Inmates captivated a San Quentin audience of more than 100 on Oct. 20 in the Catholic chapel. They told stories inspired by their childhood, life in prison, dreams and nightmares.
“Writing—that’s what saved me in prison,” said Joe Camacho, a former prisoner and alumnus of the writing program called Brothers in Pen. “It became a survival skill to take the stress away and to not think about where I was at.”
More than 20 inmates read the stories they had written with the encouragement of instructor Zoe Mullery.
“Writing—that’s what saved me in prison. Four years ago, Zoe promised to make me famous,” said inmate author James R. Metters Jr. before reading Pops, a story about his absentee father. “Today, I feel famous.”
“I don’t feel like their instructor,” said Mullery. “I consider myself a real member of the group.
“I’ve learned so much from everybody’s stories about what it means to be human.”
For the first time in the event’s 12-year history, formerly incarcerated alumni returned to San Quentin to listen to their fellow writers at the event. Included were Camacho, Carl Irons, Watani Stiner and J.B. Wells.
“When I first started writing, I was angry at the government, angry at myself— just angry,” Stiner recalled. “I wanted to tell my story and set the historical record straight.
“I’ll never forget Zoe’s annoying little comments on my work. Who is this White girl telling me how to write my story? But what she was doing was helping me to pull back the layers of my story.”
“This is my third year at this event, and each year my heart is healed even deeper,” said Tammy Appling-Cabading, marketing and communications director for St. Mary’s College. “I continue to learn, continue to grow.”
“What an amazing adventure today has been,” said retired teacher Mary Prophet, who worked with Education Not Incarceration. She directed her questions about criminal justice reform toward Charles Daron and his harrowing account of violent retaliation from Corcoran corrections officers in the ’90s.
“Restorative justice has to take place in an individual,” Daron reflected, “and only when that individual is ready.”
“I try and focus on the solutions,” added inmate author Charles “Talib” Brooks, who first learned to read and write in prison and has since achieved a GED.
“It’s really fabulous—getting to interact with you guys and listen to your stories,” observed Alice Morison. She explained that her great-grandfather, Josiah Parker Ames, had been a warden at SQ in the 1880s. “Especially to see this prison evolve from a penal colony model to a rehabby model.”
The outside guests were particularly interested in understanding what drives these men to write.
“When I write, I fly; I’m out of here,” Richie Morris explained. “I’m in a place where I know I’m finding healing.”
“I remember a letter my grandson wrote to me,” shared Alex Briggs, who held the child as an infant 24 years ago before starting his incarceration. “He said he only knows me through my stories.”
“Coming in here has always been difficult for me in many ways,” Stiner said. “I spent 26 years total in prison, and I see men I’ve walked the yard with.
“For me to be out and knowing that these men are in here is hard. I know that they would serve society better out there.”
“I’ve been inspired by a lot of the men I’ve met in prison,” said prisoner Kevin D. Sawyer. “When I write, I try and have an underlying political message, because I want people to think.”
“People in here are every bit as smart as any random cross-section of the outside population,” said Carol Newburg, project manager for SQ’s Prison Arts Projects. “The experience of coming in and talking to people here— there’s nothing else quite like it.”
“How many times do you have the opportunity to visit with inmates at a prison like this, known worldwide?” asked Mike Mullery, Zoe’s father, who came with her whole family. “When she asked us to come, we were all totally ready.”
Complete anthologies of current and past events are available at brothersinpen.wordpress.com.