By Juan Haines
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, joined by more than two dozen prosecutors from around the country, visited San Quentin to discuss criminal justice policy with 30 inmates participating in restorative justice programs.
“Our job does not end when the person we convict goes to prison, said Baltimore, MD, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby. “At some point, the prisoners are transitioning back to society. There needs to be reentry services.”
San Francisco Deputy District Attorney Marisa Rodriguez told the other prosecutors, “One of the things to take away is be courageous. I had a lot of reservations and challenges before coming in here and talking to the inmates. I represent the victims and I have had their families sitting behind me in the courtroom. But, coming in here to these forums has made me a better prosecutor. As these men come out of prison, we want them to be accountable.”
During the Jan. 26 meeting, inmates shared their stories about life behind bars, their paths to rehabilitation, and ideas for re-entering society successfully. The meeting took place in the prison’s Protestant Chapel. Five circles of chairs were set up in a typical group therapy style, for face-to-face conversations.
Seattle, Washington, District Attorney Dan Satterberg asked the inmates why the circle process works in restorative justice programs.
“The circle process forces us to look at ourselves,” inmate Lynn Beyett said. “When we’re sitting in the circle, listening to each other’s stories, all you have to do is close your eyes and you’ll hear your own story.”
Joe Mason said that he felt the circle created a safe environment to express his feelings. “We have all different races from different places, and we find out that we’re all in it together,” he said.
Phoeun You said the circle also helps everyone to be heard. “In a circle you can’t run or hide,” You said. “Sometimes a child only needs to be heard in order to help.”
Robert Richie, a member of Criminal Gangs Anonymous (CGA), said San Quentin and its programs helped him improve himself.
“The environment at San Quentin was different than other prisons,” Richie said. “At other prisons, lots of guys keep doing wrong. When I got to San Quentin, I met up with some of those same guys. They were changed and positive. That gave me the incentive to change myself.”
Richie said CGA changed his criminal thinking. He said having people come in from the Bay Area community to facilitate the group made him feel like a normal person.
“CGA helped me understand that I was addicted to a criminal lifestyle,” Richie said. “Now I am a CGA sponsor. I went from a taker to a giver.”
The inmates also spoke about the long process of getting out of the violence and isolation found in maximum-security prisons and transferring to San Quentin. For many inmates, it took more than 10 years.
Samuel Hearnes described the road that led him to San Quentin. He joined a gang at 17 years old, and he tried to live up to the image of a gang-banger. He is serving a life sentence for a murder he committed at age 18 trying to live up to that image.
Hearnes said that even before he got to prison, he wanted to change his lifestyle, but when he got to prison, he had to first focus on “survival.”
“I wanted to learn trades,” Hearnes said, “but every time I’d get into a program, something like a riot or lock-down would interrupt it. This went on for about 10 years, until I got to San Quentin.”
Charlie Spence, a mentor, told the prosecutors about the awkwardness that people feel when they get here from other prisons because they aren’t used to interacting with the outside community. “The majority of people at other prisons are going home without having the opportunity to reconnect the way San Quentin inmates do,” he said. “They are only used to talking to other people in blue.”
Chicago State’s Attorney Kim Foxx acknowledged that high-security prisons do not give inmates good opportunities for change. She praised the services available at San Quentin.
“However, I just heard at other prisons, there were drug deals and violence. That means that systems are failing,” she said. “Why aren’t we doing something about that?”
The inmates provided suggestions for how to connect inmates to rehabilitative programs sooner in their incarceration.
Fateen Jackson, a Guiding Rage Into Power (GRIP) mentor, proposed tangible benefits such as time reductions for inmates.
“I want to take programs to redeem myself from the harm I’ve created”
Rafael Cuevas, also a GRIP mentor, suggested that people who had already gone through rehabilitative programs might be best to teach restorative justice curricula. “The success relies on getting the right people in place,” he said.
Jacques Verduin, the executive director of Insight-Out, spoke about GRIP, a 52-week comprehensive offender accountability program that takes participants on a healing journey deep inside themselves so they can transform into change agents, giving back to the communities they once took from, working with at-risk youth and teaching those who are still incarcerated.
“It is a best-practices model, born from 20 years of pioneering and working with thousands of prisoners,” said Verduin, who teaches GRIP in five California prisons. “You’re discovering here that these men have become emotionally intelligent. These guys are taking what they have learned on their side of the pipeline and are putting it to work on the other side of that pipeline, with challenged youth, to prevent crime and incarceration. We also employ them to teach what they have learned to their brothers and sisters that are still incarcerated. We call it ‘Turning the stigma into a badge.’”
Inmate Guss Edwards said, “GRIP allowed me to really look at myself and understand the moments when I need to respond as it should be to what’s happening in my life instead of reacting violently. The program made me understand how to do this. The program saved my life.”
Edwards added, “I may sound aggressive, but I’m a puppy.”
Jackson said he does not have to appear before a parole board to get out of prison.
“I took advantage of the programs for myself,” Jackson said. “I want to take programs to redeem myself from the harm I’ve created. It’s a life-changing program. GRIP helps me understand myself. It teaches that you can keep your dignity and own your truth.”
Jamie Sanchez a Spanish GRIP member said while growing up, he always tried to satisfy others. He told the prosecutors that the rehabilitative programs at San Quentin helped him understand himself.
“I don’t have to be perfect, but I can be helpful,” Sanchez said about mentoring other inmates. “I’ve never been helpful in my life. Now, I’m doing something helpful. It was hard for me to move into forgiving myself and to understand and accept my crime. I learned how to move from being a murderer to Jamie.”
Oscar Arana talked about a crime prevention strategy that may have kept him from turning to crime. He said that although he witnessed the consequences of many bad choices, as a juvenile, he felt like bad things could never happen to him.
“What could have worked for me would be seeing the consequences of my actions through someone like a mother who lost her child to a drug overdose or drunk driver. At the time, I couldn’t personally connect with what I was doing. If a kid were able to personally connect with the impact of his actions, he could change them.”
The inmates were asked what the community could do to help those released from prison.
“We need to know and be reminded that we’re human beings,” Mathew Edwards said. “When people learn that we’ve been to prison, it’s like the scarlet letter. We need to be welcomed. We need another shot for responsibility.”
The Portland, Oregon, district attorney Rodney Dale Underhill wanted suggestions on how he could make better-informed decisions when he knows he has a conviction and must advise on a prison sentence.
“Be able to talk to us,” Anthony Ammons said.
Vaughn Miles added, “Trust your judgment about what you’ve witnessed today.”