Wednesday, 31 October 2012
Building bridges: The San Quentin experience
San Quentin State Prison is the oldest prison in California, as well as the only prison in the state with Death Row. It is a mix of maximum and minimum security and houses over a thousand men– all convicted criminals. And 25 students from ElaineLeeder’s Sociology 201 class were about to go inside.
Go into San Quentin, walk through the yard while the prisoners are out, get put up in a room with prisoners and have no guards or security with you the entire time and just talk.
Not exactly an ideal Saturday for a college student.
“Just for your information – you can turn back now, but this prison has a ‘no hostage’ policy,” Professor Elaine Leeder called out to us, huddled beneath a guard tower where a man with a very visible gun stared down at us. Which means, “If you are taken hostage by a prisoner, they won’t negotiate to get you back.”
The dehumanization started the instant we walked into the first building for the second security check of the day. It was a small, bleak area with metal bars acting as dividing walls. We signed in, were scanned with a handheld metal detector, and stamped with an invisible ink. If you didn’t have that stamp on the way out, you weren’t leaving.
Death Row and the adjustment center was what we could see on our left. Two men in all denim were standing, waiting to greet us. It took a moment to realize these men were prisoners, and there was a reason we weren’t allowed to wear denim on this trip.
The first man introduced himself as Red, and he would be escorting us to the room where the other men were waiting.
“Hey! Stay away from drugs!” someone cackled out of a small window that was opened, right above the words ‘Adjustment Center’ painted onto the building.
We stopped to look at what they called ‘the dungeon’. It was dank, dreary and looked like something a horror movie would take place in. San Quentin was renovated a couple of years ago, and the dungeon was preserved to keep a historical aspect because it is believed to be the oldest building constructed in the state.
I couldn’t imagine people actually having to be in there, chained up and alone; that rusted, iron-latticed door held behind it overpowering human suffering and pain.
We continued, an unusual sight, all decked out in black and sticking close together as we followed Red all the way to the other side of the yard. A few men called out to us, but I couldn’t process what they were saying; I was too uneasy.
Red turned to face us as he walked backwards, an easy smile on his face as he asked if we were nervous.
“You guys can answer him,” Professor Leeder piped up from the back.
“The nervous laughing was my answer.”
Red lead us to a portable room like you would see outside school buildings, with a chain link fence surrounding it.
Most of the guys in blue stayed on one side of the circle, and I couldn’t help but wonder if they were nervous too, or just trying to not make us feel uncomfortable.
For introduction, we said just our names and the big circle was cleared in about thirty seconds.
“That was the fastest circle I’ve ever seen!” Red declared, and we chuckled again, still nervous. Soon, Professor Leeder stopped the discussion and made the men mix in with us in the circle, it wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be.
The oldest member in the room, a man they called Doc, sat down next to me. “The boys here call me Doc,” he told me as I shook his soft hand. I smiled and told him my name – I wasn’t afraid at all to be in his grasp.
From then on, the men sitting between us all suddenly began to seem more and more like real people. They were educated, understanding, funny and all had their own defined personalities.
I didn’t ask any questions. Not because I didn’t have anything to say, but because I wanted to absorb what everyone else in the room was saying and watch their reactions as the walls between us all slowly began breaking down.
Prison life isn’t like “Lock Up” or those other prison shows. The way the media warps these ideas is disturbing, because it’s all just playing into the stereotypes that they (the media) already created in our heads and showing us what we “want” to see.
One of the biggest ideas I took away from this experience was separating the crime from the person. These men regret what they did, and there is no doubt about it. Most of them were very young, most were in for murder; some gang-related, some under the influence, and one has been in the system since he was 16 for being with someone else as they shot someone. Yes, these are bad things. But you realize quickly from the stories that these guys aren’t much different from anyone else, they just happened to take one or two more wrong turns in their lives, and that landed them in prison – most already in for half of their life or more.
Crimes can equally affect the person who committed the crime and their families for even longer. I’m not saying this to justify the crime, but as one man described, “it was just one instant that ruined the rest of my life.”
At one point, a prisoner named Charlie described how he was shackled for hours – days, while the court decided whether or not he could be housed in an adult institution at the age of 16. The pain and loneliness he described was heartbreaking; the need for someone, something, anything to be there for him. “I didn’t care if it was a person or a cockroach running across the floor, I needed something.” The pain was visible in the way he explained it to us, and the idea that such a carefree, amusing guy could be put through something so horrible made me sick.
We all shook the men’s hands as we left, and I thanked them all sincerely, wishing I could express just how much they affected me that day. Our group walked back out, mingling with a few of the men as we made our way back across the yard. This time when someone in the yard called out, we responded easily, suddenly excited to wave and smile at them. Our transformation was obvious, even to us, and it was a good feeling.
Just before leaving the yard area, a guard in green stopped us. Professor Leeder charged up to the front and assured him she was the leader.
“He has to make sure we don’t keep any of you here,” our T.R.U.S.T. friend joked as the guard called in to make sure we were supposed to be there, counting us a few times as the other men we were with separated from us. Finally he signaled up to the guard in the tower, who was once again staring down at us with rifle in hand, that we were clear to go.
Suddenly the surreal experience was over. No one was mugged, no one was hurt, and no one was even looked at in the wrong way. We were never going to have the chance to be in San Quentin again – at least not in the same way. We were back to civilization, where unlike the men inside, we were free to go.
These men didn’t bring us there to make us feel sorry for them, and Professor Leeder wasn’t giving us this opportunity just so we would walk away feeling sad.
We found that these men were indeed human. I learned that like the schools losing money in California, the prisons were losing money for rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is what needs to be in place in prisons if we want to have a better society in the future; we can’t simply send people away for mistakes (big or small) and dismiss them from society – they need to be rehabilitated or resocialized whenever possible.
A radical thing to say in 2012, when most of our money is being spent on prisons and not education, but I still stand by my 2010 statement. The death penalty is taking so much money from the government, and yet we’ve only sent 13 men successfully to their sentenced death in over 30 years (which cost us $4 billion).
The simple thing that anyone can do that I find extremely important is to pay attention to propositions. California is in a horrible budget crisis, we all know that. But taking away money from schools and positive prison systems, which seem to be to most targeted, is not going to help the state.
It’s only going to make it worse for the upcoming generations.
Social change is what the world could use right about now, and we’ve seen from the past that it isn’t a very easy thing to make happen. But we are the next generation, about to take over the world whether we like it or not. We need to be educated on what is wrong in society and make the effort to change it. If we don’t, who will?
Source: Sonoma State Star