Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, who has since dropped out of the race, came to San Quentin Sept. 18 to witness firsthand the power of rehabilitative transformation.
A small group of prisoners met with O’Rourke in the SQ chapel to speak about how they used their incarceration to become better human beings—fully cognizant of the harms they once caused society.
“One of my big takeaways is that we are all capable of change,” O’Rourke said to news cameras outside SQ afterwards. “When we focus on the person’s ability to make that change and their ability to transition into civilian life successfully— there’s a better outcome not just for that former inmate… not just for the taxpayer….
“There’s a better outcome for this country.”
O’Rourke and his team’s arrival— devoid of any fanfare—brought choir practice to a standstill as the inmates stopped to introduce themselves and shake the presidential hopeful’s hand.
“How can I go to my constituents and tell them why I support releasing you?” O’Rourke asked of the prisoners who greeted him.
Seven incarcerated SQ tour guides opened the discussion by asking those present to join in a moment of silence to honor fallen victims everywhere, including those killed amongst the recent Texas mass shootings in O’Rourke’s home state.
“We’d also ask you to be vulnerable today,” said Kevin Neang, who will be released at year’s end after serving almost nine years for a manslaughter plea agreement. “Close your eyes and think of somebody you love, a person you would do any- thing for.
“Imagine if we could look at each other—everybody— in that same light.”
Watson Allison, incarcerated now for over 37 years, stood before O’Rourke and described his own personal journey from Death Row to substance abuse counselor and advocate for change.
“O’Rourke told me that I’m the first person he’s ever talked with who was actually from Death Row,” Allison told SQ News. “He said he was very intrigued by my level of insight and my humble demeanor.
“I know he was surprised when I told him I support the idea of capital punishment—even in my own circumstances. But the way the death penalty has been administered so unjustly across the country, that’s what needs to be changed.”
The tour guides, whose convicted crimes and prison terms offered a wide range of perspectives, wanted to know what topics O’Rourke would most like to hear about.
“Whatever you’re willing to share with me, whatever thoughts you have on any is- sues—prison reform, climate change, I’m here to listen to you,” said O’Rourke.
“I talked to him about how we need to do away with Three Strikes and mandatory minimum sentencing,” said Ron Ehde, incarcerated 27 years for second degree burglary. “And he was listening. Man, he was really listening.
“Me, a three-striker serving 50-years-to-life, sitting across and dialoguing with a presidential candidate— only at San Quentin.”
O’Rourke’s staff took notes while each prisoner offered his own narrative to- ward significant pieces of the criminal justice reform puzzle: childhood trauma, the school-to-prison pipeline, substance abuse, sentencing reform, wrongful convictions—and the potential for change.
Choir member Dwight Krizman said, “My impression was O’Rourke was taken aback when he realized that only a small portion of inmates were positively affected by Proposition 57.
“He definitely seemed shocked at how slow the implementation of the law’s execution was by CDCR itself and their reinterpretation of what the voters voted for.”
Allison explained how one of O’Rourke’s staff commented on the prisoners’ level of accountability and how they consistently referred to their victims by name. “They did not expect that type of format coming in here—where we honor our victims, put our victims first,” said Allison.
A planned tour in August needed to be canceled when the shooting crisis erupted back home in El Paso, and this time the prisoners’ insights proved more relevant than O’Rourke walking the facility.
“Once we got rolling and opened up to him, Lt. Robin- son [who escorted O’Rourke in] told us, ‘There’s no time for a real tour—you guys keep doing what you’re doing,’” said Ehde. “O’Rourke was trying to really gain clarity on a bunch of stuff.”
Choir member Kelvin Ross sat in the pews and listened to their interaction.
“Remorse and personal accountability seemed to intrigue Beto as the men shared their testimonies,” noted Ross. “And later they questioned him on his thoughts regarding crime and punishment.
“I am curious if the narrative concerning real prison reform and excessive sentencing will make its way into the national conversation and effect a positive change—as opposed to the same age-old rhetoric from a new set of talking heads.”