By Juan Haines
Robert Dunbar’s suicide in 2005 affected the entire San Quentin State Prison community. Patrick Mims, a close friend of Dunbar, said he had no idea or clues that the well-liked Dunbar would take his own life.
“When Robert hanged himself, I took a deep breath,” said Mims. “I had just had breakfast with him.”
The unusually high rate of suicides in U.S. prisons brought Mims along with other leaders of the San Quentin community together to create a suicide-prevention program, Brother’s Keeper.
“When we walk this line, you never know what the man next to you is carrying,” Mims said. “As a Brother’s Keeper, you are trained to notice these things.”
Mims, who paroled from San Quentin in 2009, has kept his connection with the men with whom he once did time by coming to the graduating class of 14 inmates in Brothers’ Keepers.
“I believed in Brother’s Keeper because it was not about me,” Mims said. “It was about somebody else.”
Brothers’ Keepers began as an idea and was taken to a volunteer self-help facilitator, Jacques Verdin, who brought in professionals from Bay Area Women Against Rape (BAWAR) –Marcia Blackstock and Diane Beynon.
“We are asked all the time how can you go in there?” Blackstock said. “The answer is simple, ‘This is where we find hope.’”
One of the many projects of Insight Prison Project is sponsoring the program.
“You have made a conscious effort to make the San Quentin community safer,” said Associate Warden John Curzon in a written statement to the graduates.
“Integrity is about what you do when nobody is looking,” Mims told the graduates. “Wear your Brother’s Keeper hats and hone it with integrity and dignity.”
Graduates of Brothers’ Keepers 2015 are Edward Ballenger, Tare Beltranchuc, Lynn Beyett, Carl Burnside, Peter Chhem, Cleo Cloman, Gregory Coates, Arnulfo T. Garcia, Sam W. Johnson Sr., Vaughn Miles, Miguel Quezada, Dywayne Reynolds, John Robb and Kana Uch.
“It’s a fantastic program,” said Kathleen O’Meara, Regional Mental Health director for Northern California prisons. “It takes a community to prevent suicide. You guys are the boots on the ground. I am extremely fond of peer education groups. Whenever I go out to other prisons, I praise what you do.”
O’Meara thinks that Brothers’ Keepers are an instrument for peace. “Every one of you will be successful if you will go out of here. I am so grateful to have met you. And I am not done yet. I want to integrate what you do with the mental health program in a more formal way.”
When Borey Ai, a Brother’s Keeper graduate, told a simple story, called The Mouse Trap. It challenged his life, the suffering, death, empathy and compassion. The emotions depicted in the story resonated with the audience of about 75 people.
“I always think about what my role is among the people,” Ai said. “I’ve never been to a community like the one here in San Quentin. We look at the world and try to help people. We all have the ability to help shape our community.”
“We did a lot of role playing,” graduate Cleo Cloman said. “That was the most important thing, because it put me in the hot seat. There were challenges that taught me something different each time — each individual has helped me.”
“What you do is relevant. The fact that you’re willing to help your community is remarkable,” said facilitator Howard Bloom. “Being available for folks is a huge thing. That’s what you guys do day in and day out. That energy changes things.”
The ceremony closed with Gregory “Eagle” Coates providing a soft melody with a wood flute.