19 September, 2011

Impressions of an afternoon in San Quentin

The San Quentin Creative Writing Class invites you to a public reading of their creative work on Saturday, September 17, noon to 4 p.m.

On the west side of the Richmond bridge, sits an enormous imposing collection of buildings. San Quentin State Prison. 

Saturday. No fog, no clouds. A drive through San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge and north. Frenetic. Running late. Nervous. My first time to a prison of any kind. We drive around the small headland and through a pretty village of old houses facing a stunning view - the Richmond bridge, the bay, sunshine, yachts. The prison gate is ahead and beyond, the prison. A fortress. With a castle keep. 

Security. ID handed over, checked. A dress code - no green, orange, denim, blue, grey, yellow, open toed shoes. Dress conservatively. I'm going to a prison and I haven't a thing to wear! We are escorted to the castle keep - within there are huge metal gates, more checks, a search. And then out into a courtyard of quiet. We are going to the Catholic chapel. A large building in a cluster of other religious buildings catering to every faith. There are flowers, trees, fountains with no water. Ahead is the original facade for the hospital now dwarfed by newer higher walls. 1885. A reminder that this is the oldest prison in California. To the left is the massive body of the prison. We turn right. This is as far as we will go. 

In London, in the 18th century people would pay to visit Bedlam. What am I doing here? Am I a voyeur? 

A group of mostly-white mostly-middle-aged mostly-women in the audience. And the readers are men, in blue, the majority African-American, the majority in their 40s, 50s or older?

A man steps up to the microphone. A big smile. He tells us that four weeks ago he became a grandfather. And with that simple statement, connects us. This is a prisoner. This is also a man with a family. 

I am not here to judge. This is a prison. These men have been judged and sentenced and are doing their time. I am here to listen. 

Stories. Stories from their past. From imagined pasts. From the future. From fantastical worlds. Stories that make us laugh a little. Make me cry. Such eloquence. Stories of loss. Of themselves. Of their families. Pain. Regret. Struggle. Self-knowledge. 

A boy in a tropical fish shop. A kid getting beaten up over a girl. A man trying to get attention in a crowd. A bank robbery. Tales of African American pasts and futures. Political statements and fantastical worlds. A spell-binding performance that takes us to a southern cotton field at the end of slavery. Stories that are from deep within themselves and stories that have taken the writer out of themselves and this place. 

There is something almost monastic about this situation. These men are so calm, polite, respectful. We are in a church. They read in front of the altar. They are shy of reading out loud any swear words that they have written. 

There are no noticeable guards. It is easy to lose yourself in the voices and forget where you are. We take a break and walk out into the yard. There is another voice, shouting insistently. At first I think "a guard"? But no, the voice goes on, monotonously, loud, hard to understand. Another prisoner says "perhaps he killed someone and his soul is in torment". I am struck that the men we are spending the afternoon with, have found a way to survive. Are they the extraordinary exceptions within this huge enclosed society?

San Quentin Prison: Capacity: 3082. Population as at August 2011: 4671. (151.6%)
In May 2011, California lost a U.S. Supreme Court appeal of a ruling that had found its prison overcrowding and the resulting lack of access to medical care amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

As I walk back into the chapel, I look at the book asking for prayers to be said. So many asking for prayers for men suffering from cancer. The men reading to us are serving long long sentences. In one case, he has been in prison for 29 years. More than my adult life and I'm not young anymore. Incomprehensible.

Several times men get up to read and reach for the right spectacles. Bi-focals on a man in a baseball cap with a prominent tattoo on his forearm. Men serving time for acts committed by much younger selves. And I think about that voice in the yard - someone who cannot cope. Someone who is unable to look within and find strength to get through the days and years and the uncertainty and the overcrowding.

Is it the quantity of time served that is important or the quality? How long is enough?

I'm not making excuses. It is a jarring shocking moment when a man tells us that he is a killer. It is jarring and shocking because the piece he is reading is so beautiful. It is jarring and shocking because he is matter of fact, rueful, sad, moved and moving. And it is jarring and shocking because it reminds me that many of these men may be killers but they are fathers, grandfathers, husbands, writers. Monstrous acts. Common humanity. We lock people up to protect ourselves, to punish, but do we also do it because we don't want to look too closely and see ourselves looking back. We lock them up and then what? What is the purpose?

The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) 2.2 m adults were incarcerated in U.S. federal and state prisons, and county jails at year-end 2009 — about 1% of adults in the U.S. resident population. Black males have an imprisonment rate over 6 times the white male imprisonment rate. The rate of imprisonment in the United States is considerably higher than the rate in any other industrialized nation.

At the end we nearly run out time. The "count" is about to happen. The prisoners must get back - to where? to what? And we must leave or we will have to wait for the count to end. Mutual concern that no group gets into trouble takes us over. No time to talk. No time to give feedback except applause, handshakes, smiles, murmured heartfelt thanks for being given the chance to hear their words in their voices.

We leave and I drive home alone, aware now that I am outside, that there is an inside. I wonder if they can even see out, see the spectacular view of the bay. I wonder what the cells look like, or are they in dormitories? Over the next day or so, I find myself thinking about the small freedoms in my life - getting to eat what I want when I want, sleep in a bed in a room in an apartment, shower alone. I am filled with questions, about incarceration, about their lives, before, now, in the future.


The last two days, that afternoon has been swirling around in my head. I want to thank Zoe Mullery, their writing instructor, for inviting me.

I do not believe in God, but I do believe in redemption, and forgiveness, and I believe strongly that programs like this deserve support.

William James Association

Brothers in Pen

1 comment:

bopper pye said...

Thanks for sharing this. It felt strangely coincidental bc for some reason I have been imagining a fictional prisoner lately. Maybe because of all the craziness in the news about how many folks are in prison.

Hope things are going well for you. Maybe I will see you around the Mission again sometime.