After serving 36 years, seven months, Tommy “Shakur” Ross counted down the last four days of serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole in San Quentin State Prison. He sat in a classroom on April 23 to talk about the 1985 murder that led him to prison.
Listening to Ross tell his story were eight members of a restorative justice program, eight law students, and their teacher, Margaret Russell, a 30-year professor at Santa Clara University Law School.
Russell said the trip was aimed at giving her students an understanding of criminal justice beyond just “reading legal theories and judges’ decisions.”
One student, Kennedy M., said she believes a criminal justice system “solely focused on punishment does not offer an opportunity for healing.” She added, “Working towards accountability and how to make the victim whole is more important than simply incarcerating someone.”
Conducting the class was a group called Acting with Compassion and Truth (ACT).
ACT is a self-help group that serves people often not accepted by the San Quentin incarcerated population.
“ACT recognizes that a whole lot of communities have been left out; LGBTQ and their family members are left out,” said ACT Director Billie Mizell. “At first, it was about language, then empathy, then educating the community who we are.”
Ross and the other eight ACT participants introduced themselves. They spoke about the harm they caused their communities as well as how many years they’d been incarcerated, which totaled almost 180 years.
After the students’ introductions, which included why they wanted to come inside a prison, ACT member Chris Marshall noted several said they came seeking a way to make a positive impact on society.
“We’re wearing blue because we’ve made a negative impact,” Marshall said, referring to the color of prison clothes.
As Ross explained his mindset as a former gang member, he included suffering from child abuse as well as feeling not cared for or seen.
“I don’t recall getting any empathy as a child,” Ross said.
He recounted the events that led up to the murder and then spoke about its aftermath: the sadness and remorse after the rival gang retaliated for what he did—they murdered his mother and brother.
Ross described the “long journey in becoming candid” about his role in the tragedy as well as his actions’ impact on the victims/survivors.
He credited the restorative justice programs at San Quentin, and the humility he gained by being of service, for finding a sense of redemption.
“I’ve facilitated a lot of groups,” Ross said. “They’ve all brought me a level of healing, including sitting here with you students.”
In addition to Ross’s crime impact statement, the two and a half hour class included talking about how people are labeled and how people self-identify. Everyone participated in an empathy building exercise.
Law student Lanna S. recognized that “restorative justice programs help to address the roots of trauma that are often ignored by society and [restorative justice] prevents crimes from being committed.”
The class explored words that adversely affect people.
ACT participant Anthony Tafoya created the following categories: disrespectful words, misogynistic terms, anti-gay expressions and racial slurs. He asked the room to chime in with words to fill each column.
Numerous rude words and phrases filled the white board with some words and phrases crossing categories.
“The labels exercise is an empathy building exercise,” Mizell said. “A lot of these words show up over and over to demonstrate intersectionality.”
The discussion continued by talking about insulting names to identify people. The students were surprised to hear incarcerated people frowned upon the word “inmate.”
“In the media center, we are focusing on changing the term ‘inmate,’” incarcerated filmmaker Brain Asey said. “We are human beings who are incarcerated.”
After listening to Asey, student Swathi S. said that she’d never see the word “inmate” in the same way.
Next, each person was given a paper mask. On its face they wrote words to describe what they wanted the people to see as they faced the world. Then they flipped the mask on its blank side to write words to describe vulnerabilities they wanted to hide. Then, they flipped the mask back to its face side to write in the margins words to describe other people’s expectations.
After the exercise, the incarcerated people spoke about the masks they wore to make it through each day in prison.
ACT member Nathaniel Collins talked about living in a hyper-masculine prison culture that doesn’t allow people’s sensitive and caring side to be seen.
Collins told the students about his struggles to keep practicing restorative justice while living in San Quentin’s community.
“People think that there are two communities in San Quentin. Really there’s one community here,” Collins said as an avid supporter of restorative justice.
The students’ emotions were visible.
Mattie P. said the ACT program and exercise are important because they’re “a unique space to work through past traumas, repair damage within and outside oneself and experience growth.”
Mizell added, “There is harm from not being seen and there’s healing from being seen. The first step is to see yourself. It’s hard for other people to see us when we don’t see ourselves.”
Finally, they played a game where two people stood in the middle of a circle. Together, Asey and Adriel Ramirez counted to three and said the first word that came to their mind.
“One, two, three: ‘Inspired,’” they said simultaneously. The room burst out in cheers and laughter because they achieved unison on the second attempt. It took several more tries to get another success. Then Marshall and Ross came to the middle; they shouted “Freedom!” and that ended the game.
“In order to trust each other, we have to learn how to fail together,” Marshall said.
Law student Annie B. suggested mandatory visits to San Quentin’s restorative justice programs for first year law students at Santa Clara University.
“Most students probably have no idea that the restorative justice model is holistic in its consideration of victims and communities,” said Annie B.