This is the last “Asked On The Line” that shall be written for the San Quentin News, so this is goodbye. The first “Asked On The Line” was published for the May 2011 issue of the San Quentin News, and it asked the men on the mainline if they knew the meaning behind Cinco de Mayo.
Now, more than 70 articles later, this column shall be retired. But fear not, valued reader, this writer shall continue to write the MAC Corner column, focused on informing the men in blue of the ongoing and ever-changing policies of the institution.
The brainchild of Executive Editor Arnulfo Garcia, Asked On The Line had a most interesting six-year run.
However, this column was by no means my idea or my invention. It was developed in collaboration with talented and award-winning editors and journalists: John Eagan, Steve McNamara, Joan Lisetor, William Drummond, Richard Richardson, Garcia, Juan Haines, Kevin Sawyer, Marcus Henderson, Keung Vanh, Jonathan Chiu, Ali Tamboura, Julian Glenn Padgett, and many, many other people, outrageously talented men and women who have worked tirelessly for a great periodical. They are the true heroes and the true authors of this column.
My primary intent was to help remind our readers of the humanity that exists behind prison walls. It was never about the inmate perspective but of the human perspective.
So, for those on the other side of the wall, who have never felt cold steel on their skin, the slam of a cell door, or the condescending tone of authority’s voice, my driving message was this: the reality for state prisoners is that there is no comfort in punishment.
No human being likes the hard accommodations of a concrete cell, but the fact that we are compelled to adapt to our environment does not mean that we have lost our humanity. We are people. We are grandfathers, uncles, nephews, brothers, husbands, fathers and sons. We are human beings, and we matter. Our lives matter.
Granted, there are a lot of men at San Quentin who have done great harm, and many of those men live with the shame of their crimes and of knowing that there is nothing that may ever restore their victims.
And sadly, there are some mainliners who feel no shame and are unable to feel it because of mental illness or lifelong trauma. Yet, even those men feel the sting of incarceration every day. And in the minority of the inmate population—there are some at this institution—are those who have lost all hope and just don’t care about themselves anymore, much less other people.
They cannot be reasoned with or bargained with. They feel no shame, pity or remorse, and they will not stop hurting other people because dysfunction and abuse is all they know. However, valued reader, they do not represent all of the men serving time in prison.
Interestingly, some outside visitors have asked how we get used to being here. I can only respond with a question: How else should we respond to state-sanctioned retribution? We respond like any other person would respond. We respond like human beings.
Now, Hollywood and violent isolated incidents in prisons and jails across the country have painted a very negative image of inmates, one that has developed into a deep-seated prejudice by some free people in society.
Yes, mischief and crime does occur in prison, but setting aside those incidents, many of the men at San Quentin actually work hard, every day, to make amends to their victims while healing themselves in the process—a tall order, given the accommodations and limited resources.
We do not need to remind anyone that retribution is hard or that punishment is painful. Yet, many San Quentin volunteers and state employees would agree that the humanity of the men serving time at San Quentin is no different from that of free people.
The men in blue laugh, love, cry, mourn and rejoice, just like people who live in the free world. We have children, parents, siblings, grandparents, spouses, partners and friends on the outside.
Most mainliners actually support, participate in, and desire more rehabilitation programs and only hope that we are not forgotten by those on the other side of the wall.
Such a notion that the men in blue are less human than free people has never been true and has only served to feed the prejudicial agenda of those who dislike us or do not understand us. So, we hold on to the hope that someday, those outside individuals might come around and visit us, maybe even volunteer.