By Juan Haines
A team of San Francisco’s leading prosecutors came into San Quentin on Dec. 16, seeking answers to very tough questions about public safety and got eye-opening answers from the kind of people they have convicted and sent to prison.
A large part of the solution is curbing criminal behavior in children before they wind up in jail and prison, the inmates told the district attorneys.
“It’s not about locking a kid up. It’s about understanding the root causes behind criminal thinking, like anger and rejection. It’s about listening to what is happening in the kid’s life.” said Philip Melendez, convicted of two first-degree murders.
“When the strategy is to lock the kid up, all they learn is how to become a better criminal,” added Melendez, 37, who has been incarcerated for 18 years.
It was the 14th San Quentin News Forum, led by the newspaper’s executive editor, Arnulfo T. Garcia. Previous forums have included judges, elected officials and teachers.
Garcia rounded up about a dozen inmates to discuss how they have transformed their lives and are now committed to giving back to the same community they harmed.
“I grew up in an abusive home,” said Vaughn Miles, 43, incarcerated for 22 years for first-degree murder. “I left home at 13 and found acceptance in the streets. Living that way of life comes with a belief system — a street code. I internalized that code and started carrying a gun. That criminal lifestyle opened the door for my commitment offense.”
To prevent juveniles from turning to a life of crime, Miles called for the collaboration between street-smart reformed inmates and public safety officials committed to smart-on-crime policies.
“Our life experiences hooked up with your knowledge could be used to set up a program to help the kids,” Miles said.
Miles told the prosecutors about San Quentin’s at-risk youth program, SQUIRES.
“SQUIRES works with non-judgmental dialogue,” Miles explained. “When we sit in front of kids and listen to them, we have credibility because they know that we were once in their shoes.”
Phoeun You is serving a life sentence for a drive-by shooting in 1996 and has been involved with programs similar to SQUIRES. He said that because prisoners have had similar difficult childhoods, the visitors trust the inmates and often it’s the first time they’ve been able to talk to anyone about their lives.
“A mentorship program with people who have paroled that also includes the parents could be used to work toward a solution,” You suggested.
Ana Gonzalez said she was moved by the stories and noted that the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office has an advisory board of formerly incarcerated individuals. Nevertheless, she said that victims of crime rely on prosecutors to punish lawbreakers.
“It’s an eye-for-an-eye,” Gonzalez said. “If there’s no punishment, crime victims would feel like they need to exact it for themselves. They rely on law enforcement so that they don’t resort to self-help.”
SF Assistant DA Marisa Rodriguez added, “Bringing all the DAs in here is not to be softer on crime. It is to better understand how to do our jobs. It is really valuable to hear what a 19-year-old would take away from programs and not take bad habits back to the community.”
Adnan Khan, 32, is serving a life sentence for a murder/robbery he committed at age 17. He pointed to the benefits of self-help programs.
Khan said there are a variety of San Quentin programs that lead to transformation. Among them are Shakespeare, yoga, anger management, and addiction recovery counseling. He pointed out that most inmates at other prisons don’t get such help.
“We live in a punitive society, and we are seeing its results. The community and society should take responsibility as well as the individual for what went wrong,” Kahn stated.
“I didn’t expect to hear what I’ve heard,” said Marshall Khine. He asked the inmates, “Do you think you had to come to prison to find these changes?”
“It’s sad to say that I had to come to prison (to find these changes), Khan said. “But, why aren’t these programs taught in middle school and high school? If they were, it wouldn’t have taken me to commit the kind of crime I did to learn these things.”
Jerome Hermosura, who is serving a life sentence, said, “As a youngster, I felt like I wasn’t being heard. There wasn’t anything in place to help children with issues of domestic violence. The teachers weren’t able to help. I didn’t understand the resentment against my father — the hate and anger — until I came to prison. I wish I knew this when I was a child.”
Emile DeWeaver, 37, also serving a life sentence for a murder he committed at 19-years-old added, “We grow up with thinking errors about value and being rejected/isolated. It’s about connecting with strategies that support change in safe places. There needs to be places to nurture. I didn’t need to come to prison to change my life – that’s where I changed, but the same interventions that work so well at San Quentin should’ve been available to me when I was being thrown out of junior high school.”
Upumoni Ama has been incarcerated 22 years. He is serving a sentence of 17 years to life for second-degree murder.
“My lifestyle in and out of the home was in conflict,” Ama said. “My Polynesian culture taught me traditional values, but the street culture brought a lot of traumatic experiences to me.”
Ama said while on the streets he witnessed a lot of violence against people he knew.
“I felt unsafe every time I left the house,” Ama said. “Around 12-13, I turned to gangs for protection. Being in a gang gave me a chip on my shoulder.”
Ama said ever since he joined a gang, he’s been in and out of prisons and jails without his problems being addressed.
“I got out of prison at 25 and three months later I beat someone to death,” Ama said. “I look at it now; I had a kind of rage inside me from my childhood experiences.”
Rodriguez said, “Everyone came away with new ideas concerning rehabilitation and what that means and what it can really look like in practice, re-entry, and the juvenile justice system, just to name a few.”
Julius De Guia, added, “I’ve been with the District Attorney’s Office 19 years and never sat with the same people I’ve sent to prison. I have a lot of feelings I didn’t think I’d have. My whole office needs to come and have this experience.”