TEDxSanQuentin: Life Revealed

Gary A. Bolles
Feb 2, 2016 · 26 min read


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“We are, every one of us, better than the single worst thing we have ever done.”Bob Rubin, former Secretary of the Treasury, at TEDxSanQuentin

A few weeks before Christmas, I received an email message from Delia Cohen, a human force of nature who has done everything from serving in the White House communications office with Bill Clinton, to shepherding events and projects in association with the TED organization, the non-profit group responsible for the iconic TED talks. (I’ve also had the pleasure of working with the TED team, including curating three TED salons.)

Delia’s question: Would I like to attend TEDxSanQuentin?

In the San Francisco Bay Area, reminders about our criminal justice system are never far, with the long-shuttered Alcatraz island standing mute testimony to prisoners past. However, a few miles north, in tony Marin County, one of the country’s most affluent areas, another reminder is very much of the present: the maximum security prison San Quentin, and its more than 4,200 inmates.

I see San Quentin in full view on my regular weekend bike through Marin’s “Paradise Loop.” But I had never been inside. So, of course, I had to go.

On a recent Friday, sheets of rain swept a parking lot near the prison, as several dozen of us were shuttled to San Quentin’s gate. Our emailed instructions were explicit: “Prisoners wear clothing that is blue, orange, gray, yellow, or lime green. Correctional officers wear forest green. No one else is allowed to dress in these colors. DO NOT wear blue, orange, yellow, gray or green clothing of any kind. DO NOT wear BLUE JEANS or denim of any kind or color.”

Black sounded safe. I wore black. Everything.

After passing through several security checkpoints, we were ushered in groups through one of the visitor areas out into the main quad of the prison, and into an already-crowded chapel hall with perhaps 300 seats, with guests, volunteers, and prisoners mingling in animated conversation. The inmates were hard to miss: All wore blue, and most wore shirts with big CDCR (California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation) lettering on their backs. As I took a seat, Delia introduced me to several prisoners, whose stories I’ll save to the end.

Even though I don’t like to admit it, movies and TV have created images of life in a maximum security prison that color my perceptions of the incarcerated. Even though I’d never set foot in a prison, from memorable scenes in everything from “The Birdman of Alcatraz” to “Orange is the New Black,” I thought I had a pretty complete picture about life inside.

I found that I was very right, and completely wrong.

Where I was right was in my picture of a 50’s-era throwback of concrete buildings, burly corrections officers, and food that could at best be called edible. Walls and floors were varying shades of brown and gray, and the furniture could best be described as “early elementary school.”

I also believed I knew how prisoners think, and what they do, and how they interact. But here, at least at San Quentin, I was wrong. Completely wrong.

Unless you live under a rock, or on another planet, you’ve seen a TED video. I’ve coached countless speakers, many of them to do talks on the stage at TED or a TEDx. (TED is the big-tent event in Vancouver, for which attendees pay thousands of dollars; TEDx gatherings are “open-source” events produced by TED attendees, usually for cheap or free.)

In a TED talk, there is a typical arc to be followed. It’s important that the talk is rooted in some personal experience, and that there is some kind of pivotal learning that can be useful for others. The speaker’s goal is to move the audience: TED and TEDx attendees often give standing ovations for standout talks (and, sometimes, for less-than-standout talks).

For many reasons, TEDxSanQuentin is a different animal. It had taken Delia over three years of work to bring the event to the stage, spanning the tenures of two wardens. Security considerations made the process of planning and coaching a challenge, and there were obviously strict rules about the number of people who could attend. Still, it was a TEDx, so the expectation was that we would be seeing a series of talks that would run the gamut from insightful to deeply moving.

We weren’t disappointed.

As the lights went down, I decided to muzzle the little voice in my head that was likely to question the authenticity of the speakers. Sure, it’s possible that everything onstage — and in the audience — was going to be an act, and that each inmate thought he was telling a group of gullible free people what they wanted to hear. But I decided to suspend any judgment until I left, at which point I could step back and think about authenticity.

First onstage was the emcee Phil, whom you can see in the promotional video the prisoners recorded for the event. Phil was a natural and upbeat host, ably guiding the proceedings, and demonstrating a genial sense of humor whenever there were inevitable glitches.

After going over some brief ground rules, Phil introduced Maurice, who riffed through an energetic hip-hop performance supplemented by enthusiastic clapping from the audience. Maurice recited a litany of the thoughts and actions of someone who breaks the law and goes to a maximum security prison, ending with the hoped-for search for responsibility and redemption.

Next up was Sha, a former drug dealer who wanted to tell us about “hustle.” When he was young, Sha — Shadeed — said, all of his role models were people who sold or used drugs. “Hustle,” he told us, “is when ambition meets resilience and tenacity.” Selling drugs, he thought when he was young, was the way that you demonstrated hustle, and he found he was good at it.

However, Sha admitted, there are two big problems with the drug business. First, “…It always leads to death or incarceration.” The second: “It’s morally wrong.” Over time, you’re doing things that are farther and farther away from whatever you might have thought yourself capable of. He could still vividly remember the day he had sold crack cocaine to a pregnant teenage girl — seeing the sunlight on the dress she wore, and the look in her eyes as he handed her the rock.

When he first came to prison, he said, selling drugs was his only model of an independent business person. Then he was introduced to entrepreneurism. Entrepreneurs, he found, are independent, they make quick decisions, and they take risks — all skills he’d mastered on the street. Sha became a convert to entrepreneurism, and now takes part in a program at San Quentin that prepares inmates to run their own businesses in the outside world.

Standing ovation.

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Phil then introduced Darnell, who told us that he was going to speak about leadership. When Darnell was young, he idolized his uncle Dournice, who told him repeatedly that when — not if, but when — Darnell graduated from high school, “I’ll buy you anything you want.” But before Darnell graduated, his uncle was killed. In memory of his uncle, Darnell persevered, and graduated. But in his first year of college, his nephew was brutally murdered — “Who shoots someone in the face?” — and Darnell dropped out of school, and eventually found his way into prison.

One day when he was talking to a young prisoner who was rudderless, he realized the young man didn’t have anyone who believed in him. “When you pass your GED,” Darnell said impulsively, “I’ll give you my month’s wages.” The young prisoner went on to get his certificate, and Darnell paid him. But though twenty dollars is a huge amount to someone in the system, Darnell didn’t think the money was the real motivator: Instead, he believed, it was simply that someone else took interest in the young man, and set an expectation that he was going to accomplish something.

Seeing a potentially successful model, Darnell made the same offer — $20 each — to a group of young prisoners. All of them went on to get his GED, and Darnell realized the payment model wasn’t sustainable — “There’s no way I could make enough money” — so he re-negotiated the agreement, and the commitment became a quart of ice cream, which each prisoner gets when he receives his certificate.

“I love watching them eat that ice cream,” Darnell said with a broad smile.

Standing O.

The last time I saw former Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin, he was onstage with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and several other former Treasury secretaries, at the Milken Global Conference in Los Angeles. I can’t imagine a farther place in terms of human experience from San Quentin. But Rubin walked onstage at the prison to talk about one of the most important lessons he’d ever received in his life, from the late Harvard professor Raphael Demos, who maintained during a series of iconic lectures that absolutely nothing can be proven with complete certainty. (Rubin explored this thesis in detail in his book “An Uncertain World,” as he attempted to make sense of the economic decisions made during the 2008 financial crisis.)

Rubin related that he had spent an hour and twenty minutes on a preparatory phone call with the TEDx prisoner organizers, taking five pages of notes in the process. What he found most insightful was that several people on the call mentioned the need to change their thinking from reacting to responding. He was told that, in one counseling group at San Quentin, the 28 men in the group added up their allotted time of incarceration, compared against the amount of time it took them to make the decision (“…on the worst day of their lives”) that put them in prison. Their total: 728 years of sentences already served, against 4 minutes and 26 seconds of reacting. If they had taken the time to simply respond, rather than react, their lives might have turned out very differently.

Rubin then launched into a series of articulate reasons why our criminal justice system is broken, a theme that other speakers would repeatedly echo. We citizens, too, have reacted rather than responded, he said. We’ve reacted to our perception of the risks of crime by building a system that doesn’t actually decrease the risk — without understanding that we can’t possibly design a perfect system. California’s penal system has a recidivism rate over 60%: Nearly two thirds of offenders will inevitably go on to break the law again. So the way we’re approaching crime today is clearly not solving the problem. We too need to learn to respond, Rubin said, and create policies that will actually work to ensure public safety. And, while we’re at it, we need to encourage employers to respond rather than react, changing their hiring practices so that the branding of a former felon isn’t itself a life sentence.

Rubin’s best line of the talk should be written over the doorway of every place of incarceration in the country: “We are, every one of us, better than the single worst thing we have ever done.”

One of the most moving presentations on a day of powerful talks came from Dionne Wilson, who stood onstage for some time trying to compose herself. Finally, a voice called from the crowd, “You got this, girl!” She nodded, took a deep breath, and began.

“What delivers public safety?” she asked in a steady voice. She showed us a years-old picture of her husband, then-twelve year old son, and then-six year old daughter — “A daddy’s girl through and through,” she said with a sad smile. She said she had gone to bed one night around the time of that picture, secure in her happiness, as her policeman husband was out doing what he loved to do — making the streets safe on the graveyard shift.

At 1 a.m., three of her husband’s closest friends on the force came to her door to tell her that he’d been killed in the line of duty. And her world was shattered.

Dionne spoke of her rage at her husband’s captured killer, and her unchecked thirst for his blood. Friends and family who told her that she would eventually find healing when the trial would end, and justice would be done. But even though she begged the judge for the death penalty — which was granted — she said that they were all wrong: She didn’t find any peace. Knowing the killer was on death row gave her no sense of closure, and she was lost.

It wasn’t until she was invited by a friend with the Insight Prison Project that she was able to see how vicious the cycle of violence can be. By meeting with both prisoners and the victims of violence, she came to understand how the current system is simply perpetuating that cycle — and that it has to be changed.

What would she like us all to do? “Get curious,” she said simply. Have the desire to learn more about those who are incarcerated, and about the recommendations of victims for changing the way the system works. And, perhaps most important, “Allow the debt to be paid” — treat people who have gone through the criminal justice system as having completed their commitment to society.

“Allow the debt to be paid.” — Dionne Wilson, Insight Prison Project

Sam then took the stage to talk about his father. His dad, he said, lived a life of rage. Sam was beaten by his father starting at an early age, leaving welts all over Sam’s body. “S’s and O’s,” Sam said — O’s from his father’s fists, S’s from the extension cord he often used. Sam recalled one beating in particular when he was in grade school, and his father beat him for not defending his little brother. “Don’t you ever let me find out you weren’t protecting your family!” his father yelled at him as he whipped the extension cord, clearly immune to the irony. But the beating didn’t stop, and finally Sam looked at his father in misery and said, “Dad, why don’t you just go ahead and kill me?” Only because his mother hung tenaciously onto the extension cord did the beating stop.

Later, when Sam was 16, he came home to find his father with a kitchen knife at his mother’s throat. Blood poured from her hands onto the floor as she held the blade to keep her husband from cutting her throat. “Dad,” he told his father, to lure him away, “Why don’t you come at me instead of her?” His father appeared ready to attack him, but Sam’s mother still held the knife blade.

“Mom,” Sam said quietly, “let go of the knife.”

“But if I do, your father will kill you,” his mother sobbed.

“Mom,” he repeated, “let go of the knife.”

His mother finally released the blade, his father came at him, and Sam grabbed a nearby box and knocked his father out.

“Mom,” Sam said quietly, “let go of the knife.”

But the seeds of violence were now in Sam too. It wasn’t until he was in prison that he came to realize the anger and pain he carried. Sam talked about his epiphany, and his own need to heal before he believed he could stop the cycle — and to try to help others learn to deal with their deep anger as well.

Standing O.

As Ron, a big, broad-shouldered veteran, slowly walked onstage, he seemed to be holding back tears. He said he had just been introduced to someone’s guide dog backstage. “I’m sorry,” he said in a broken voice, “that’s the first time I’ve been able to pet a dog in 19 years.”

After he had composed himself, Ron spoke quietly about a day several years before, when he had calmly placed a noose around his neck in his cell, and stepped off his bunk. He lost consciousness, but woke up several hours later on the floor, before anyone had discovered him. “I don’t know why the rope didn’t work,” he admitted. “I made it myself, out of a sheet. I’d made dozens of those kinds of ropes before, strong enough to pull a Humvee.” He looked off into space. “I don’t know why that one failed.”

Then he showed some statistics on the screen. “In the fifteen years since the start of the war in Afghanistan,” he said, “and through the Iraq war, America has lost 6,855 soldiers.” He looked out at the audience. “In the same time, over 73,000 veterans have committed suicide.”

He raised his powerful hands in question. “Why does nobody know this?” he asked rhetorically. He contrasted the experience of soldiers coming home from the Vietnam war against those returning from the Middle East. Our reaction as a nation to Vietnam vets, he said, was to insult them — “baby-killers,” and worse. But today’s Middle East vets are greeted with “thank you for your service.”

Ron paused. “But there’s some truth to those insults,” he said. Many vets are consumed with guilt and shame. They go through boot camp, and become trained to act as instruments of war. They build bonds with their fellow soldiers that are unlike any other connection in life. They go through one of the most intense experiences in the human experience. And then they’re expected to come home and rejoin society.

“In the fifteen years since the start of the war in Afghanistan,” Ron said, “and through the Iraq war, America has lost 6,855 soldiers… In the same time, over 73,000 veterans have committed suicide.”

So, many commit suicide. Or, they go to jail. “But,” he said, “coming to prison is just following a different path to the same result.” Some part of you is going to die either way.

What can we do differently? Ron believes that we need boot camp for vets re-entering society. We must provide returning vets with the same kind of preparation for life that we do for combat. They require training in the skills that will allow them to find civilian work, and to deal with their emotional re-integration as much as the physical. Only then can we hope to reduce the deep hopelessness that permeates so many of our returning vets.

Next was a brief but inspired spoken-word performance by an inmate named Prince, who had happened to be one of my audience seatmates early. Emcee Phil then introduced “the Professor” — a.k.a. David — to talk about “second chances.”

David’s parents were refugees from the Vietnam war who eventually located in Oakland, California. Speaking no English, and with few work skills, they skirted at the edge of poverty, living with friends and other family, doing anything they could to make money to survive. In his late teens, after his mother had a stroke, David admitted that became an angry young man, and began hanging out with a recently-released offender, partying at bars and clubs. Late at night outside a club, the two of them became embroiled in an argument with some other Vietnamese-Americans, and David grabbed his friend’s gun to scare off the others. On impulse, he fired a warning shot into the ground — which ricocheted and killed one of the other young men.

David talked about the way that we classify violent offenders, and the insurmountable challenges of trying to overcome the label. In his case, yes, in a moment of panic, he had killed another person. But though he never thought of himself as a violent person, the system placed him with others classified as violent, which in many cases simply ensures that the cycle of violence will continue. David pleaded with the free members of the audience to consider supporting sentences and classifications that help to identify those who may have been involved in violent crimes, but who themselves are not inherently violent — and to help them have a better path to redemption and release.

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Bob Barton is the Inspector General of the State of California, which means that he serves Governor Jerry Brown to monitor the policies and activities of the CDCR — and to monitor Brown’s actions related to the criminal justice system as well. “The word I’ve heard the most often here today,” he said, “is the word ‘transformation.’” The historical goals of state correctional departments like the CDCR have been to do three things: Punishment, Incapacitation, and Deterrence. But there is a fourth responsibility — Rehabilitation — which is often the least accomplished. What people in the system need, he said, is the hope that they will eventually be able to re-enter as productive members of society, and it’s only recently that prisons — exemplified by San Quentin — have begun to provide some of that hope.

Barton told the story of an inmate he’d known who was an example of hopelessness. The prisoner was assigned to a fire detail in a remote part of California, working with a team to create a firebreak from an oncoming blaze. Dozens of houses were threatened, and the homeowners fled. The prisoners threw themselves into the work, using picks and shovels to clear brush and trees. The blaze swept the area, but the firebreak held, and the homes were saved. As the prisoners walked back through the town, cars pulled up, and as the homeowners climbed out, they began to clap. Soon, there was a line of people applauding the prisoners as they departed the town.

Barton said that from that point on, the inmate understood that his actions had consequences — and that some of the consequences could actually be to do good for others.

Correctional systems, Barton said, need to provide more “fire camps” — opportunities for inmates to make the connection between their actions, and their possible impact on society. Only then can the “rehabilitation” part of their mandate be truly fulfilled.

Life sometimes seems to imitate art, and in the case of the trans-gender Jarvis — “Lady J,” the self-proclaimed “trannysaurus” — it’s the character Sophia on “Orange is the New Black” who immediately came to mind. Lady J offered a brief poem about the trials and tribulations of being a trans-gender behind bars, ending with pose halfway between a bow and a curtsy, as the crowd yelled out, “Lady J!” Standing O.

Jacques Verduin is the founding director of the Insight Prison Project, which he began in 1997 to try to break the cycle of recidivism. IPP programs teach everything from parenting to meditation, and in the process help inmates take responsibility for their actions and, as Barton said, go through a process of transformation.

Why did Verduin start IPP? He said that his father was kidnapped from Belgium by the Nazis during World War II and used as forced labor. As a child, he would hear his father’s screams at night, unable to heal himself from the terrors he had experienced. After the war, his father went to Germany, and sought out several of his former captors. Only after confronting them, recounting what his capture had done to his life, and hearing the apologies from the former guards, was his father able to begin healing.

Verduin said that the rage and pain that so many prisoners feel is carried into prison, and that the only way to overcome it is to face it. “Hurt people hurt people,” he said. “You have to leave prison before you get out.”

As I mentioned, nearly two thirds of all former offenders in California will offend again. What’s the recidivism rate for inmates who have been through the full IPP program? Zero. That’s right, zero.

As Verduin left to a standing ovation, Emcee Phil hopped back onto the stage to announce a lunch break. “And if all the free people here weren’t necessarily for prison reform before,” he said with a smile, “you will be after lunch.”

“You have to leave prison before you get out.” — Jacques Verduin, Founder, Insight Prison Project

After a brief food break — I ate the coffee cake, which looked safe — Phil returned to the stage. “Now, I know, after eating, it’s easy to want to just chill out and maybe fall asleep. But that’s not going to be possible, because of this next act.” As drums began pounding an incessant beat, a dozen inmates in native Hawaiian clothing thumped onto the stage. Each of them wore a label that, one of the performers said, society had placed on them — printed signs that read “immigrant,” “poor,” “outcast,” and so on. “But we need to remove these labels,” the moderator intoned, and as the dancers went through a series of solemn dance moves, the moderator walked down the line, ripping the sheets of paper from the chest of each one. Underneath, all of them had T-shirts with one word: Human.

Only one speaker received a standing ovation before he even spoke: Earnest Sanford, a San Quentin correctional officer. The burly guard spoke briefly about his childhood desire to be a peace officer, and how he progressed from housing authority guard to prison guard — and of his own transformation as he came to see the prisoners as individuals rather than just inmates. He told the audience about his hopes to retire soon, but to return as the head of his own non-profit organization to continue to help prisoners prepare to return to society by providing them with transitional housing.

As Curtis walked onstage, members of the audience shouted out, “Wall Street!” Curtis nodded, and launched into an articulate description of his youth as an illiterate thief. He told us the story of his attempt to rob an arcade, carrying a huge bag of quarters as a security guard chased him. He tried to climb over a fence to escape, but the quarters weighed him down so heavily that he fell backwards to the ground. He woke to find the guard standing over him, cursing, “Next time, asshole, steal something you can carry.” When he was released from juvenile detention, he told his uncle the story. His uncle’s response: “Why didn’t you just take some of them?”

The next day, his uncle took him to break into another arcade — “…to show me how it’s done.”

Eventually, Curtis was caught for a greater crime and sent to prison. Now in his late thirties, he found it difficult to pass the time — because he couldn’t read a word. So his regular routine was to find the sports section and ask one of the inmates to read to him. One day, he mistakenly took the business section, and an inmate asked him, “So, do you follow stocks?” “What’s a stock?” Curtis asked. “That’s where white people keep all their money,” was the response.

Curtis was fascinated, and finally he had found the motivation to learn to read. “Man, that was the hardest thing I ever did, reading that first book,” he said ruefully. “It was painful.” But once he had cracked the code, he said, he read everything he could. “Candy wrappers. Street signs. I could spell! I could read!” He beamed. “One time, an inmate asked for some of my C-A-N-D-Y. I said N-O.”

Curtis said that he retained his fascination with stocks and finance, earning his nickname, Wall St. He launched into a review of all the ways that poor people are shut out of parts of our economy due to their lack of financial literacy. “We need to know how to spend, and how to save,” he said passionately. “We need financial empowerment.”

“We need to know how to spend, and how to save,” Curtis said passionately. “We need financial empowerment.”

Neil Barsky is the founder of the Marshall Project, which is dedicated to using journalism to shine a light on the ways that we need to transform criminal justice in America. Barsky’s dedication to justice was clearly influenced by his father, who years ago participated in an investigative journalism project to uncover housing bias in Long Island. But Barsky said he only came to realize, after becoming a successful hedge fund manager, that our current disparity — 5% of the world’s general population, but 25% of its prison population — is both wrong and unsustainable. In the same way that Bob Rubin called for a change in the thinking of employers, so too do we need to think differently about the stigma we place on released prisoners with issues like housing. “Where is the outrage?” he asked rhetorically. Barsky hopes that the Marshall Project will serve as a model for ways in which journalism can help to bring about systemic change.

Dressed impeccably in suit and tie, Troy said that he was a former guest of the prison system at San Quentin, with a life sentence from which he was eventually paroled, in October 2015. “I want to tell you what it was like being released into a society that was not ready for me,” he said quietly. But first, he said, he wanted to apologize, and turned to his daughter in the audience. “I’m sorry for all the pain I’ve caused for you, because of what I did,” he said. “And I’m sorry for the people who were the victims of my crime.”

“I want to tell you what it was like being released into a society that was not ready for me,” Troy said quietly.

He then recited the litany of challenges that a released inmate faces. He couldn’t sleep the night before his release. At 5 a.m., he was taken to sign some paperwork. After what seemed an interminable time, he was driven to the gate of San Quentin, given $200 in cash, and told, “Good luck.” He was told that he had to report to a halfway house within 24 hours, in a city he’d never been to before, but was given no map or directions.

Making his way to the halfway house, he found himself in one of the worst possible areas of the unfamiliar city. There was garbage on the street, prostitutes climbing into cars, and it was clear that a number of his fellow ex-cons were already wandering the streets, back on drugs. Once, in the middle of the night, he heard someone yell, “I know you have a gun, but someone took my phone!”

Troy eventually found work as a writer for a local newspaper. But the path was hard, and he said that we need to find ways to more effectively help former prisoners re-engage with society — what he called “restorative justice.”

After Troy’s talk, Prince leaned over to me and said, “That’s it, man. $200. And if, say, you need to get back to L.A. after you’re released up here in San Francisco, all you’ll get is dropped off at the bus station. If it costs $100 to get to L.A., now you have only $100 left.” He shook his head. “They spend $50,000 a year to keep us in here, and they can’t spend a little more to help us get on our feet?”

“They spend $50,000 a year to keep us in here, and they can’t spend a little more to help us get on our feet?”

Next up was a world-class acoustic guitar performance by David, a Grammy-nominated musician. His haunting refrain: “I had a dream I could buy my way to freedom.” In sidelong glances, I saw that the inmates around me were softly singing the refrain with him.

The final act was a group of a dozen prisoners who are members of the prison Shakespeare troupe, sponsored by the Marin Shakespeare Company. One by one, each inmate would walk onstage, recite a few lines from a play, and introduce himself. Azraal. Nate. Maverick. Richie. Banks. Roach. Luke. Juancito. Each one told a little bit about how acting — and especially Shakespeare — had allowed him to understand himself better, to channel his emotions, and to learn how he affected other people.

“This is what we live every day,” said Suraya Keating of Marin Shakespeare Company, “to develop new perceptions of who incarcerated humans are.”

Then Juancito said that one thing they had learned from Shakespeare is that the way people introduce themselves reveals a lot about a person. He and each one of the actors went on to demonstrate a unique handshake or greeting they had made up between themselves. Reciting a few final lines, the troupe walked down the aisles of the hall to thunderous applause.

“This is what we live every day: To develop new perceptions of who incarcerated humans are.” — Suraya Keating, Marin Shakespeare Company

In closing, emcee Phil ran through a litany of thanks, then brought up San Quentin’s warden, Ron Davis, who said that his main insights from the day were two-fold: Responsibility and opportunity. “Everyone needs to accept responsibility for what they’ve done, and who they are,” he said. “And we need to give every one of them the opportunity to succeed.”

Trying to Understand Incarceration

As I left the prison, I walked by myself back to the parking lot, trying to gather my thoughts.

There were certainly parts of the experience that were understandably scripted. The inmates we met were of course those with standing that would allow them to have contact with people from the outside. The talks were all rehearsed, as any would be. The inmates were all on their best behavior. And, of course, each of them had committed at least one substantial crime, and had been sentenced to a maximum-security prison.

“Everyone needs to accept responsibility for what they’ve done, and who they are. And we need to give every one of them the opportunity to succeed.” — Ron Davis, Warden, San Quentin

But even the most cynical viewer of the day could not ignore something extraordinary going on at San Quentin. Prisons in California are rated one to four: Fours house those classified as hardened criminals (the Professor’s violent inmates), and ones are less restrictive. San Quentin is a two. It’s a facility with over 4,000 inmates, engaged in more than 70 programs designed to help them “leave prison before they’re released.” Well over 3,000 volunteers regularly walk through San Quentin’s gates — more than the total number of volunteers at all of the 33 other prisons in the state of California combined.

Trying to Have Compassion for Humans Behind Bars

But San Quentin is really no different from any other prison, in the one thing that really matters: No matter where they reside, or what they have done, they are still humans. They did something — in numerous cases, several somethings — that society saw as harmful. In many cases, there are victims of their crimes, whose rights are paramount, and whose needs must be met first.

But each person behind bars is on his or her own road to redemption, and we can either provide them with directions, and give them a hand up when they, like every human, inevitably stumbles — or we can bar the road, and make it impossible for them to walk through the padlocked door back into the sunlight. Programs like TEDxSanQuentin shine a light where little hope often exists, and build bridges to the outside that may be the single most important reason that someone will return to be a productive member of society — or to offend again.

So, if it’s difficult to discount any of the talks we heard from the stage, it’s impossible to forget the stories of some of the men I met.

  • Adnan is a thoughtful and deliberate young man who looks to be in his mid-twenties, but is actually 31, and is dedicated to bettering himself while he is in the system. As the flow of the event continually placed the two of us together, I spoke with Adnan repeatedly during breaks. We talked about the need for career counseling and preparation, and about the help inmates need to understand what skills they might have, and what education they could get to help prepare them for future work. He spoke eagerly of his own interest in learning more, and in seeing how more career services could help bolster some of their programs.
  • “Roach” is a man who is clearly working to find himself. The Shakespeare troupe has helped to give him a voice, he said, but he admitted that he needs to continue to work on anger issues, and on his communication skills. He had trouble sitting for long, and frequently got up between talks to move around. During the Shakespeare performance, he spoke several lines from “The Tempest,” as Caliban, often referred to by scholars as “a product of nature,” which seemed appropriate for him. But he seemed doggedly determined to keep on seeking out programs that could help him.
  • Lawrence is approximately the size of the side of a house, and his dreadlocks longer than my arm. Each time he rose to give a standing ovation to a speaker, he blotted out the stage in front of me, like a slow-moving mountain. But Lawrence appears to be a gentle and thoughtful soul, a man who has seen and done a lot, but who has tried hard to keep his humanity. He spoke quietly of what it’s like to enter the system, and how circumstances can make it nearly impossible to exit the system until you can begin to understand — and follow — the rules. From Lawrence I learned about The SHU (Security Housing Unit, AKA “solitary”), how gangs form, and what you do when other inmates begin to riot. When I asked Lawrence which talk stood out to him, he said that Darnell’s talk on leadership really struck a chord. “So many young people, they come here, and they just sit and watch TV all day, play dominoes, play pinochle. ’Cause so many others are doing that. They need motivation.” He nodded thoughtfully. “I’d like to help motivate young people.”

Rip away the “prisoner” identity from each of them, and they all bear the same label underneath: Human.

As we prepared to leave, a line of prisoners was waiting to shake our hands and thank us for coming. I found myself once again standing with Adnan, who carefully reviewed what he and I had talked about. He shook my hand, and looked me in the eye, something I realized that few of the prisoners had consistently done.

Rip away the “prisoner” identity from each of them, and they all bear the same label underneath: Human.

“Will you come back?” he asked.

I thought about all that I’d learned that day, the men I’d met, the stories I’d heard. I thought about the ways in which we as a society has locked away so many “problems,” and how we continue to place impossible barriers in front of them, rarely allowing “the debt to be paid,” as Dionne, the voice of victims across the country, had pleaded. I thought about Lawrence, who wanted to start helping the young people he saw coming through the system.

And I tried to picture the more than 2 million people we’ve locked away. Are there a few who should never return to society? Probably. But at least 90% of them will return. And we need to do a far better job at preparing them for society — and preparing society for them.

I looked at Adnan, and I nodded. “Yes, Adnan. I’ll be back.”

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  • Gary A. Bolles, Feb. 1, 2016

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