Incarcerated San Quentans find purpose,
healing in the prison’s diverse religious offerings
San Quentin State Prison’s residents often find rehabilitation through faith and religion, seeking spiritual development in faith-based groups.
The belief in something that enables self-improvement, often found in faith, can be crucial for prison residents. Religion becomes a primary source of self-help, changing the lives of those who are focused on reform through self-discipline and service to the community.
“I used to victimize others. Odinism and Islam have helped me change from that; I’ve learned to show respect and kindness through prayer, fasting and charitable giving,” said Christopher Granman of San Quentin Media TV.
Teacher’s assistant Darryl Farris echoes this sentiment. “Faith has everything to do with my rehabilitation because, as an African American, I’m more apt not to believe in man, but to believe in God. I can’t ask Darryl to forgive me, I can’t ask man to forgive me, because they don’t have to,” he said.
Despite recent changes in the prison’s Protestant Chapel and recreation programs, San Quentin residents have shown perseverance. To stay connected to their faith, some moved temporarily to the Lower Yard for worship. The group has since moved the meetings to the Catholic Chapel.
“Our faith-based rehabilitation continued in fellowship on the Lower Yard with service on the weekend and Wednesday Bible study as a result of the changes,” said resident Richard Fernandez.
SQ residents find it easy to worship at the prison compared to other places where access to chapels is limited.
“I was very limited in the county jail because I was confined to my cell. At San Quentin I can walk into the chapel and worship as I please,” said Steven Warren.
San Quentin also offers a wide range of religious programming that makes faith-based rehabilitation accessible to those who might otherwise be excluded. For example, having a higher power that does not discriminate is significant on the path towards rehabilitation for LGBTQ communities.
“Because of my relationship with God, I ask Him to help me forgive,” said Adriel
Ramirez, a member of New Hope Congregation — a congregation that gives members of the LGBTQ community a safe place to worship. “Having a close relation with God, and understanding who He is, I am able to love.”
“At San Quentin Prison, the rabbi is more accessible. At other prisons, the spiritual leaders’ presence is not always frequent,” said Tony Tafoya, chapel library clerk. “Faith teaches me to have compassion for myself and others, and to be humble and not always think of myself.”
Residents say they find faith at the base of their transformation, which directs them towards understanding, empathy, and responsibility.
“My faith is the founding rehabilitation with God. He knows what my actions are and what’s in my heart,” said Robert Barnes, a Guiding Rage Into Power facilitator. “Transformation is more than self-help. Transformation is going from shame to remorse and accountability.”
People even find faith in non-traditional ways. One San Quentin resident found his calling by watching a movie that guided him toward changing his life.
“I watched the movie The Message, about Prophet Muhammad’s life. This was the turning point. I started to practice what I preached, and Islam carried me for 27 years,” said Tony Scott.
When people go to prison, they often find or renew their religion, which helps them cope with the environment.