Marin County District Attorney Edward Berberian and two staffers, Deputy District Attorney Leon Vousharian and Assistant District Attorney Yvette Martinez-Shaw, were guests at the fifth San Quentin News Forum held on Friday, May 29.
A principal object of the forums is to provide all parties in the criminal justice system a first-hand opportunity to examine the issues of crime, policing, prosecution, prison, re-entry and changing lives.
“In 1935 the Supreme Court declared that a prosecutors job is more than merely winning every case by racking up convictions; it also included seeing that justice is done.” “Pressing Pause on Marijuana Convictions” NYT Opinion July 30, 2018
Arranged in a group format, the forums are held like roundtable discussions with participants sitting in a circle. Berberian, Martinez-Shaw and Vousharian sat among the 21 long-term prisoners and volunteer advisers.
Law enforcement personnel who have participated in the forums have said the forums are valuable as a resource for first-hand information regarding the entire criminal justice system. Berberian and his co-workers represent a new era of criminal justice professionals. Because of their interest in the process from initial custody to reentry, all three prosecutors wanted to know about the many programs available at San Quentin.
Berberian and his staff asked about the goals of each program and how it worked to achieve its purpose. It was clear that everyone thought San Quentin stands out for its progressive approach.
Arnulfo Garcia said, “Mass incarceration is not the solution as was previously thought.” With reentry and realignment considerations, many challenges now complicate the criminal justice system.
Overcoming those challenges takes on new importance, said the DA. One part of the solution is the education and vocational training experiences available at San Quentin. Overcoming new challenges also involves learning from the inmates, he told the group.
The DA has been to San Quentin previously about prosecution business, not about learning. Berberian said it was “refreshing” to speak with prisoners who hold themselves accountable. The longtime prosecutor said this experience would give him a better perspective when men come before his office for release.
Berberian indicated it was a new experience for him. He said, “This is the first time I have been in a room with so many inmates.”
Forum moderator, JulianGlenn “Luke” Padgett directed attention from one man to another as the men told the prosecutors about their crimes and how they came to acknowledge responsibility for them. Vousharian said he was impressed with the accounts.
The DA’s staff spoke freely about their role in the prosecution process, and the men talked about their crimes and experiences with the system. Every man had a unique story. One of the most important aspects of the path each prisoner takes is the initial custody experience. Moreover, that was an important piece of the puzzle Berberian and his staff wanted to examine.
“How did it feel when you were first taken into custody?” asked Berberian. Inmate after inmate told his impression of first being in custody. As inmate Michael Nelson expressed, “I haven’t thought a lot about incarceration, but I have thought a lot about my crime.” According to Nelson’s accounting of that time, “One of the hardest things I have ever had to do is call my aunt and tell her I committed a murder.”
Talking about the initial custody experience, Nelson said when he was arrested, “It was all very raw.” He was arrested four hours after committing murder, he said adding, “I didn’t know how to deal with it.” Taken to Juvenile Hall, Nelson stayed there for a while, was then transferred to the Youth Authority and then to state prison. Because he was only 15 when he committed his crime, he didn’t know “about hating someone because of their race.” He said those are all things he learned in prison.
According to Berberian, “In the past, the job of district attorney was separate and apart from prison and reentry.” However, he said, he needed to know all aspects of prosecution, incarceration and reentry so that he could do his job better. Berberian explained it was his job to represent the public, so being an advocate for inmates is not in his job description. On the other hand, he explained he needed to “know what tools are available” so he can do his job the best he can.
Berberian said he was not a supporter of relaxing the Three Strikes Laws. “I want to have all the tools I can have,” he explained. Experiences of inmates from initial custody to final release were all important to the prosecutors.
Troy Williams said, “Being taken into custody is no joke.” He said the initial custody experience affects your entire experience of being incarcerated. Williams had a “real bad attitude” when he was first taken into custody and convicted. In addition, Williams affirmed the prosecutor’s belief that San Quentin is unique in the number of rehabilitation and self-help programs available.
Williams said when they asked him where he wanted to go, “I told them to get the (expletive) out of the way!” Berberian said, “I’m getting the sense that the jail experience is worse than the prison experience.” On the other hand, Williams said that coming from other prisons to San Quentin was like night and day. He said, “I woke up with a whole new attitude.”
The many programs at San Quentin was one of the major topics of discussion. Berberian asked if the programs had an effect on Williams’ attitude, to which Williams answered, “Before San Quentin, I didn’t have the tools to change.” According to Williams, that was his “aahh” moment.
Those programs are near the other end of the incarceration, or reentry. They were very much of interest to the prosecutors. As Williams said, “The day I came to San Quentin gave me a whole new life.” Talking about the many programs here at The Q, Berberian said, “It’s important for me to have information about the programs so I know what’s available.”
Berberian said he was keen to learn about the San Quentin experience with its 70 plus educational, vocational, self-help and health programs available to inmates.
Some men related to a vast contrast between the beginning and end of incarceration. The beginning is a “shock,” said Kris Himmelberger.
“Jail, that’s the worst,” said Himmelberger. Speaking of those first days, Himmelberger said, “I couldn’t believe it.” He indicated he wanted to stay at the county jail after conviction to fight his case, so he took the advice of another inmate. “I threatened the judge,” he said. Probably not the best advice, but it became clear to the prosecutors that incarceration has many facets.
Asked about initial incarceration, one inmate said, “When I got to the county jail, the other inmates wanted to know what gang I was in.”
Martinez-Shaw said it was unique to the forum that every participating inmate accepted responsibility for his crime. DA Berberian commented it was surprising and very refreshing to see men own up to their actions.
Berberian thanked the forum members for allowing him and his staff to examine the many issues regarding the criminal justice system. He said, “This forum has provided us an opportunity to gain first-hand knowledge by directly interacting with prison inmates.”
As Martinez-Shaw said, “Learning from you men provides us information we need to know so we can do our job better.”