Steve, a friend of my mother’s, has been teaching a class on non-violent communication at San Quentin for the past five years. When my mother mentioned that I worked on a book called Surviving Justice: America’s Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated, Steve asked me if I’d like to come observe his class
The town of San Quentin, which was, I assume, originally built as housing for the prison employees is surprisingly cute, very Cape Cod-ish, little Victorian cottages on the bay. I was expecting bleakness, not charm. The gift shop nestled near the east gate, which contains prison art and chotchkes, is unfortunately closed.
At the gate a huge banner proclaims in red letters: TOBACCO FREE ENVIRONMENT. The prisoners are not allowed to smoke anymore. After my security clearance is checked and my bag is searched, I sign in. I make my way to another gate, through a castle-like fortress with rounded turrets with crenellated tops and gothic windows. I sign in again, flash ID, show the contents of my bag, then proceed into the “sally port,” an iron-barred cage they lock you in before letting you out the other side.
I walk out into a courtyard that is surprisingly lovely. There are carefully tended rosebushes, green lawns and topiary, a couple dry fountains, a pair of metal sculptures in the fountains shaped like dandelions or fireworks. There are several chapels and a beautiful old brick building stamped with the word HOSPITAL at the top. Over one doorway it says in hand-painted calligraphic Old English letters: HOBBY SHOP. Another doorway reads in those same letters: ADJUSTMENT CENTER. It sounds like where you’d be sent for punishment in elementary school. Apparently this is where Death Row inmates, including the Night Stalker–boogeyman of my childhood–as well as Richard Allen Davis and Scott Peterson, are housed.
I only see a couple men in blue in the courtyard. Mostly there are COs (correctional officers) in ill-fitting forest-green uniforms on their way to and fro. I was told before coming not to wear any blue or orange because that’s what the inmates wear, and if there’s a lockdown they need to be able to tell me apart from the prisoners. If the alarm sounds the prisoners must drop to the ground. I’m supposed to stay standing. The COs do not carry guns. It’s for their own safety. But there are guns trained on us that I can’t see. We are being watched constantly.
We walk down into the prison yard. It looks almost exactly like my high school. Except for the fenced-in pen topped with razor wire where men in shackles and orange jumpsuits wait to be assigned their prison blues. Men in blue are playing a lively game of basketball. Some hang out at picnic tables. There’s a tennis court, a baseball diamond, and a blacktop with a volleyball net. We walk among the prisoners unescorted. There are men I can’t see in watchtowers watching me. We walk over to a trailer, where there are four classrooms. Inside, inmates work in the office, making sure all the teachers have their papers and their rosters in order. It reminds me of being a high school teacher, the chaos of the first week of classes.
In the classroom I sit in a circle with the inmates. They are all lifers. One is reading Shakespeare and The New York Times. The fellow next to me is eating a peach. I ask him about it–can he get fresh fruit here? He tells me he traded for it, that they get fruit with their breakfast, usually a banana or an apple or, once in a blue moon, a peach. People hoard their fruit and use it as commerce. These are the economics of prison. Again it reminds me of public school, of trading my tuna salad sandwich for a chocolate pudding cup.
Some of the men have an issue with me being here–they are concerned that I will write about them unsympathetically. I tell them I have no intention of writing about them and what they say in class, that I just want to write about my impressions of San Quentin and about my own experience. I put my notebook and pen away.
We begin with a meditation. I am meditating at San Quentin. Meditating. At San Quentin.
The first activity we do is an active-listening exercise. I partner up with an inmate and he tells me what’s going on in his life, what he’s feeling, and then I repeat back to him what I heard him say. Then I tell him what’s going on with me. I talk about how I was a bit apprehensive about coming here, that I was worried I wouldn’t be able to let go of my judgment and my stereotypes about convicts. I don’t say: I worked with exonerees before, but the guys in this room are different. These guys are, as far as I know, guilty.
Then a sheet of questions is passed around and each inmate selects one question to ask the group and then others volunteer their answers. Sometimes they point at me, wanting me to answer. A poster on the wall says: IF YOU WANT TO BE TRUSTED BE HONEST. I want to be honest.
“Are you feeling trust at this moment?”
I say, I’m not usually a very trusting person, but in this circle (of convicts! at San Quentin!) I am feeling oddly trusting. But I don’t trust this feeling, I say, it makes me question and second-guess myself, so I guess I am struggling with trust after all.
There, that was honest, I hope.
“What do you wish for, and what fears does this bring up for you?”
I say that I wish for my health to improve, and that I fear it won’t. I fear I won’t be able to take care of myself.
They wish for freedom.
The two hour class goes by fast. At the end I thank the group for letting me participate. I tell them I am awed by their emotional intelligence. I am.
At the gate on the way out I check with the guard to see if I have security clearance for next week. I do, but it’s for the wrong time. This, it seems, is the real hell of prison–the endless red tape. I ask the CO stationed at the gate what if I come in before the approved time? He says, “Then we’ll have to shoot you.” Prison humor.
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