Joe Diggs was a friend, father and a mentor to the men of San Quentin. He left this world honorably in a ceremony befitting a soldier who served his country in the United States Army.
Diggs, 60, who was well known in San Quentin, passed away February 2, 2011, while at Vacaville’s prison hospice.
A memorial was held on Feb. 18, in the Garden Chapel for him and three other San Quentin men who passed: Phousaykeo Saysouribong, Robert (Bobby) Brown, and Jimmy Chapman.
The memorial for Diggs was a packed event that began with the Color Guard of San Quentin. The Viet Nam Veterans Group Color Guard consisted of Stanley Baer, Trenton Capell, and Garvin “Jo-Jo” Robinson. Stanley Baer opened the memorial service with a cadence. Then all three marched up the aisle, Capell and Robinson each carried a flag; one the American Flag and the other carrying the Prisoner of War and Missing in Action (POW/MIA) flag.
In attendance for the first time, three active duty Army honor guard soldiers proceeded to have a memorial ceremony for Diggs and presented Diggs family with a United States flag. This special honor was facilitated by Laura Bowman-Salzsieder, Community Parterships Manager.
Diggs was incarcerated at New Folsom and then Old Folsom before he finally arrived at San Quentin. He said that coming here was a culture shock. “I’ve been in prison for 17 years, but I’ve been here at San Quentin for seven,” Diggs said.
“San Quentin by far has more to offer. You know that you’re a human being here,” said Diggs. “No one wants to be treated like an animal for years on end. It serves absolutely no purpose.”
Diggs commented that being involved with the programs here at San Quentin helped him grow as a person. “Here I feel like I can breathe for first time.”
Born in Houston, Texas, on Aug. 4, 1951, his family migrated to California years later.
“I don’t know when that was exactly, but it was so long ago that the train, the Santa Fe Chief, still came over the Bay Bridge,” Diggs said.
Diggs entered prison when he was 44 years old yet the last six to eight months of his life, he began developing complications with his heart. “I’ve got Cardio-Myopathy an enlarged heart,” Diggs said. Cardio-Myopathy literally means “heart muscle,” it is the deterioration of the function of the myocardium, the actual heart muscle for any reason. Cardiomyopathies are categorized as extrinsic or intrinsic. Where the primary pathology is outside the myocardium itself, it is extrinsic. However, intrinsic cardiomyopathy is defined as a weakness in the muscle of the heart that is not due to an identifiable external cause.
GOOD HEALTH CARE
In the mid-stages of his ailment, Diggs moved from his cell to San Quentin’s Central Health Services Building, (CHSB). Diggs said the health care at the CHSB was as good as the Veterans Administration Hospital.
“People don’t think so but the VA has pretty good health care,” he said. A soldier through and through Diggs instructed that the VA can take care of its own. “They have an obligation whether vets discharge honorably or not.”
Before his death Diggs expressed his desire to be with his family and about compassionate release for terminally ill patients.
“Some people as they get older can’t take care of themselves. They should stay in prison hospice care,” he said. “But those of us who have family should be let go to pass at home. That’s compassion. Right now as an elderly prisoner, I’m forced to die in prison when I’m terminally ill and pose no threat to society. Where’s the compassion in that?”
While at San Quentin, Diggs was a member of the Prison University Project, Viet Nam Veterans Group of San Quentin (V.V.G.S.Q.), Veterans Issues Group (VIG) and a member of Reaching Beyond the Walls. Diggs worked in education and expressed pride in being the lead clerk for the “Veterans Information Project” (VIP) at San Quentin.
The Veterans Information Project in San Quentin provides incarcerated veterans with all possible information regarding benefits available by virtue of service.
HELP EACH OTHER
“For me working to help other incarcerated veterans gain information is important,” Diggs said. “When you get here and you’re a vet, the (VIP) is here for you. I mean that’s what we vets do. We help each other no matter what, and I’m proud of that.”
However, when it came to discussing the prison industry complex Diggs said that California’s prisons are not serving their purpose.
“We all know some people need to be locked up, but the way we imprison people especially in California we need to be look into why we’re doing this to each other,” said Diggs.
Diggs said there is a responsibility of society to civilize people in prison and overall fact is rehabilitation is not happening in California prisons.
He said lifers should be released because statistics show, “Lifers rarely come back.”
Nevertheless, it is unsound political practice where the parole board and the Governor purposely ignore these facts. This keeps California’s prisons overcrowded, unsanitary and dangerous.
“Lifers who have taken the initiative to improve themselves through self-help programs, getting the GED or AA degrees are the ones that must be let out,” said Diggs.
He commented that California’s legislature must look deeply into new methods of incarceration. Not to use incarceration as a platform for lawmakers in Sacramento to scare the public into voting in laws that help further bankrupt the state.
“No professional jailer like the parole board commissioners, ex-police officers, district attorneys, or judges can truly teach a person how to stay focused while in prison, so when they get out of prison they stay out of prison,” said Diggs. “Only a lifer can do that.
However, this is a business, yet lifers who have done the inner work are denied parole and the people who haven’t, short termers, are released. Those are the ones who you see on the news killing folks, not lifers.”
Trenton Capell has been incarcerated for 14 years and a resident of San Quentin for a year stated that he met Diggs in the Veterans Group.
“It was inspiring to know him because even at a the dire time of his life and when he was having trouble getting to his job down in education Diggs always made his commitments,” Capell said. “His name really fit in here because he really dug in.”
Capell added that Diggs made a positive impression on his life that he taught him to fulfill his commitments.
“I met Diggs on the way here on the bus from Folsom in March of 2005,” said Malik Harris, a six-year resident of San Quentin. “In our first meeting I realized right away there was a lot of fire in him, real passion.”
Harris moved in the cell with Diggs to take care of him when he saw his condition had worsened.
“I don’t see what the big deal is when I saw he couldn’t stand under his own power, I knew in my mind there was no one who was going to take care of him better than I,” said Harris.
Right when you met him, Harris said, Diggs said what he meant and meant what he said. He did not pull any punches.
“Since he was here in 2005 he took care of me, I had to take care of him. If you care about someone on the level as I cared about Diggs that’s what I was supposed to do,”
Diggs is survived by two sons and two daughters.