Watani Stiner was interviewed by his former creative writing teacher, Zoe Mullery, on July 22, 2020, regarding the outbreak of Coronavirus at San Quentin. Watani paroled from San Quentin in January 2015 after serving 26 years (5 from 1969-1974, when he escaped; 21 more from 1994-2015 after he voluntarily returned from being a fugitive in South America, in order to assist his children to be able to come to the U.S.)
ZOE: Watani, you were telling me that you were having a reaction to some things you have heard well-meaning family members and other people say about the situation in San Quentin. Can you tell me what you were feeling about the questions they were asking you?
WATANI: What’s going on inside San Quentin and the situation with COVID-19 that’s devastating that place—for someone who was inside for 21 straight years, that brings up a whole lot of feelings inside of me. Even though I’m out of San Quentin now, the relationships with people I grew to love and who I worked with for 21 years are very much alive. When people talk about what’s going on inside San Quentin now it’s always framed like: “Aren’t you grateful you’re not in prison anymore?” It’s not that simple. I have deep relationships that were formed over many years of incarceration. And now I’m out. And it’s as if I’m supposed to feel like I won the lottery and now I’m good, and those who are left behind are the losers, the unfortunate ones. It’s not meant to be insensitive, but there’s just a whole bunch of reactions inside of me when I hear that. Because I know the thoughts, the struggles, of those still inside, and it’s impossible for me to disconnect myself from that. It’s hard for me to say ME, it’s still WE.
There are a lot of young men still inside who should have been out a long time ago. Some even made it almost all the way to the finish line when COVID-19 struck and they’re still in there, still trapped. And then someone says, “Well, at least you’re out!” If I were still inside and someone before me got out, and that statement was said to them, I would hope that they wouldn’t forget me. I’d be happy they’re out, but I wouldn’t want to be forgotten.
I had family members who were there for me, who agonized over my plight and followed every twist and turn of my circumstances, and those still inside also have family members, brothers, sisters, mothers and daughters and they also want their loved ones out of that deadly situation. I can’t talk about it without thinking “By the grace of God, there I go.” That sits kind of hard for me.
ZOE: I’ve heard many people say when they get out of prison how bittersweet it is to leave people behind. It seems like prison creates this impossible situation because there’s this wall between relationships. When you’re in prison you’ve got a wall to the outside, and when you’re out you’ve got a wall to the inside. Either way you’re locked out of access to people you care about.
WATANI: I remember the first time I had this feeling; it was really strong. It was the first time I went back inside San Quentin after being out for less than a year. I met many of the people I knew, we hugged each other, we laughed and made jokes and they were glad I was out. But when I left, having to leave them there, knowing that not long before I was in the same prison uniform…I would have turned to the left to go back to my cell and the outside guests would turn to the right toward the door outside. And now I was turning right. That was a heavy, heavy feeling.
I have this nagging anxiety of wanting to know what I can do. Can I do more? Anger arises and I want to just do something radical because I know it’s wrong how much they’re suffering. I know their stories—individually and collectively. It’s one thing to know the newspaper clippings about cookie cutter crimes and form a general opinion, a conclusion. But it’s another thing when you really get to know a person and you learn about them through letters to their mothers, their wives, their sisters and brothers. And they tell you things about their lives, what they’ve been through and how they are coming out on the other end. Such a strong bond is formed.
It’s hard to turn away from that and just be glad you survived and got out. Even at the beginning, after being released, I had this turmoil inside of me when I would hear some social justice advocates dissect the prison system. They champion or cheerlead for one segment or another and support a particular group of prisoners. But the relationships and stories of people I know and have grown close to don’t fit in such neat boxes.
I’m haunted by the ricocheting sounds of “Man Down!” “Man Down!” Those shouts of compassion that take place when someone in their cell needs urgent medical attention. No regard for race, color or creed. I hear that now “Man Down!” is being shouted multiple times a day, all over the prison. How can I just be satisfied that it’s not me in there? I get calls from worried wives and mothers asking me if I know what can be done to help their loved ones who may now be facing a death sentence. I have no satisfying answers for them. This is where I am with this terrible situation.
It’s one thing to have a sense of helplessness out here, but they have a hundred times more helplessness while confined in there.
ZOE: Helplessness plus rage.
WATANI: Yeah, that’s exactly what it is—or maybe rage first then helplessness. I also think about the impact of this epidemic not just from the prisoners’ perspective, but there are also prison guards who have to work within the confines of the prison structure, the caring ones who have not surrendered their humanity. They also have families. Lt. Sam Robinson comes to mind. He had shared stories about his wife and children. His family must be as concerned for him as any prisoner’s family is for them. If we cannot see the humanity in either prisoner or guard, perhaps we are able to see our reflection in the mirror of family.
So, when I hear people say they are glad I’m not in prison during this pandemic, I know it’s because their love and concern for me are genuine. I know how much they would have worried about me. They would have wanted others to care, to do something. And now I am on the outside. How I can convey help and hope?
ZOE: Your words matter, and I hope that some of them get to read these words and know that they are not forgotten.
WATANI: I’m considered an OG and there’s a number of young men I’ve actually raised in prison. I care about them like family, and I know their struggles and their victories. They’re so much more than the crime written in their files. When I see someone being released from prison, I’m overjoyed that one more person has an opportunity to change the world. And now this pandemic is ravaging through San Quentin, through a place that is full of people I care about. You just told me about Gary finally being released. He should have been out a long time ago. And so many others. Juan and Bonaru, Kevin and Malik… so many who should have been home years ago. It’s a tragedy. I know I can’t do much to affect this punitive web called criminal justice, yet I feel I have to do something.
I want you all to know you have not been forgotten.