Correctional Officer N. Lee began working approximately one year ago as the Correctional Counselor I inside North Block of San Quentin. During that time, Lee has helped hundreds of inmates seek rehabilitation through her service as a caseworker.
Before taking the counselor position, Lee became a part of the Honor Guard. Only a few individuals are chosen to become Honor Guards. According to Lee, the purpose of the Honor Guard is to represent and serve the families of fallen officers.
Lee said, “We honor the families; we honor officers and their families through our service.” Being a part of the Honor Guard gave her an understanding that human beings share similar struggles and are connected in many ways, she explained. “Being able to connect in a time of pain and suffering is an honor for me. Our presence during this time signifies that their loved ones will be missed and honored for their works.”
In 2012, Lee faced a life-changing event. Without details, she mentioned that in order to escape misery, “I had to go within my soul and connect spiritually.” Lee’s advice for others going through similar difficulties is: “Keep working on yourself. Some people, in some way, are in prison mentally. True freedom comes from within.”
In her darkest hours, Lee prayed and found strength in a higher power. “When I did that, I got answers. It was obvious. I was overwhelmed with ease and felt liberated.” She said that faith would guide her journey through life.
Although Lee always believed in God, her faith was tested during her ordeal. “I’ve always known God,” she said, “but He has not been the leader of my life. Now He takes priority in my life.” Lee turned a potentially traumatic event into a positive opportunity to reconnect with God. “I had to go through this to find the light.”
Lee’s resilience through adversity also carries over in her work and the way she communicates with inmates. As a counselor, she helps inmates rehabilitate and achieve their goals. “I classify you guys (inmates) in specific programs so that you can succeed at your highest level. It’s not just programs; we try to make everything conducive to the appropriate level so you can reach your goals,” said Lee.
At times, more than 200 inmates are assigned as Lee’s clients; the majority are lifers. Through interactions, she realizes that most lifers share a common goal — to serve their sentence and return to society.
In order for lifer inmates to earn their freedom, they must reflect on the factors that led to their crime. Lee witnesses the challenges facing them when preparing for their parole hearings. “I understand the severity at the parole hearings,” said Lee. “I do my best to obtain the information to prepare inmates for the board. They have to do their part, so I do my part to the best of my ability,” she added.
“Being able to look in the mirror and say to myself, I did my best. Now tomorrow I have to do better. I have a lot of compassion for humankind. I approach every situation with compassion”
Despite the endless work and obstacles she faces, Lee takes an optimistic outlook on life. “At the end of the day, things are as they should be.” She added, “Being able to look in the mirror and say to myself, ‘I did my best. Now tomorrow I have to do better.’” Her motto is a reminder that there is always room for improvement.
Lee’s career with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation also helped her realize that certain parts of the system are broken. Lee expresses concern about sentencing laws and says she cannot understand extreme sentencing. She finds it difficult to grasp why individuals are handed a “135 years-to-life” under the Three Strikes Law. She feels the law should focus on resources like education, trades, drug and alcohol programs, and prevention outlets for the youth instead of harsher sentencing.
During Lee’s early days as a correctional officer, others sometimes questioned her about her position. “I had to remind myself that there’s the law that we abide by, and there are also people’s lives that are at stake.”
She said a lifer who had spent over three decades incarcerated once told her to “be true to yourself.” She added, “His words connected with me. I was happy to know that he paroled the next day.” She further explained that to stay true to herself meant to stand firm in her decisions, despite the outcome, and that the important thing is to continue to learn from the experience.
Looking back on her career, Lee said, “I took a stand for what I believe in.” According to many who know her, Lee’s faith, fairness and balance contribute to her humility.