In my journey with the San Quentin News, some extraordinary people have challenged me, and touched and changed my life. Captain Sam Robinson is one of those extraordinary people. He is beyond inspirational. Robinson embodies what it means to be truly human. In this dichotomy of “cops and robbers,” or in this environment, correctional officers versus convicts, the Captain rises well above political attitudes and viewpoints. He is a professional genius, not boxed-in by the standards of others.
He is known as the “Mayor of San Quentin” for a reason. There is not a person in the prison—be it a correctional officer, a staff member or incarcerated person—that he will not stop and listen to. I mean really stop and “listen to”—he lets you know that you are heard and he will go out of his way to help you if it’s possible. Robinson’s personality never varies; he treats everybody the same no matter your status in the prison.
He does not have one face or manner with correctional officers and another face or manner for the incarcerated population. He is who he is always. Over the years, I have never heard him raise his voice or seen a frown on his face, even if someone came at him sideways, which, if that ever happened, was rare. I don’t know what Robinson’s “superpowers” are, but I know they include kindness.
I am proud to call him a mentor in my life. I have watched his quiet leadership style. He led with care and not with fear. I admire him for being so comfortable in his skin. When it came to a discussion, or as he led tours of visitors into the prison, he had a way of asking you just the right question to prompt you to explain your life philosophies. He wouldn’t challenge your ideas or beliefs; he just wanted to teach you to be clear in what you were saying and to have conviction.
Robinson instilled in us (the incarcerated who had the pleasure to be around him) that rehabilitation has more than one aspect, that as we work on ourselves, there are still victims and survivors of our crimes. “They have a right to feel what they feel about you and about what happened to them. You can’t tell people how to feel,” he would say. That gets your attention; it makes you look remorse in the eye. He didn’t say it to shame you; he said it to challenge us to walk out our rehabilitation and make our amends in every circumstance.
Discussions with Captain Robinson were rich with wisdom, with truth and with reality checks. When incarcerated people unfamiliar with Robinson’s ways would join our conversations and they would say “I caught my case,” you could see the smiles come to our faces; we would just wait for it. At this point Robinson would ask, “What do you mean you ‘caught your case?’ Was someone just throwing crime around and you caught one?”
You committed your crime—it’s about having accountability. That was the message. There are rare people you meet in life; I am talking about people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, or Mother Teresa. For me, Captain Robinson is one of those people. He is a bright light in a very dark place. He would say he had “big shoulders” to carry the weight of the task he was given of protecting the rights of everyone within the prison, especially when he was San Quentin’s Public Information Officer.
Under Robinson’s guidance, a bunch of convicts were turned into award winning journalists working with the San Quentin News, the Ear Hustle podcast, the UNCUFFED radio program, and the First Watch/Forward This video teams—more than 20 incarcerated people who worked under Robinson’s supervision in the Media Center have paroled with a zero-percent recidivism rate. More directly stated, not one has returned to prison.
The strangest and most amazing thing Robinson instilled in us (incarcerated people) was about giving other prisoners “second chances.” You don’t always have to discipline a person, you don’t always have to fire someone, and you don’t always have to send someone to administrative segregation (the hole), he said. Just turn the situation into a learning opportunity and teach responsibility. Wouldn’t you want to be given a second chance for a bad decision?
Robinson’s humble spirit, infectious smile and laugh will be missed. Thank you, Captain Robinson, for restoring our humanity, even when we didn’t see it in ourselves and others may never see it. Public safety is more than just punishment; it can be wrapped in care. Thank you from all of us.