Before Diane Kahn co-founded Humans of San Quentin (HoSQ) with San Quentin News staffer Juan Haines, she taught a GED class at San Quentin. Her experience of teaching incarcerated people in San Quentin transformed her perspective—she says she saw all the complexities found in every person—she saw human beings.
Kahn often tells a story about why she’s so passionate about letting incarcerated people tell their own story on social media. It began, she says, after discovering Brandon Stanton’s website, Humans of New York. From there, she talked to James King, then the clerk for the prison’s college. King, however, was on his way to freedom. His prison sentence had run its course. But, he suggested that Kahn talk to Haines about her idea.
Why is it important to have organizations like HoSQ?
I think it’s a human right to be able to share people’s stories. It is important for everyone to be given a chance to tell their story without judgment. I think that once everybody has a chance to share their story, people will discover that there are more things that connect us than tear us apart.
Talk about the feedback from the public.
When we first thought about launching HoSQ, I remember sitting in the media room with Juan. He was sitting in a chair with wheels on it. I was petrified that we’d be offending victims by letting incarcerated people tell their stories on Instagram, like Brandon Stanton did with Humans of New York. I was nervous about that. But, Juan wheels around, and he makes me look at a wall that’s decorated with the front page of every San Quentin News edition printed. Juan says, “Don’t worry. It works. The positive will rule out the negative. We’ll focus on people telling stories.” A year later, we’ve been nice. Juan’s words rung out. People are reaching out from everywhere, other countries—India, Africa, Ireland. Things are uber positive. I don’t know if it’ll stay that way, but here we are.
What are some of your goals for the organization?
Many of the goals that Juan and I set are coming forward, tenfold. We want to produce a coffee table book that shows that humanity lives behind the walls. We’ve been in two prisons in Mexico. There prisons are quite different. I’ve interviewed women with their babies on their laps. That should come out in the spring.
Talk about how the Covid pandemic affected the program. What have been the challenges and successes?
HoSQ was born during the pandemic. At first, we wanted to do all the interviews in-person, inside San Quentin. And the plan was for when Juan got out of prison, we’d go to prisons around the country to get stories. But, with the Covid lockdown, we had to pivot and develop a writing prompt for people to follow. We added postcards and pre-stamped, pre-addressed envelopes to use snail mail. That seems to be working better than we thought it would. We’re in 85 prisons in 32 states. The pandemic accelerated our mission.
The number one challenge is to be able to get people to trust us, without knowing or meeting us. We want to get people to share their story—things that they may not have shared before. Sometimes we have to correspond several times with an incarcerated person before getting something ready to publish. We have successfully communicated with more than 700 people about their story.
Talk about the HoSQ inside team and job opportunities for formerly incarcerated. How has working with an incarcerated and formerly incarcerated staff changed your opinion about criminal justice reform?
It is humbling to work along side incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. I’m blown away that they’re willing to volunteer their time, simply because they believe in our mission. It’s teaching me a lot on how to deal with emotionally intelligent men and also the inner workings of a place that breeds oppression, but it’s also the substance—most of the areas that [we work on come] from sitting at a table inside a prison. One day, Alex Ross asked if HoSQ published poetry. He worked out a plan and now we have a page dedicated to poetry because Alex bought the idea to the table. We have poetry from people around the county. We also have an art page from incarcerated people. We have two staffers who are Spanish speakers for our Hispanic audience.
Working along side these men has reinforced my opinion that there are many people who have been cast away who should be given a second chance.
What inspirational words do have for the incarcerated?
You’re not alone. There are people outside that are thinking of you. And, have hope!