Before I could volunteer at San Quentin, I
had to pass a background check and fill out a
lot of forms. I was instructed to wear clothing
that wasn’t in any way similar to what the
prisoners wear so if there were a riot, the guards
wouldn’t shoot me. I had to sign waivers, one
of which said the prison would not negotiate
if I were held hostage. That wasn’t reassuring,
but I signed it. And then the Monday evening
arrived when it was time to follow Lisa inside
San Quentin for the first time.
To say San Quentin is enormous
is an understatement. It looks like
a medieval castle. We passed
through different guard stations
and security checks. Then
we got to the yard and it was
just me and Lisa—no guard
escorting us—walking through
the yard with the inmates all
around us. Looking up, I could
see guards in the towers. All of
my senses were on high alert. The
restrooms in the yard weren’t fully
enclosed so I could see men using them.
I felt overwhelmed as we walked into a
building that was about 1,500 square feet.
Once inside, we were completely shut off
from the guards. Lisa had been given a
device that looked like a garage door opener
that she could press if there was a problem.
Before long the men started coming in. All of
a sudden we were in this isolated room, in an
isolated area, with 30-plus men who I would
later learn were all serving life sentences. I
wasn’t scared, but I was nervous. It felt like I
had been dropped on another planet.
That was in the fall of 2016.
I’ve continued to join Lisa each week at
the prison. We get to San Quentin at 5 p.m.,
taking about a half hour to get through
security. We leave around 8 p.m. My time
there is easily the best part of my week.
We use a variety of resources, like
Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages
(Northfield Publishing, 1992). I try to help
the men have a better understanding of
who they are and what their motivations
are—how to go from reacting to responding. I
also help them learn to recognize that if they’re
feeling a conflict or having a conflict with
someone else, it’s generally best to address the
conflict within themselves first.
The challenging part is that prison has a
whole different culture than the outside world.
There are rules the institution makes that they
have to follow, but there are also rules the
inmates follow among themselves. So they
constantly have to negotiate both the explicit
rules and the implicit rules of how they conduct
themselves with each other.
One great aspect of this group is
that people from every race and
religion and gang affiliation
can sit in a room and talk to
each other about what’s really
going on. We might be talking
about their mothers and what
they learned from them,
for example. It can be heart-
wrenching to see how much
hurt began when they were
children and ended up coming out
later in negative behavior.
We work to create a safe place where
they can talk about what’s going on inside
of them so they can better understand
themselves and other people too. We might
talk about love, forgiveness, and grief. I don’t
ask what someone did to get sent to prison,
but occasionally it comes out and someone
will say, “That’s when I became hard.” And I
totally get it. I would have been hard, too, if
that had happened to me.
When I first started volunteering at San
Quentin, all I knew about prison was what I
had seen on television, so I was prepped to see
a lot of anger and violence. But that first time
we sat together in a circle, the level of sharing
overwhelmed me. The men displayed a
willingness to go deep and to really talk about
what was going on, as well as a willingness
for the others to reflect to them what they
had shared. Seeing the depth in which others
remembered what was said was impressive.
They demonstrated absolute proof that what
we must see
them for who they
are now, not just
for what they did