Retired Battalion Chief Mike Bonnel
on two decades of service to San Quentin
Little is known in the outside world when it comes to the things that volunteers do inside these prison walls — or the impact their service has on the lives of the incarcerated.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, San Quentin State Prison has been known as the mecca of rehabilitation among all CDCR institutions. All this has been possible due to the service of many outside volunteers coming into the institution to help in ways that no one could imagine.
There is an exception when it comes to Michael Bonnel, a 76-year-old retired firefighter battalion chief from San Francisco, who has been coming into San Quentin as a volunteer for the past 19 years.
When asked by San Quentin News about what drove him into the prison, he replied, “A friend of mine, he invited me over breakfast and asked if I wanted to come inside San Quentin and I started volunteering inside the buildings asking the incarcerated if they needed someone to pray with them or just to have someone to talk to.”
Bonnel’s journey continues with an open heart for others. The energy that he brings to the men in blue has become like a vessel of love and empathy in a confined environment that is not often seen.
“I never had a [father figure] in my life, although my dad was home, he wasn’t there to help me grow,” said Bonnel. “I came out of the Marines in 1968; I joined the revolution of the hippie movement.”
According to Bonnel, he became a believer of Christ after spending five years living the life of a hippie, experiencing alcohol and substances, trying to find himself in a world of darkness.
He credits his wife Linda Bonnel for all the patience and understanding that she has invested in their life together. Their journey began in 1965 and they got married in 1975.
Bonnel refers to his wife as the greatest individual next to Jesus in his life. He feels blessed to have such a wonderful human next to him and to take part in the journey they both share inside and outside these prison walls.
In 2007, Bonnel decided that he wanted to be more involved with the men in blue besides having the cell-to-cell approach. He went to see the chaplain and asked to start an incarcerated Christian program that he facilitated in his outside church. The program Authentic Manhood was introduced to San Quentin and it lasted for over nine years. “This program was based on how to be a better husband, gentleman, father, a friend to other men,” said Bonnel.
His daughter Noelle wanted to be part of Restorative Justice, which motivated Bonnel to bring her in for workshops and healing circles.
Bonnel is affectionately known as Mike, and he continues to dedicate his time at San Quentin and refuses to give up on the need to help others change their life. He has sponsored multiple rehabilitative self-help groups.
After a long pause due to COVID-19, he returned with zeal overseeing programs like the Prison Fellowship, reminding us of the power of love and dedication.
In 2010, San Quentin protestant chapel was without a chaplain, so Bonnel oversaw the chapel for 16 months until the arrival of a new chaplain.
“I had a relationship with guys here, meaning that they were comfortable with me running that chapel, said Bonnel.” Jokingly, he added, “I think that the administration was okay with me running the chapel back then, because I was a retired fire fighter.”
In those days, Bonnel used to spend up to 30 hours a week without pay and now he finds himself running a Day of Silence program. The program gives men in blue a safe place to worship at the Catholic Chapel on Thursdays and Fridays from 9:00 am to 3:30 p.m., giving the incarcerated population a chance to meditate and pray.
During these times the Chapel serves as a cathedral, a place of quiet and solitude for the soul, promoting peace.
Since late August 2022, San Quentin’s Protestant chapel has been once again without leadership, due to medical leave of the current chaplain. Again, Bonnel was asked if he could oversee the services for Sunday mornings and evenings.
“Whenever there are any issues with the guys, I try to sit down and talk so we can pray for them at times of need,” said Bonnel. “I am honored to be here; God has placed me where I belong.”
According to Bonnel, the last 19 years for him has been a gift from God. He feels privileged to be a man of service to the forgotten or to those on whom society has given up.