A man is choking on a piece of meat in his throat. Three onlookers see him in distress, and they come to his rescue.
What makes this scenario unusual is that the stricken man was a San Quentin correctional officer, and the rescuers were three prisoners, each serving life terms for murder. Thanks to their quick reaction and the Heimlich maneuver, a correctional officer’s life was saved, and he went home to his family.
“While I was eating my lunch of steak and rice, I began choking, and there was no one in sight but the education clerks,” said Correctional Officer A. Cuevas in recalling the March 11 incident, which he will never forget.
“With all the violence between police officers and people in the communities, here we are in a prison with people convicted of murder, and they saved my life,” Cuevas said. “Doing something like what these inmates did opens the door for any prisoners who are in a position to something supportive of public safety, because all lives have value.”
“When I needed help they were there for me, in spite of the crimes they may have committed.”
The prisoners, who have already served decades behind bars, are veterans of self-help groups or have taken college classes at San Quentin State Prison.
One of the prisoners said he doesn’t want to be defined by the person he was 20 years ago and that this act gave him a chance for redemption – to show who he is today.
Two of them were having a conversation, while standing just outside the entrance to the education building at San Quentin. One of them looked over to Cuevas, who was sitting at his desk inside and saw that the officer was choking. Cuevas came quickly from behind his desk in evident panic and distress.
The inmates took immediate action.
Cuevas grabbed one of the inmates by the arms and motioned him for a pat on the back. Another inmate saw how severe the situation was and applied the Heimlich maneuver, which consists of a bear hug around the chest and a strong, sudden squeeze.
The third prisoner in the area said he saw what was happening and offered Cuevas water to clear his throat.
“They came to help me and beat my back until the object was dislodged from my throat,” Cuevas said. “I am thankful because, at the moment, I needed help, and they were there to help me out, even though I’m an officer. I’m still a human being, and they seemed to have recognized that.”
To call for help, one of the inmates attempted to use the telephone, but Cuevas had regained his composure and took the phone to call his supervisor.
“When I needed help they were there for me…”
Cuevas, a nine-year veteran of the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation (CDCR), said becoming a correctional officer fulfilled a childhood dream of being in law enforcement. He got the idea when he saw one of his cousins in a CDCR uniform.
“After that, I immediately told myself, ‘I’d like to wear one of those uniforms.’”
At the time, Cuevas was living in the US with his father, who wanted him to be educated in Mexico. At the end of each school year in Mexico, Cuevas would return to the US so he could keep practicing English.
On his 17th birthday, Cuevas told his father about his dream of working as a correctional officer.
Cuevas said he was surprised his father agreed so quickly to his request.
The decision required Cuevas to stay in the US to finish his education, but he was told he was too old to start high school in the US, so his father enrolled him into the Job Corps to get his GED. Once he received his GED, he still had to wait until he was 21 before he could apply to be a correctional officer.
When he turned 21, he applied to CDCR but failed the test. Though discouraged, he would not quit on his dream and retook the test. While waiting to pass the test, he enrolled in college.
It would not be easy for Cuevas, as he took the test eight more times before passing.
He admitted that if he would have failed one more time, he would still be a supervisor in the family trucking business.
“The family business is doing fine,” Cuevas said. “And, now I am able to fulfill the dream I had as a kid.” He added, “Since working for the department, and seeing all kinds of people, it has given me a better understanding about the individual.”
Cuevas said that he believes that the prisoners should be recognized for saving his life.
“I see that all prisoners are different and most of them committed their crimes when they were young. Most inmates after many years of incarceration and going through programs in prison have changed their lives around and see us as humans, not just officers with authority.
“This could have been my last day, and any life matters,” he added.