My first day at San Quentin State Prison

Friday, January 8th, was my first day as a reentry advisor with the California Reentry Program at San Quentin state prison. Many wonder what it’s like, what I do there, and what are the inmates like. This is the story of my first day as a volunteer at San Quentin.

Sign outside San Quentin State Prison

Let’s start at the very beginning.

Why do prisoners need help, & what do they need help with?

After several years of incarceration, a vast majority of the prisoners are usually eligible for parole. This means they can return to society under a set of conditions e.g. they have to meet with a parole or probation officer regularly. Unfortunately, unlike in the movies, most prisoners don’t have families or friends waiting to pick them up & take them home. In fact, they don’t have any support system to help them find a home, or a job or to get into college. Often, they don’t even have an identity outside the prison walls.

All they have is $200, charity provided dress out clothes (if not, they have to pay ~ $50 from their “gate money”).

Ironically, its a lot like the typical American immigrant story, except what awaits reentering prisoners is not a land of opportunities, but one of stigma, neglect, & shame.

I’m one of the few dozen volunteers who help inmates file their parole paperwork, and then — help them land on their feet in the 1st week when they are out. I help prisoners put together their parole applications which as it turns out, are more contrived & complex than college applications.

The essays are long (& apparently, the parole board doesn’t read them because “who has the time”), the requirements are long, and worst of all, the parole board is unforgiving of “inconsistencies” and “bad behavior” (e.g if you are caught with a cell phone, it stays on your record forever & can negatively impact your parole application for a decade — That’s right — caught with a cell phone).

Once prisoners get their parole dates, I help them with the kinds of things we take for granted like getting their birth certificate, identity card, social security, securing transitional housing, getting dress out clothes, community college catalogs, etc.

The first piece of paper as you are getting ready to be a free human is a birth certificate

Yes, things that you and I can Google, requires months of paperwork when you are in jail. You’d think they can do this on their own, but if you’re 65 years old, have been incarcerated since 1979, & have no Google, it’s a little harder — just a little.

Unlike other prisons, San Quentin is the “jewel of the tarnished crown of the California Department of Corrections”. It offers many services to well behaved prisoners, from diplomas to coding classes (yes, they have “demo days”) to anger management & drug rehabilitation. Only the best performing prisoners have access to these services, even though the prison houses the largest number of death row inmates in America (746 as of 1/6/16 in case you are wondering).

Arriving at San Quentin

San Quentin is located in San Rafael, right on the bay off the San Rafael-Richmond bridge. If it weren’t a prison, it would be a very nice ocean front community with all the usual givings of the bay area — fog, sea gulls, rolling hills, the cold ocean, & a view of Alcatraz.

San Quentin is a 30 minute drive from San Francisco

In order to get inside the prison, in addition to going through a background check, you need to make sure you wear the right clothes. The list of what you can’t wear is long but for good reason. You don’t want to be mistaken for an inmate in case of an emergency, & you certainly don’t want to cause a “disturbance” due to poor choice of clothing

What constitutes inappropriate attire for visitors at San Quentin State Prison

I read the list many times and decided that black was a safe color. As a result, I looked like I was going clubbing in New York which I decidedly wasn’t. This gave me a chuckle & reduced my anxiety, I think.

Once I got to the actual prison, the most visibly intimidating part of the day was the actual entrance.

Main entrance of the prison

First, I got screened by a correctional officer (CO), & stamped with an invisible stamp (only visible under dark light & my passport for getting out). I’m not allowed to have anything on person except an ID, keys, & advising related papers.

What the iron doors look like up close.

After this, there are two massive iron-bar doors & between them sits a correctional officer in a glass office. After the CO stamps me, I pass through the 1st iron door to enter the chamber with my ID card in my hand raised above my head, & visible to the correctional officer (see sign on left in the picture above). You then close the first iron door.

For a frightening longer than usual second, I was locked in the chamber between two iron doors.

The CO then opens the other iron door & you walk through it. Now you are inside the prison.

Inside the prison

Once inside, I quickly realize that San Quentin is not the prison I imagined (even though it houses over 700 death row inmates).

A newly renovated hospital sits across the way from the prison entrance

I was greeted by a green landscaped courtyard, which has a chapel for different denominations, a synagogue, & a mosque that share space & a native American chapel as well. If the irony of many religious buildings co-existing on a tiny parcel doesn’t hit you, across the prayer halls is a cold looking, rather ominous building. A sign hangs on it that tells me it’s the “Adjustment Center”.

The Adjustment Center at San Quentin State Prison

I was told that this is where misbehaving inmates are sent for … adjustment. So three religious buildings sit across a beautiful landscaped courtyard from an “adjustment center”.

“If you don’t find salvation on your own, the prison will find it for you” seemed to be the message.

I continued walking down the streets & arrive at a baseball field & a walking/jogging path that surrounds the field. The green field & the path is sea of blue, gray, dotted with yellow — inmates in their prison uniforms walking, working out, watching birds who make themselves at home. Now, I was amongst the prisoners.

I’m sure the vision you are conjuring is something from American History X or similar. No, it’s not. It’s in fact more like a retirement community in Florida.

Most of the inmates seem to be in their mid 40s to 60s, walking in small groups around the track as briskly as their old bones can move them, trying to get whatever exercise they can. A few sit around watching the sea gulls underneath a sign that tells them that they shouldn’t feed the birds. What makes this sign different is that it spells out the prison offense code for feeding the birds — an offense like this could push your parole & freedom by a few years.

We walk around the field, and enter this tiny single story building that’s more than 1,000 square feet. There are a few guys hanging out outside the building. They say hi to us — fist bump seems to be a common form of greeting visitors. This is the building where we meet our “clients.”

As I enter the building, I’m greeted by this bright energetic young man, in a grey sweat shirt and pants. He looks like a younger version of Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin — intense but empathic, in his early 30s perhaps, with an energy level that I can’t match even after my morning run & coffee. It’s clear that he is in charge here, & his demeanor & confidence is very reassuring. He, let’s call him Mike Junior (MJ), shakes my hand, and when I tell him it’s my first day, greets me with a loud “Welcome”.

We were set up in make shift cubicles & benches. Since it was my first day, I was shadowing an experienced advisor. MJ meanwhile sets up a waiting area, & men sit down & wait to be ushered in to see us.

As we were getting set up, I asked one of the experienced advisors if MJ works for the program. The answer was the first major shock for me. I learnt that MJ was incarcerated as a juvenile & has been in the prison for almost 20 years. The other advisors tell me they couldn’t run the program without him. That someone like MJ is serving 20 years should give us all a moment of pause to reflect.

Every thing that I’ve read about America’s criminal justice system should have prepared me for this, but it didn’t. In MJ, I finally came face to face with an embodiment of our failure

Our “clients”

I won’t describe each case or person, but during the next 2 hours, many of my notions about who inmates are & how society teaches us to think about them got .. well, destroyed.

Before I describe this further, I should be clear. Many of these men are serving time for unspeakable crimes, but I’m equally confident that many amongst them have struggled & made it to this program for reentry advise based on their effort, good will, remorse, and a determination to give life another try.

The majority of the men we advised were middle aged men who seemed to be in their 40s or 50s (if not older) & had been in prison for 20–40 years — often entering the prison as juveniles or in their mid 20s. One man had a hand written personal essay that he wanted us to review & type up for his parole application. I don’t think he had ever written an essay for college admissions, though the comparison was inescapable. Another man was very thankful that we provide free dress out clothes because that means he doesn’t have to spend his “gate money”. He spoke to 3–4 minutes about how grateful he is for dress out clothes.

We asked another man if he had ever written a resume. He chuckled, and politely said no. My colleague asked him if “he had a life before prison”, and he said yes. To me, this seems like an extra-ordinary question but when speaking to inmates, this is a matter of fact. If they had a life before prison, building a resume or establishing an identity becomes easier. One man said he had a resume, and then chuckled that it was a life time ago. He had been in prison for 37 years, & reminisced about his career as a musician before narcotics did him in.

The common thread through all of these men was the look of fear & concern in their eyes, coupled with their quiet resolve to live honorably.

Entering society, without an ID, without housing, without a job, as an ex-felon left out of the democratic process, with only $200 in your pocket is … daunting. Just writing this gives me a cold sweat. I wouldn’t know how to handle it if I was in their situation, but these men are grateful & determined — determined to make it right, determined to live honorably, & re-enter society that has not only forgotten them, but stigmatized them.

After 2 hours of counseling, we chatted briefly with MJ and another Hispanic man. The Hispanic man described how difficult prison is for Latinos because very few classes are offered in Spanish. As a result, these inmates can’t learn & often don’t apply for parole. There are many determined & willing inmates who are unable to reform themselves & be free because of a lack of Spanish speaking facilitators.

I promised to help his man find a Spanish speaking counselor (PhD or MSW/LCSW) who can facilitate a 9 week anger management course. The commitment is a mere 2 hours per week, and it will allow 20 men to be eligible for parole.

If you’re reading this, & you are someone who can help — the ROI on your effort is a guaranteed place in heaven (if there is one)

So, am I going back next week. Yes, I am because I believe when humanity is judged, it will be judged based on how we treated our most vulnerable. I consider it a privilege to be able to make an impact on a few lives.