By Juan Haines
and Miguel Quezada
Amala, a youth organization that holds worldwide peace summits, came to San Quentin State Prison on May Day to work on ways to improve communication and community-building skills for traumatized children.
The Amala Walk was the first event prisoner Jim Kitlas has attended since arriving at San Quentin from California State Prison-Los Angeles County in July of last year.
“It touches my heart strings,” Kitlas said about the event. “I have a kid who’ll need the same things that Amala is doing. So, if I could do something to help, me feel good about myself.”
Gustavo de Alba, 21, a prisoner serving a 12-year sentence, said this was the first time he’s been at an event like this while in prison.
“It unites us and allows us to meet with other people and dialogue about peace and why it’s important,” de Alba said.
“The summit is a gathering of a bunch of people who wouldn’t otherwise come together,” said Ryan Jordan, executive director of Amala Foundation. “We begin the day by kids sharing songs of humanity and peace about their culture and country just like we do here at the walk.”
The Texas-based foundation has been joining with prisoners for the last six years in an annual walk-a-thon fundraiser sponsored by The Work and Kid CAT.
The Work helps prisoners learn critical thinking skills—to become aware of “self-talk” and to reframe thinking errors that impact one’s emotional well-being and behavior.
Kid CAT primarily consists of lifers who committed their crimes as juveniles. The program has a transformative curriculum and programs designed to give back to the community.
Each year the prisoners, many earning as little as 18 cents per hour, donate more than $1,000 in support of a global peace summit.
“Raising money is the right thing to do,” said Ivan Gonzalez Velasquez, 20, who is serving a 10-year sentence. “Nobody wants to see kids suffer so it’s important that we all get involved to make sure they don’t.”
As the walkers circled the Lower Yard, much of the conversation between the prisoners and Amala personnel included stories about each other’s affect on the community.
“In today’s world there is a lot of separation,” Jordan said. “We unite youth from all walks of life, different religions, races, and we recognize that we are all human beings.”
Amala assistant Cranston “Breez” Smith has been to all six walk-a-thons. He is a hip-hop artist who entertains the walkers along with prisoner Antwan “Banks” Williams. This year, Breez brought another Texan hip-hop artist, Darrion “Chi” Borders.
“Breez has been very clutch for me in my life,” Chi said. “We’re like brothers. We’re serving together in our community. Our hip-hop is affecting people in a positive way. We’re putting a dent in the world in a good way. It cannot be done in fear,” he added, “I commend you all for stretching your brains and going past the walls and looking into the world. That’s magic to me.”
Banks, 28, who has been incarcerated since age 18, spoke about the difficulties of growing up in prison.
“How can you take a broken seed, put it in a broken system and expect a rose,” Banks said. “I still feel like 18, but the reality is that I’m in a place where I have to better myself.”
The walkers took breaks and gathered around a makeshift stage on the yard. Host, Rodney Capell, introduced artists who performed poetry, music and prayers for peace.
Each year the hundreds of participants join hands, making a wide circle that takes up the entire Lower Yard. The process usually takes several minutes, as Vanessa Stone, founder of Amala Foundation, encourages everyone to “reach out to the person next to you” and “let the power that’s inside you, that cannot be imprisoned, give thanks to the day.”
“Be united for the sake of children,” Stone says, “Without your soul saying yes to this, it would not be possible.”
“This is medicine. It’s time to drink in the power of life,” Stone said after the circle was complete.
After countless laps lasting into late afternoon, the black-shirted visitors went inside a building on the Lower Yard with dozens of white-shirted prisoners for a conversation centered on what had been taken away from the event.
Their meeting began with a Haka performed by prisoners Reggie Hola, Upumoni Ama and Anouthinh Pangthong.
Haka is a rhythmic dance, spoken in Hawaiian and performed in traditional custom. It uses dramatic movements with aggressive facial expressions.
“Today’s presentation is in honor of the youth coming in,” Ama said. “Haka is a pre-battle presentation, but the one given today is in honor of the youth. No one has to fear being attacked,” he said jokingly. “It’s just hyper-masculine.”
Prisoners Gino Sevacos and Dwight Krizman then performed a song with a chorus sing-along, “Love is reaching out to touch somebody.”
During the sing-along, prisoner Wayne “Belize” Villafranco hopped up and began dancing, which enticed others to follow, until everyone joined in dance while singing the chorus.
By Juan Haines