Charles Annenberg Weingarten of the celebrated Annenberg Foundation visited San Quentin and was moved to say he was pleasantly surprised to find so many inmates who have linked their own rehabilitation to self-help programs and education.
The afternoon sun was shinning on July 1 when Weingarten, the creator of Explorer.org, was escorted down to the education department by Public Information Officer Lt. Sam Robinson. Walking with Lt. Robinson also was a small group of foundation associates, Tom Pollack of Explorer.org, and Ben Fuller and Lili Polastri from Link TV. Also present were some familiar faces of San Quentin: Jody Lewen of Patten University Project and documentary filmmaker Tamara Perkins.
The Annenberg Foundation was endowed in 1989 with $1.2 billion by Charles’s grandfather, the late Walter H. Annenberg, former U.S. ambassador and president of Triangle Publications. Triangle included nationwide TV and radio stations, Seventeen magazine, and TV Guide. The ambassador also founded the Annenberg Schools of Communication at both the University of Pennsylvania in 1958 and the University of Southern California in 1971. Also, in 1983 the Washington Program in Communication Policy was established.
Once Charles Weingarten’s group arrived at San Quentin, they were led to the media room inside the education building where they were shown TV trailers, Public Service Announcements and movie shorts. All of these were produced, directed, shot and edited by inmates in the media department. Troy Williams a five-year resident of San Quentin hosted the screening. Williams, whose Dharma name is “Kogen,” is the Video Production Assistant of San Quentin Media. Weingarten was impressed. After watching several pieces Weingarten said, “I like this. Some of this is better than the stuff we produce. Can I see more?”
The media project’s film screening included “Repentance” and “Q.U.A.K.E. (Quentin United for Aid Kindness and Empathy) for Haiti Relief” and “Brilliance Behind Bars the Rap-u-mentary” directed by Marvin Andrews, also a graduate of the Discovery Channel Film School at San Quentin. When asked about his film Andrews said, “It displays a variety of talents that these men possess here at San Quentin in spite of their life obstacles… also what it’s not, is the typical depiction of incarcerated men.”
LOST HIS BROTHER
Once the mini-film festival was complete, they were led to a different classroom full of awaiting inmates, volunteers and staff supporters. Inmates began discussing what the self-help programs and the educational opportunities meant to them. Kogen said he felt forced into a lifestyle with gangs at age thirteen. Later in life at the age of 27 he lost his oldest brother.
While he was in county jail Kogen realized that the death and painful loss of his brother made him feel helpless, yet it also led him to a state of deep introspection. He also realized the pain that he had caused to so many others”.
Others in the room began to speak. “I sold a lot of dope to a lot of people and you need to know that,” said Michael Harris. “Because when you do a lot to people you must do a lot for people.” Jody Lewen of Patten University Project and a staunch supporter of the education and self-help programs said, “This is the only prison that has a film school, the newspaper, the programs. This place is sort of an incubator.”
MAKE A DIFFERENCE
David Cowan, an eight-year resident at San Quentin, said, “What I get out of all the programs as a whole is a sense that I’m being prepared for society. by participating in programs like; Patten University and the San Quentin T.R.U.S.T. (Teaching Responsibility Utilizing Sociological Training), and the Victim Offender Education Group.”
Daniel Trevino said, “I’ve learned through my writing that what you write can make a difference in young people’s lives.”
As dialogue continued more and more people expressed their inner thoughts, tables pushed together and the gathering took on the feeling of a round-table event. David Monroe said, “I’ve been incarcerated since I was 15 years old. My brother was killed and I stopped going to school. I realized that I had to change things and school helped me.”
Darnel Hill, a lifer who has been incarcerated since 1991 and became a resident of San Quentin in 1997, said. “The question is what is the value of education? I ended up coming to prison with my father. As a little kid, I grew up watching my mother get beat by men. It was a dysfunctional environment.”
Hill’s statement prompted a response from Weingarten: “This is the theme that men in prison don’t have fathers. This is the same sentiment that is shared by some of the war veterans and amputees I’m working with on a film project.”
“I mentor SQUIRE kids every Saturday,” inmate Michael Tyler said. “My best moment was seeing my mother’s face when I got my diploma. Patten has given me different tools I can use. Still, finding myself in prison is very hard. I was a kid still trying to learn to be a man.”
Arnulfo Garcia reflected on his prison time: “My last stretch in prison I was strung out the whole time. Later I fled to Mexico and I had my daughter. It was the first time I ever thought about changing my life. I just didn’t want to be the kind of father who was strung out on drugs with a beautiful daughter.” Lili Polastri of Link TV and a member of the Weingarten party, said, “I’m just surprised at the fact that I didn’t realize how unique San Quentin really is. I thought there was a certain amount of rehabilitation being done and there isn’t. This is my first time visiting a prison and you men are so different from what people talk about. Is it really possible to help people from here?” Lt. Robinson commented: “The S.Q.U.I.R.E.S. (San Quentin Utilization Inmate Resources Experiences and Studies) program has a success rate of 70 percent through a series of sessions.” That’s just one example.
The foundation’s name is synonymous with social justice, self-empowerment, higher education and global reform. Moreover, as a world- traveling envoy for social change, Charles Weingarten has funded several human rights organizations such as the Rescue Foundation in India and the B’Tselem’s Shooting Back Program in Israel. India’s Rescue Foundation supports the rescuing of women from the grips of human trafficking while Israel’s Shooting Program provides tools to record mistreatment for victims of human rights violations in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. “My job is to try to facilitate help and champion worthy causes,” Weingarten said.
“Share What You Know” and “Never Stop Learning,” are among his Explorer’s group’s founding principles. “I didn’t come [to San Quentin] with a plan,” Weingarten said. But then he added, “What is it that you can do for me? I’ve always been fascinated with things that have been misunderstood. I think there might be opportunity here to dispel the myths about prison culture.”
After the discussion Weingarten was given a tour of the general population facility and as he turned to leave he said, “I would like to come back.”