Lessons Learned Inside Prison… and an Unexpected Death

NOTE: This is from a personal column series for the Japanese publication Courrier Japon.

San Quentin News’ former executive editor, Arnulfo Garcia (Photo credit: San Quentin News)

Last month, I went to a funeral for a 65-year old convicted felon, who had been in and out of prisons for fifty years. As I walked up to the Church of the Valley in Santa Clara, I was overwhelmed by the depth of grief I felt for a man who had lived in a world completely separate from mine until about a year and a half ago. Before then, the idea of knowing a felon had been unthinkable.

I first met Arnulfo Garcia in the spring of 2016. A journalist friend had sent out a mass email asking if anyone would be interested in teaching journalism as a volunteer at San Quentin State Prison on Friday mornings.

San Quentin was built in 1852 in response to the pervasive lawlessness during the Gold Rush. Most people today know the prison for its death row where 681 men await execution (though the state has not executed anyone since 2006). The notorious cult leader and mass murderer Charles Mason as well as an assortment of serial killers have been incarcerated there.

What is less known is that San Quentin has some of the best rehabilitation and education programs in the nation. An inmate can get his high school equivalency degree, obtain a two- or four-year college degree and even participate in a computer coding class supported by Bay Area entrepreneurs.

A copy of the San Quentin News paper (Photo Credit: San Quentin News)

The prison is also home to the nation’s only inmate-run prison newspaper, which is funded by grants and has a circulation of 30,000 distributed across the state’s 35 prisons. A staff of twelve inmates puts out the award-winning monthly newspaper, which typically includes a mix of event write-ups, criminal justice news, profiles, sports competition results, and even a crossword puzzle and comic strip. Arnulfo had been its executive editor for the last decade.

I decided to volunteer, partly out of curiosity. In the U.S., it is a known fact that Black and Hispanic men are more likely to be given harsher sentences than white men for the same crime. On top of that, those who can’t afford an attorney are assigned public defenders, who tend to be overwhelmed with more cases than they can handle. That means that many of the defendants aren’t adequately represented.

But while I was familiar with the broad challenges in the country’s criminal justice system, I had only ever read about it, and I felt ignorant about the prison system. As scared as I was, I also wanted to look beyond the stigma and the stereotype of prisons and convicts. By volunteering at San Quentin, I hoped to open my world beyond my comfort zone.

The yard. The SQN newsroom is in the building with the red roof. (Photo Credit: San Quentin News)

On my first day there, my heart pounded as I entered the village of San Quentin. My escort that day had been another volunteer, a woman probably in her 70s. After signing in at the entrance, we walked down a path to the main gate, where we had to sign in again before walking through a double gated door known as a sally port — a guard opened one gate to let us in to a holding area and waited for us to close it before opening a second gate that led to the prison. The gate behind us clanged loudly.

The first sight inside prison was surprisingly beautiful with a rose garden and carefully trimmed bushes. But once we turned a corner, I felt the urge to turn back. We had reached the so-called Yard, the area where hundreds of inmates hung out.

Some were jogging or doing push-ups. Others were clustered in groups, talking. I was struck by the incongruity of seeing a tennis court, roaming ducks and geese, and open urinals all in one place. A sign at the guard’s station instructed inmates to bring toilet paper from their cells if they needed it.

I could feel the men watching us as we walked through them to the education center in the back. They were nothing but polite, but I was intimidated by the attention and overwhelmed by all the hellos. I hadn’t expected to encounter so many of them so suddenly. I was awed when my escort told me that some women volunteers felt safer inside than on city streets. I couldn’t imagine feeling that comfortable.

A meeting inside the newsroom (Photo Credit: San Quentin News)

The relief I felt when I got to the newsroom was palpable. The newspapers displayed around the room, the computers (albeit without Internet), the piles of papers and books, a television tuned into the news — a newsroom even inside prison walls was not that different from any others. I remember Arnulfo welcoming me with a reassuring smile.

During the last year and a half, I probably sat down with him less than a dozen times, but his leadership and influence could be seen everywhere.

In my first weeks teaching, Arnulfo would greet me with a firm handshake and a beaming smile. He checked in to make sure I was feeling safe, comfortable and happy. In ensuing months, he removed obstacles even if I didn’t mention them and provided support when I wanted to change the way I ran my classes. He was the best manager I had ever worked with.

Television drama programs depict many things about prison wrongly, but one that they get right is that inmates stick with their own kind. When I walk through the Yard, I know that I can expect to see the Hispanic men to the right of me near the chin-up bars and the Black men by the basketball courts. There are other areas for Asians, Caucasians and Native Americans.

Inside the newsroom, however, the diversity of the team, and the friendship and camaraderie among them was striking. Even when they disagreed about something, they hashed it more civilly than I’d seen in many newsrooms. While the outside world was feeling more fractured than ever, Arnulfo and his staff showed me the unity that was possible even in a seemingly impossible environment.

I learned later that the editorial board, headed by Arnulfo, chose its staffers carefully. Not only did they have to be smart and capable, but they had to be a team player.

The SQN staff under Arnulfo (Photo credit: San Quentin News)

One day last spring, Arnulfo came over to me, and we talked about a program that he was heavily involved in called GRIP, which stood for Guiding Rage Into Power. The year long program helped men understand the origins of their rage, manage their emotions and equip them with tools to be a peacekeeper. Arnulfo was one of the central leaders, and he wanted me to see it. He gave me the coordinator’s email address and encouraged me to come to one of the meetings.

I learned soon after that he had also started an important forum inside the prison between the inmates and district attorneys across the country.

On July 24, Arnulfo was released from prison. He had been what was known as a three-striker. Under a California law enacted in 1994, anyone who had been previously convicted of two felonies was automatically sentenced to 25-years to life regardless of the nature of the crime. He was 16 years into serving a 65-to-life sentence for robbery and drug possession when his case was reviewed with the support of his county district attorney, whom he had gotten to know through his advocacy work.

Shortly before that, he stopped me as I was walking out and told me I was doing a great job. “Keep on doing what you’re doing,” he said. I was somewhat spooked because his words seemed so final as if I would never see him again.

Two months later on a Saturday afternoon, I received word that he had died in a car accident with his sister earlier that morning. He had been on his way to check out a piece of property for a halfway house in the wilderness that he wanted to build for inmates, so they could fully adjust to the outside world before re-entering society.

At Arnulfo’s funeral, we were a microcosm of his world. We represented every color and many different backgrounds. In addition to his Mexican-American family and friends, many of us were volunteers and advisors that had gotten to know him while he had been in prison. Others were former inmates. I recognized Ali, who was one of the pallbearers. After being released last year, he had immediately gotten a job using the computer coding skills he had learned while in prison. I also spotted Sam, another former newspaper staffer that had just been released.

At the service, one reverend spoke of how Arnulfo and a small group of men with life sentences had started a program to help prepare men emotionally and spiritually for the challenges they would face when they were released. Even though his prospects for getting released was initially bleak, Arnulfo had wanted to help prevent other men from cycling in and out of prison like he had.

Tears ran down my cheek as I mourned his premature death and the loss of all he could have contributed to the world. I understood for the first time, how much I had been reassured by his presence. Amid all the divisiveness and hate in the world, he had shown me that it was possible to change for the better, bring people together and do good even in the worst of circumstances.