the San Quentin News, hosting the podcast, and running the marathon.
This past August, California Gov. Gavin Newsom granted clemency to Thomas, securing him a 2023 release on parole eight years before his scheduled eligibility. While there is little doubt that Thomas will succeed on the outside, 26.2 to Life may leave viewers wondering how many prisoners will never get the same chance.
Yoo and her team hope to screen the film inside San Quentin early next year.