Actress Susan Sarandon limped into San Quentin State Prison to learn from incarcerated Kid CAT members how she can help them stop the school-to-prison pipeline.
“You are such an asset,” said Sarandon. “If I go into a school, they are not going to listen to me; but they’ll listen to you, and you can make a difference.”
Sarandon fell down a mountain, fracturing her ankle. However, the proud New Yorker didn’t let that stop her from attending the banquet for Kid CAT (Creating Awareness Together). Wearing a leg brace, she made her way around the tables in the Protestant Chapel, interacting with the incarcerated men she met.
About 150 inside men mingled with about 50 visitors and volunteers, including criminal justice advocate heavyweights Elizabeth Calvin, Senior Advocate, Children’s Right’s Division, Human Right’s Watch and Alison Parker, Director of Human Right’s Watch, U.S. Program and Jody Kent Lavy of the Campaign for Fair Sentencing for Youth, and The Marshall Project’s new president, Carroll Bogert.
Sarandon and Bogert were scheduled as keynote speakers. However, Sarandon declined to speak.
“It’s so soul-sucking to talk about yourself all the time,” said Sarandon. “I’d rather hear from you. I really would like to know what you want from me; I can give your voice to the outside.”
Sarandon sat in front of the audience with Kid CAT member Adnan Khan as other members asked for her help in various ways.
Emile DeWeaver asked, “Can you be our spokesperson to pitch emotional intelligence?”
Emotional intelligence teaches awareness of what your emotions are telling you, so you can identify what your needs are, and find healthy ways to meet them, said DeWeaver. Kid CAT wants its emotional intelligent curriculum to be offered in schools in the community.
Sarandon responded, “I would have to know about it and live on this coast. I’m coming to LA in the fall to work on a TV series. Educate me, I’d be happy to work on it. Thanks for the invitation.
Lemar Harris asked, “Would you bring more people like yourself in?”
Sarandon answered, “I can talk to people. Do we have to wait for a banquet? Yeah Warden, do we have to wait for a banquet?”
Warden Ron Davis replied, “We have things going on all the time.”
Kid CAT host Phil Melendez introduced guest speaker Bogert by listing her credentials. They include being the former deputy executive director of external relations at Human Right’s Watch, graduating magna cum laude from Harvard University, reporting for Newsweek magazine and is fluent in Russian, French and Mandarin.
“We have to do something about the biggest problem in America – the criminal justice system,” said Bogert. “It should rise to the level of a national emergency.”
Bogert spoke of the power of journalism to change the system and alert Americans to what’s going on. She invited incarcerated men to send their personal stories about prison life to The Marshall Project, the criminal justice online news service.
Kid CAT members Miguel Quezada, Joe Hancock and Khan told personal stories of how underlying unmet emotional needs affected their journey through the pipeline into prison.
Hancock spoke of moving to Sacramento and experiencing gang culture for the first time. Gang members tried to bully him.
“At 19 I developed a sense that I had to be tough and use violence for survival,” said Hancock. “Feeling threatened by a gang member, I fired a shot to kill him. Afterward, I ran and called 911 and told the dispatcher what I’d done.”
Khan spoke of his father leaving him nothing but a set of hats. When a teenager teased him about one “ugly” hat, Khan responded in violence and ended up in continuation school. Then his mother moved away, leaving Khan with relatives who asked him to leave because he was acting out. The homeless teenager eventually landed in prison for taking part in a robbery where his co-defendant stabbed and killed the victim.
Sarandon said, “The lottery of birth, who your parents are, if your father is around, contributes so much to mistakes that you could end up paying a very high price for.”
However, all three Kid CAT presenters expressed that their circumstances weren’t an excuse for committing murder.
“I’m not in prison today because my dad wasn’t around, school suspensions or homelessness. I’m in prison because I made a choice to participate in a robbery,” said Khan.
Melendez introduced a video showing incarcerated men telling how they have benefited from the advocacy work of Calvin, Parker, Human Rights Watch, Anti-Recidivism Coalition, and other organizations in getting laws changed that affect people who committed crimes as juveniles.
Kid CAT gave Calvin and ARC’s Scott Budnick humanitarian awards for their very successful work.
Calvin used her acceptance speech time to advocate for more changes. She asked that everyone recruit their family members to help gather the signatures needed to get California Gov. Jerry Brown’s initiative on the ballot.
She said the governor’s initiative does two primary things:
It makes it possible for CDCR to make a merit system with a much-higher credit possibility.
It would also change how California decides when to send a child into the adult system. It would make it the assumed outcome kids stay in Juvenile Court, flipping the current system on its head.
“Only way it will end up on the ballot is if we collect 800,000 signatures,” said Calvin. “That’s more than 80,000 a week. So I am asking you to ask your family and people you know if they can get training on how to get signatures by going to www.fairsentencingforyouth.org.”
Afterward, grateful benefactors of Calvin’s efforts lined up to get her autograph and thanked her for giving them a chance at freedom.
Budnick was not present at the event, but Michael Stubbs, the ARC board chairman, accepted the award on his behalf.
Award certificates were also given to the volunteers that support the program including: David Inocencio, founder of the Beat Within magazine; Alison Parker, Phil Towle, Alexandra Williams, Karin Drucker, Adam Zagelbaum, Woody Wu, Marsha Williams and Sara Sindija.
Alexandra Williams organized the banquet.
“It was a lot of work, but it’s rewarding,” said Williams.
She knows Sarandon from her husband, Zack Williams, son of the late actor Robin Williams. Alexandra said she has always wanted to help younger people, probably because she was bullied as a kid.
The event ended to the sounds of David Jassy performing, “If These Walls Could Talk.”
“They’d tell about the pain of watching life thrown away,” rapped Jassy.