Michael Harris, co-founder of Death Row Records and former San Quentin News editor-in-chief, has finally been freed. Harris was granted a pardon by former President Donald Trump, after serving 30 years in state and federal prisons.
We at SQ News send Harris our respect and support on his next journey. We are truly grateful to Harris. After San Quentin’s print shop was shut down, it was Harris who paid for the continual printing and distribution of the San Quentin News. His leadership is a part of where we are today. Ivanka Trump, Snoop Dogg, MC Hammer, Chris Redlitz, and Alice Johnson are credited for lobbying for his release.
We are pleased to reprint in part a SQ News Oct. 2011 interview with Harris, before he was sent to federal prison.
By Keshun Tate Journalism Guild Writer
Q. Without going into details of your case, can you tell me what happened?
A. I became accustomed to surviving on the hard streets of Los Angeles at a young age. I made a lot of money in the drug business. When I opened my eyes to all the lives I had helped to destroy, it was too late. To this day, I’m still haunted about some of the things I done. I started creating businesses in the community with the intent to help people, hoping this would remove some of the dirt I had done. When I became a so-called “legit businessman” I learned how to carry myself accordingly — ultimately I gained a sense of purpose.
Then one day I found myself in handcuffs because I failed at processing a situation correctly. (Harris received a 25-years-to-life sentence for attempted murder and drugrelated charges.)
Q. How would you describe your mindset when you started your 25-to-life sentence?
A. My ego was so strong that it wouldn’t allow me to see the reality. When I arrived at San Quentin for the first time back in 1988, I was still a beast. When I arrived at Quentin, at that time it was a Level IV. The atmosphere was intense and violent. I was still an ego-driven person due to all the unfinished business that I left on the streets. My physical body was behind bars, but my mind was still in society. I was constantly thinking beyond prison. When San Quentin changed to a Level II two years later, I was transferred to the newly opened Pelican Bay Level-IV prison, where I did 18 months. After that I was transferred to various other state institutions: Tehachapi, Lancaster, and Soledad, then back to San Quentin.
(Harris, who ran a vast empire, found himself working as a porter in San Quentin, cleaning showers. He could have opted out of the position, but he said it was an experience that helped humble him.)
Q. What happened to help you see change?
A. It was natural for me to see that being locked up in a cage was unnatural. It took 15 years into my life sentence for me to really start seeing life from a different perspective. When you’re looking at things differently, they start to look different. And, I also learned how to respond differently as well.
I sold drugs because it was an easy way out. In retrospect, it took eight years of soul searching to realize that the choices I made were actually weak choices. I was conditioned to think the way I did. I started reconditioning my brain by reading books about people, some of whom came from like circumstances and made a positive contribution to humanity. After reading these types of books and experiencing their lives vicariously, I became ashamed of the person I had once been. Today I believe that real power comes from patience, perseverance and finding true meaning in your life.
Q. Was that really you? (I’m referring to that beast)
A. That’s a good question. The best way to explain it is to say I had a split personality. One personality protected the other. I was conditioned to act a certain way when exposed to certain environments or situations in the past. With a lot of hard work, I was able to liberate myself from the negative conditioning and allow the true me to emerge. I am no longer that beast, thank God.
Q. How do you believe the (self-help) groups helped you in regards to dealing with the Parole Board?
A. The groups helped me to be honest. Before I stepped into the boardroom, groups like T.R.U.S.T, Keeping It Real, and V.O.E.G (Victim Offenders Education Group) helped me to be able to connect with the real reason why I was in prison — realizing that prison had become my reality. Looking at the part I played in the crime, I embraced the fact that it was me who put me in prison. I accepted the fact that the world I knew was no more.
The groups also helped me relate to how learned conditioning was implemented into my lifestyle. Groups enabled me to be in front of a crowd of individuals and say I am not a big shot. I am now able to listen to feedback objectively. I went through groups because they were a good tool to get what I wanted, not to mention they were a requirement for lifers. Yet by going through them, I got more than what I expected; I found my authentic self.
Q. Is there any one person who has had an impact on your growth and development within the last 23 years of incarceration?
A. No. I believe my growth has been impacted or influenced, if you will, by a number of people and situations in many ways. I have also learned a great deal from negative things. Some people only look at the positive things for growth but I have learned from the negative things as well. One is learning how not to repeat those negative mistakes, from the totality of the experience and examination that one goes through if you do the work looking at all sides.
Q. What are you planning on doing upon release?
A. Plans are plans but what I’m passionate about doing is connecting with like-minded people — specifically young people who are poised to ultimately make some of the same mistakes that I have made in the past — by presenting myself as an example of why that’s not such a great idea. Just as important is connecting with people who are in the solution business — as opposed to just focusing on the problem at hand and not actually elevating to the solutions that are needed — throughout this nation’s disenfranchised communities. (Harris also spoke about publishing some books that have been in the works.)
Q. Are there any closing remarks you would like to leave with us?
A. If you don’t know how to process, it will affect the decisions you make. Two thoughts I would like to put out there: One of the keys, in my opinion, is to become the “best you,” not someone else’s version of what your best you should be. Learn to be OK with your best you, period. And the other thing would be to learn the difference between “love” and “respect,” which means different things to different people, but for me, I have found sometimes it’s pretty easy to love somebody today and not love them tomorrow. But one would be hard-pressed to respect a person one day and not the next, so I prefer respect.