San Quentin’s Life of the Law event on Dec. 5 featured inmates and visitors for an evening of delightful storytelling in the Catholic chapel.
MCs Rahsaan Thomas and Professor Nigel Poor amused the audience of approximately 200 people as they introduced a combination of lighthearted and tear-jerking stories.
The first storyteller, Lawrence Pela, told about the complications of facing a 46-year sentence for robbery. From the county jail to the Level IV prison, this first-time offender had to find a way to fit in. He told about his compassion for the performing arts. In closing, he admitted, “I’m finally comfortable with myself.”
Kathleen Jackson, a volunteer at San Quentin since 2007, shared a heartfelt story about a personal journey that took 45 years to complete. The conquest to overcome the loss of her daughter began when she listened to six inmates tell their stories. Her confidence grew as she got involved in programs. In losing, she said, “I’m really excited about the future.”
The energy surged in anticipation of the next speaker, Watani Stiner. He told about events at UCLA in 1969 that caused the death of two Black Panthers. He was arrested, charged with conspiracy to commit murder, sentenced and sent to San Quentin in 1974. After escaping from San Quentin, he fled to South America. However, 20 later, for the sake of his family, he turned himself into American authorities. During his tenure at the prison, Watani wrote the OG column for San Quentin News. He was paroled in January 2015.
Azraal Ford told the audience how hate and racial big- otry perpetrated his attitude throughout his adolescence and adulthood. After years of fighting and committing acts of violence, he came to San Quentin, where he morphed and found himself intrigued with Shakespeare. He spoke of his role as Julius Caesar.
Aaron “Showtime” Taylor took the audience on an imaginary play-by-play basketball game between the LA Lakers and the Golden State Warriors. Taylor told the audience about his relationship with the San Quentin basketball program and how much it means to have personnel from the Warriors encourage him to hone his announcing skills.
David Jassy gave a rendition of “Dream about Freedom,” the circumstances behind his case. It is a song about the life of a bright and rising Grammy-nominated artist, who arrived in America to receive an award; however, all came to an abrupt tragic end in Hollywood.
Philip Melendez came to prison at 21 filled with anxieties of prison politics. “At San Quentin I didn’t have to act tough. Nobody really cared about all that stuff.”
Raphaele Casale, a secretary in the warden’s office, who grew up in Marin County, recalled seeing the prison while riding along Highway 101. Then she was hired as a medical scheduler and later promoted to the warden’s office. Casale discovered an interest in the youth diversion program SQUIRES. In this program, the men mentor youngsters having difficulties.
Eric Durr brought the audience to its feet with a rousing, comical, frolicking portrayal of a character based on his life. The comedy hit home by Durr joking about how his behavior, over the years, had to change to deal with personalities he encountered in the everyday life of a prisoner.
Troy Williams, recently released from San Quentin after 18 years, shared tales of his transformation from a gangbanger to a mentor and founder of San Quentin Prison Report. He said, “I miss the programs at San Quentin and all the close relationships.” He encouraged inmates to continue programming and “prepare to return to the community; we really need you.”
Emile DeWeaver wakes up in prison every morning feeling as if he is living in a tomb. He spoke fondly of a correctional officer in West Block who brings a sense of humanity to reality by simply saying “Good night” to every inmate he locks up at the end of the day.
The evening of storytelling was co-produced by the Life of the Law, San Quentin News, San Quentin Prison Report, Society of Professional Journalists Northern California Chapter. It was funded in part by the Open Society Foundation, the Law and Society Association, and National Science Foundation.