Jesse Vasquez, 36, former editor-in-chief of San Quentin News, paroled in late May from San Quentin State Prison after spending all of his adult years in prison and a little more than half his life.
Vasquez paroled with a different state of mind from the one his 17-year-old younger self arrived with in 2001.
“When I was a teenager, I knew I was already being formed for prison,” said Vasquez. “When I came to prison it wasn’t a surprise to me. I wasn’t bitter, angry or sad.”
“My mother used to tell me if I continued down that lifestyle I’d either end up dead or in prison for the rest of my life.”
A drive-by shooting, attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon confirmed his mother’s warning and Vasquez was eventually convicted of those crimes. He once told a tour visiting the prison that he came to prison with a destructive past and no future.
Somewhere along the way, Vasquez became his own man and decided to change his life. “In the course of serving my time, I realized there was a better way to live,” he said. “It wasn’t always about trying to fit in with the crowd.”
In 2010, Vasquez earned his GED and never looked back. “It was more about finding purpose for myself,” he said.
Vasquez transferred from Folsom State Prison and arrived at San Quentin in November 2016. He frequently told the story about reading San Quentin News at Folsom, thinking it was “fake news” and the programs were not real.
Once Vazquez arrived at San Quentin, he immediately became involved with the rehabilitative programs. He joined the Journalism Guild, the newspaper’s farm team, and in April 2017 was hired as a staff writer for San Quentin News.
“My direct supervisor, Lt. Sam Robinson [San Quentin’s public information officer], was more like a mentor than a cop,” said Vasquez.
Four months later, Vasquez became the newspaper’s managing editor, and by August 2018 he was its editor in chief. “The guys in the newsroom accepted me for who I was, and I was able to grow because of it.” he said. “They’re family to me.”
“When I arrived at San Quentin, I started realizing how important it was to be open to other perspectives and cultures,” said Vasquez. “When I started working for the newspaper, I started to see the world from a completely different perspective.”
Vasquez recalled a time at the News when the former guild instructor, Yukari Kane, told the class to look at circumstances and events objectively because personal feelings might taint what we see.
“My direct supervisor, Lt. Sam Robinson [San Quentin’s Public Information Officer], was more like a mentor than a cop”
Having a different outlook, Vasquez enrolled in the Prison University Project (PUP) to broaden his horizon further. “I didn’t think I was close-minded,” he said.
He said that Amy Jamgochian, PUP’s project director, always challenged his thinking. “Every time I would try to explain to her my predicament in prison and how I felt powerless, she would have some smart remark about power dynamics, and how knowledge is liberating because it opens up your mind to a bigger world.”
“I thought I was open-minded, but because I was raised in prison I’d gotten stuck in that ‘it-is-what-it-is’ mentality,” said Vasquez.
The problems Vasquez faced in and out of prison, he said, could have been avoided if he’d taken the time to listen to people who were trying to warn him as they observed him take the wrong path.
With an eye on his uncertain future, Vasquez started completing a number of rehabilitative programs such as Restorative Justice, Non-violent Communication, Criminals and Gangs Anonymous, Green Life, Celebrate Recovery, Life Skills, Anger Management. He also learned trades, such as carpentry.
In August 2018, Gov. Brown recognized Vasquez’s rehabilitation and commuted his two life sentences to 15 years to life. He later appeared before the Board of Parole Hearings in February 2019 and was found suitable.
Vasquez is planning to earn a BA in psychology and to work with at-risk youth. “I plan on attending California State University East Bay and getting certification as an at-risk youth counselor,” he said.
Because of his time as the News’ top editor, Vasquez said he would also like to continue writing. He plans to stay connected to San Quentin News and is interested in covering issues at the front end of the criminal justice system—issues such as poverty and childhood trauma.
“I think, eventually, I’d like to write a screen play about what drives prison and how it’s almost impossible for people without a support group to succeed because all of the transitional housing programs offered by the state are in crime ridden, drug infested neighborhoods.”
In the past two decades of imprisonment, Vasquez said he learned a lot about himself. “I think my biggest take away from the whole prison experience is to admit it’s okay that you don’t know everything and to ask for help.”