By Rahsaan Thomas
Ten years ago the post office delivered a letter from San Quentin State Prison to the wrong address. Professor of Photography Nigel Poor received the letter, wondering why. The correct address was nowhere near hers. She redirected the epistle to the correct person, thinking that would be the end of it. But it happened twice more, sparking her interest in San Quentin prison and how people inside communicate.
“What people inside have to say is amazing,” said Poor. “They are a huge under utilized resource. If more people heard the stories of men behind bars, they would make better decisions about mass incarceration.”
“I photographed humble things. If you investigate something you realize there is a lot more there. Most people think prisoners are nothing. Throw them away. But if you investigate…”
Poor, a professor at California State University, Sacramento, first got interested in prison from hearing on a radio show that Kresty Detention Center in Russia charges admission to tourists.
“Hearing they do zoo tours to make money freaked me out,” said Poor. “I wanted to go to Russia to see what a country is like that thinks that is a thing to do.”
In 2000, she found herself in St. Petersburg, but people wouldn’t help her find the prison. She ran across it while leaving – it was right next to the train station.
“I walked into the prison (on a tour). You could touch the walls. I found cones on the ground everywhere,” said Nigel. “I like things that you can’t really answer; it’s a mystery you can ponder.”
Cones are notes rolled up and placed like long stems with chewed up bread for weight.
“That’s how they sent messages out of that horrible violent place,” said Poor. “The cones were thrown out, but you don’t know if somebody will get it. I picked one up.”
Poor didn’t know that Russian police watch to see who picks up the cones. Sometimes the cones are messages to criminals.
“I didn’t know if it was a romantic gesture or a criminal act,” said Poor. “To me it was a call to connect.”
In 2011, Poor heard about an opportunity to teach photography inside San Quentin as part of the Prison University Project (PUP). She took the chance.
“Photos are a common ground, a form of communication, and teaching photography allowed me to connect in interesting ways,” said Poor. “I got sucked in by all the humanity.”
There Poor met student Troy Williams, who headed the San Quentin Prison Report (SQPR), San Quentin’s TV and radio program. The two planned to do a film about the prison, but it got too complicated, and they ended up doing radio pieces that are sometimes played on 91.7 FM, KALW’s Crosscurrents show on Monday nights at 5 p.m.
“I think that inside and outside people can work as colleagues,” said Poor.
In 2012, after three semesters with PUP, Nigel switched over to SQPR.
“The radio thing is fantastic,” said Poor. “We can do all different types of stories. I feel like I’m part of something that is incredibly innovative, something important. We are going down a route that has not been fully investigated, and all of us are constantly learning. Human nature is constantly being revealed here.”
In 2015, Poor expanded her role inside of San Quentin. She helped facilitate a live story telling event called Live Law.
“I think the live shows are interesting because it’s really surprising for guests to see outside and inside people doing something inspiring, and I hope it inspires them to get involved. That was one of the peak experiences of my life.”
After the Live Law event, San Quentin Media, which Poor sponsors in addition to SQPR, was born.
SQ Media’s next event, called Prison Renaissance, will focus on stories about how art transforms incarcerated people.
“There are so many people with talents and skills that are languishing inside when they could be productive. I think humans need to be productive or there’s atrophy. Working with SQ Media is interesting, a challenge and important, and it feels good to be part of that.”
Additionally, Poor is working on a podcast called Ear Hustle with SQPR’s Earlonne Woods and Antwan “Banks” Williams.
“Taking the chance at volunteering, you just never know what will happen,” said Poor. “Taking the opportunity to go someplace new can completely change your life.”