By Aaron K. Roy, Contributing Writer
Teaching Assistant Ms. Arnold has moved on from her position at San Quentin. She began working at the prison in 2020, just before the first COVID-19 lockdown that spanned 14-months. Her last day was August 12, 2022. In a candid interview, she described her experience:
SQN: Can you tell us about the journey that led you to San Quentin?
MA: Honestly, it just kind of happened. I was working as a project manager; I was the liaison between two companies and our 42 employees. Essentially, I ran these two companies’ databases across three states, processed all their initial paperwork, and ensured my contractors pulled through on their end. It was grueling most days, and I got yelled at a lot. I worked 50-hour weeks and had 180 hours of vacation banked at one point because I couldn’t take time off. Then, I was watching a TV show and they were working in a prison. It looked interesting, so I just started looking for positions I qualified for — TA fell into my lap!
SQN: What was a typical day like working at San Quentin?
MA: I arrived at 6:30, pulled my keys, signed in, checked my emails, and then got ready for class. My schedule repeated itself each week but differed during the week. So that meant I didn’t really ever know what my day was going to bring. I usually helped multiple students throughout a class period. Some days it went great and some days, the institutional flow melted it all down. That’s kind of what it was like; there was never a typical day.
SQN: What was your favorite part of working here and why?
MA: My days were never the same. The people were different, the conversations were different, the challenges were different. It was interesting every day. I liked that. Before working here, I felt like I was living the same day every day. I also loved getting to be a part of the PLMP [Peer Literacy Mentor Program]. There is a genuine sense of community and care for each other in that space. It was eye opening to how the prison system could be run and how a cultural shift is important and possible.
SQN: What was the most important thing you learned while working here?
MA: That people are people and when you supply them with a little bit of worth, it does wonders, it motivates them. Everyone here has been told that they are society’s trash, and I’ve realized that sort of ideology perpetuates their criminal thinking. When you show people they have some worth, they start to realize they do and start making different decisions. Well, not always, but for the most part.
You learn to tell the difference between people who are genuine and people who don’t want to change their behavior. I also learned things like how to exert strong boundaries in a constructive way, how to deal with even the most difficult personalities, and how to read people who aren’t exactly in a genuine space.
Twenty years ago, few lifers in California prisons had any hope of seeing freedom again. Today, however, most of the Golden State’s prisoners will be afforded a second chance and will rejoin their communities. We hope to encourage everyone, everywhere, to pursue education and rehabilitative programming. Make yourself a better person, develop the tools you need and address the root causes of your incarceration. And above all else, do not give up. Your day may yet come — so be ready, and equip yourself for a bright and beautiful future.