Politicians and reform advocates visited San Quentin (SQ) State Prison to discuss crime, punishment, and rehabilitation. Among them were two formerly incarcerated men who are now working for social justice organizations.
“Thank you for welcoming us to share your experiences and expertise,” James King said to the circle of over a dozen men-in-blue gathered in SQ’s Media Center on Sept. 19. “We’d like to dig a little deeper into getting a sense of who people are.”
King is with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. He and Phil Melendez of Smart Justice both returned to SQ to give incarcerated people an opportunity to speak with stakeholders. King and Melendez paroled from SQ prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We also have two candidates running for this particular district here [today],” said Melendez. “We want to open it up to a conversation about what’s impacting you guys. What are the pressing issues for you?”
The candidates, Damon Connolly and Sara Aminzadeh, are facing each other in a run-off to decide who will represent the 12th District in the state Assembly.
Other guests included Anne Irwin, founder of Smart Justice, Smart Justice board members, several defense attorneys, and representatives from San Francisco Rising and the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth.
SQ resident Brian Asey started the discussion by sharing his childhood story. Asey witnessed both domestic violence and gun violence as a child. He also saw police violence when they smashed out the windows of his home and took his parents to jail during a raid. He shared memories of being both physically and sexually abused.
“I didn’t really understand what was happening to me at the time, but I was having issues in school,” Asey said. “I had a lot of shame and I eventually started acting out, using cocaine and going to jail.”
Philippe Kelly described himself as a child prodigy in math with a passion for learning that was derailed by childhood troubles. Kelly’s mother had given him away at birth to his aunt, who started to verbally and physically abuse him. This caused Kelly to question his self-worth and hang out with delinquents in the Los Angeles neighborhood where he grew up.
“At nine years old, I’m holding drugs for gang members,” said Kelly. “I started to get a lot of praise for that. It helped build my self-esteem.”
Kelly’s behavior escalated from getting into fights and stealing from stores to carrying guns.
“I had a gang, I had a gun, and I had power and control,” he said.
At the age of 15, Kelly ended up shooting and killing a rival gang member.
Another participant, SQ’s Reginald Thorpe said, “I never had no adult life. I never paid bills or nothing. I was sentenced to 50-years-to-life for murder at 24 years old.”
Thorpe said that when the judge sentenced him “all the hope left out of my body.” Thorpe came from a world that taught him boys don’t cry. He bottled up his childhood pain and trauma.
“The most dangerous person in prison is somebody with no hope. I was that person,” Thorpe continued, while in tears.
Thorpe explained that what set his life on the right track was when the Youth Offender bill became law. It made him eligible for parole in 2022.
“All of a sudden that dark cave lit up and I was full of hope,” he said. “Being eligible for parole motivated me to explore my childhood and open up and even cry when I needed to.”
“I deeply empathize with your stories,” said Aminzadeh. “I think the next Assembly representative has a responsibility to tell a different story about incarcerated people. I think it’s the duty of our Assembly person to restore voice and political power to incarcerated people.”
Taking a quote from philosopher Fyodor Dostoyevski, candidate Aminzadeh said, “A society should be judged on how they treat incarcerated people.”
After a few more incarcerated men told their stories, the room transitioned into talking about the parole board process. King opened the discussion by giving an overview of the process.
When a person’s parole hearing date comes due “under California state law you’re presumed suitable for release,” said King.
However, King pointed out that commissioners often look for reasons why a person isn’t suitable.
“You go through multiple hearings with different com-missioners having different criteria,” said King.
“Studies have been done that show the Board of Parole Hearings has developed a series of rituals and standards that are not written in the law.”
For example, commissioners require some prisoners to take criminal thinking courses.
“There is no such thing as ‘criminal thinking’; that’s a made-up term,” said King.
Kelly got a commutation from Gov. Jerry Brown but was denied parole twice before he was finally found suitable and given a release date. Previously, the board found Kelly did not have enough insight into his crime.
“There is no clear definition for insight that the board uses,” said incarcerated person E. Phil Phillips. “The board has created a movable target.”
Connolly, who is currently a Marin County supervisor, agreed that there seem to be too many people in prison who have aged out of crime. Connolly sees a need for more early childhood intervention programs. He also sees a need for parole board reform and better reentry services.
“When you’re in prison, the goal has to be to get you back on your feet. My job is to help you do that,” said the Assem-bly candidate.
As the event came to a close, Irwin of Smart Justice offered some words of hope and encouragement.
“I want to extend some really deep gratitude to you all for letting a group of strangers come in and sit down with you to hear some deep personal parts of your life,” she said. “I promise you that your vulnerability is not in vain.”