A poetry slam helped 10 condemned men talk about the challenges they face living on San Quentin’s Death Row. They presented poems to prison administrators and custody staff on Sept. 7 and 14.
There is a stereotype that “we have no redeeming qualities,” said Clifton Perry, 46. “Although a jury thought this, I will never accept that I have no redeeming qualities. I know we are inmates condemned to death, but we’re not lying down. We’re still trying to do something good with our lives.”
Perry was 26 when he committed the offense that got him sentenced to death, and has been on Death Row for 20 years.
The slam was held in a secured room in the prison’s Central Health Services Building. About a dozen prison staffers sat in two rows of chairs that faced the men, who were locked in cages the size of phone booths. The men leaned forward in their seats as they performed, donning glasses to recite their poems and looking into the audience after reading.
Poetry is part of a mental health program provided to Death Row inmates.
“In the beginning they were writing from assignments,” said therapist D. Bell, who facilitates the program. “But as the months went on, they wrote more personal things. They write about real-life topics and provide real insight into the person they are.”
The men’s poetry addressed themes including Black Lives Matter, color-blind justice, unity, being kind to each other, and food.
Reyon Ingram, 32, read a poem about the complexities of growing up in a dysfunctional family. He also performed a poem about maturing, as a human, on Death Row. He ended by lamenting that he had been abandoned by his father, and recognizing that, from his actions, he’s abandoning his own sons.
Ingram was 23 when he committed the offense that got him sentenced to death seven years ago.
“I think most of the poetry is coming from the heart, and I do appreciate you for sharing it with us,” Sgt. W. Givens, one of the audience members, said to Ingram. “It’s a different way of seeing things.”
Ingram responded, “If I walk around with ‘CDCR’ on my pants, I want to exercise the ‘R.’ People change. Everybody has grown in their own way.” He added, “I have boys and I don’t want them to go through what I’ve gone through.”
Givens replied, “By what you write, you guys are creating a legacy for your boys. Touch the people you touch and leave that legacy behind.”
Glen Jones’ poem “Final Destination” begins, “In this life, this may possibly be my final destination, and it will be by lethal injection… I am at peace and have no objections,” and ends with, “So, I’ll wait with anticipation for that freedom injection so I can finally ascend to my true final destination.”
“Writing poetry makes me feel more human,” Jones, 32, said. “I don’t want to feel like an animal.”
To this, Givens responded, “I don’t see an animal in a cage; I see a man.”
Jones was 19 when he committed his offense. He has been on Death Row for six years.
Thomas Battle, 41, spoke about healing, insight, and self-perspective. He wrote, “…and you know misery and the company it keeps.”
Battle was 26 when he committed the offense that got him sentenced to death 13 years ago.
Murtaza Raja Iftekhar, 32, said his poetry captures his inner thoughts and feelings.
“When I feel like I can’t express myself, I pick up my notepad and no matter what, it can’t get mad at me, even if I throw it on the wall,” he said.
Iftekhar was sentenced to death last year, and was 23 when he committed his offense.
Kesaun Skyes, 28, began with an apology, followed by a poem speaking to gun violence from the perspective of the gun, a love poem, and a poem about societal greed. He ended with a poem about self-determination.
Sykes was sentenced to death two years ago. He was 21 when he committed his offense.
The poetry also touched on current events. Kevin D. Person brought laughter to the room when he ended a poem with, “America tweets, ‘Donald Trump, you’re fired.’”
“There were times that I didn’t understand how to break down language, but the poetry program helped me,” Person, 46, said. He was 29 when he committed his offense, and has been on Death Row for 13 years.
Willie Harris, 47, focused on the power of spirituality and compassion. Harris was sentenced to death 17 years ago. He was 29 was when he committed his offense.
Joseph Mercado, 32, wrote about wanting to change for the good and his need for his son’s forgiveness. He was sentenced to death in January of this year. Mercado was 27 when he committed his offense.
Steven Jones, 48, wrote about the power of love and how it is used to comfort and protect. “Love has no limits — its reach is vast…it has no bounds,” he wrote. He was 37 when he committed the offense that got him sentenced to death, and has been on Death Row for seven years.
“If it weren’t for the mental health program, I’d be dead today. I did a whole 180 turn by learning how to journal,” Jones said.