Unique Culture of S.Q. – Helping One Another

By COLE M. BIENEK

San Quentin sits at the vanguard of CDCR’s modest rehabilitative efforts. Each month, the S.Q. News profiles any of a number of S.Q. programs. In this era of budgetary starvation, S.Q. remains steadfastly in pursuit of something larger.

One of the things that make San Quentin unusual is that dozens of prisoners are committed to helping fellow inmates turn their lives around.

While San Quentin is a prison, in some ways it is very different; set apart from other institutions in several fundamental ways. The most important, I believe, is often overlooked, minimized or disputed. With but a tiny few exceptions, San Quentin is the only prison in the state that recognizes and values the contributions made by inmates as mentors or facilitators.

For more than 35 years, California correctional theory centered upon punishment; in fact, the Penal Code states that the purpose of incarceration is punishment. Any rehabilitative efforts were provided by professional people coming in from the community, people working for the department such as teachers, mental health professionals, or chaplains. The essential nature of the effort relied upon the fact that these things were provided to prisoners by people who had the training.

I came to believe that these people, the vast majority of whom are wonderful, caring and eminently helpful, were better than me in all the ways that count. They hadn’t committed horrible crimes, and spent their lives in the grips of morbid drug and alcohol addiction. They had it all together; they lived lives of family, career and meaning — a valuable example to the men they worked with behind the walls. This belief was not something that I discussed with anyone, or even fully understood.

As valuable as their help is, some small, nagging voice kept whispering to me, “You are different from them.” I couldn’t count the number of discussions with staff and volunteers where I heard a prisoner say to them, “You just don’t understand what it’s like in here.” Empathic abilities aside, there is a ring of truth to that statement.

Within the rooms of 12-step programs, there is a belief that the power of peers helping each other is unmatched. Logically, it is quite easy to develop this assertion. If you want to learn to be a doctor, you go to a doctor to learn. The teaching doctor has already experienced everything that the student will experience, and is able to understand and recognize signs that the student is either getting it or not.

If a violent addict like myself wants to change my life, I would go to a violent addict who changed their life. That’s not to say I couldn’t gain anything from someone who hadn’t been a violent addict. But the violent addict who turned his or her life around can better communicate with me. Simply put, prisoners have something to offer each other that “outsiders” cannot match.

The San Quentin atmosphere benefits from utilizing inmate facilitators and peer educator/ tutors. The message is: prisoners offer something valuable. This sentiment is reinforced in the lectures, classes, and workshops — by the inmate facilitators and free staff alike. I am thankful to the staff members who truly believe in prisoners’ inherent value and the prisoners who paved the way.

Borrowing a line from Stan Lee of Spider-Man fame: with great power comes great responsibility. The bulk of this responsibility rests upon the shoulders of the inmate facilitators, mentors, and tutors.

The power in having prisoner-led programs lies in the belief that I can do it too. I believe that the longer someone remains on the path, the more they want to talk about it and pass on what they have learned, not because of an ego-centered desire to shine in the spotlight, but because of a true calling to help, to give a hand up

Over the last two years, San Quentin has experienced a massive turnover. Prisoners left who had been here for years, and men from institutions without any programs arrived. Most of us newcomers have not experienced anything like San Quentin’s inmate-facilitated programs. To put it bluntly, we need to know that the same opportunities exist for us that existed for you who came before.

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