A new organization is helping San Quentin’s incarcerated cope with the fear and trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Humans of San Quentin helped humanize the men when COVID-19 ravaged the prison in the summer of 2020, leaving dozens dead and thousands trapped in cells trembling with fever.
Founded by teacher Diane Kahn, the organization’s mission is to shine a light in every prison cell and reveal the humanity inside.
“The vulnerability I felt from people in blue touched me and I felt it was a crime not to share their stories from behind bars,” Kahn said in an interview.
Kahn has collected over 140 stories from incarcerated people. She posts them on her Instagram platform. She also uses Facebook and Twitter and her Humans of San Quentin website to post stories. Her hope is to expand to Reddit and Tik Tok.
She said she has been blessed with the approval of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, SQ Warden Ron Broomfield, and Public Information Officer Sam Robinson
“Our aim is to give voice to the unheard,” Kahn explained. “We post stories about simple everyday experiences that incarcerated people go through and the outside public can relate to.”
Kahn got the idea from Brandon Stanton, who started an organization called Humans of New York in 2010. Stanton’s goal at the time was to publish 10,000 stories from everyday New Yorkers. His idea became a huge success.
Some of the stories presented to Kahn reflect that some prisoners have gone years without any ability to connect with family and friends. Some describe it as feeling like they’re buried alive. “It essentially makes you feel dead inside,” one person said.
Having connection with other human beings is a basic human need, Kahn said. She seeks to reawaken the humanity in all people by helping facilitate those connections.
When Michael Moore, 61, wrote his story for HOSQ he was surprised at how it made him feel. “I no longer felt trapped on this island of incarceration,” Moore said. “I was trying to let the world get to know me without realizing I had family out there who were getting to know me as well.”
Moore said he left home at an early age to escape his childhood abuse. He ended up channeling his trauma into a life of crime. He eventually realized that he was trying to feel a sense of power and control over his own being.
When Philippe Kelly, 37, shared his story with the HOSQ he was also surprised by the response he got. “They sent me copies of everything, with stamps and some of the comments that were posted about my story,” said Kelly. “They kept in touch with me and let me know how I was doing on Instagram. There were people out there who actually wanted to write to me.”
Kahn is assisted by two formerly incarcerated employees, Marcus Blevins and Joe Kreuter. They help collect, edit and post stories. Incarcerated journalist Juan Haines also helps facilitate the program from the inside.
Most of the stories are from men, but Kahn said she welcomes women and those in the transgendered communities to share their stories.
Kahn said she is also interested in hiring formerly incarcerated people who are good writers and who have editing skills that can help further the goals of the organization. One goal Kahn has is to teach a class at SQ on how to write a first-person narrative and help incarcerated people build up their editing skills. She also seeks to publish a book entitled “The Humans of San Quentin.”
Kahn said her organization has received a great response from the public.
“The future of HOSQ will be to provide wrap-around services,” said Haines, whose hope is to help grow the organization when he is released. “It’s about empowering incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, providing them a voice, employment, a platform for public engagement, and the opportunity to give back.”