After 15 years, the event’s original legacy is in danger of being forgotten
In 2006, Blacks and Mexicans rioted on San Quentin’s Lower Yard.
As the chaos unfolded, Tung Nguyen and other members of a self-help group, TRUST, were leading a group of about 50 civilian volunteers to a Black History event on the Yard. When he noticed the danger, he redirected them to safety. Gerardo Menchaca was one of the other TRUST members who helped lead the volunteers to safety.
Inspired by these events, a multiracial committee in Quentin’s community formed the following year. The group aimed to show the outside world that people inside a prison could bring peace.
The committee went to San Quentin’s warden and asked if the administration would support holding a day of peace on the Lower Yard. The administration said yes. The first Day of Peace took place in 2007. During the event, incarcerated participants wore white T-shirts and walked a lap with self-help volunteers on the Lower Yard in silence to honor victims of violence.
The 2022 Day of Peace took place on August 27. It looked a little different from the early days when the event was organized by the Day Of Peace Committee; participants did not wear white shirts and walk around the yard. Instead, the administration made sure that every resident of San Quentin received a Walkenhorst’s gift bag — an idea stemming from a request by former SQNews Editor-in-Chief Arnulfo T. Garcia who tragically passed away in a car crash in 2017.
The administration brought in different musicians to perform on the yard. Rap, rock, and Irish music played throughout the day, and long lines formed at tables set up on the Lower Yard staffed by incarcerated folks and local Bay Area volunteers who support self-help programs at the Q. Those groups were: Insight Prison Program, No More Tears, Free to Succeed, Fellas against Distracted and Drunk Driving, Face It, Project Reach, Prescription for Change, California Reentry Institute, HEART, Alight Justice, Teaching Responsibility Utilizing Sociological Training (TRUST), Project LA/Bay Area, The Beat Within, California Reentry, KAIROS, and Angel Tree. Each of these programs had the chance to talk with potentially interested residents, and share success stories.
No More Tears was formed by Lonnie Morris and Mick Gardner as a response to violence. Morris, who was incarcerated at the time, turned to Gardner and said, “One way we can overcome and address this violence is have some workshops and talk to the people that’s committing the violence, ‘cause they’re right in here — they’re all in here.”
The group has since worked with over 3,000 men at San Quentin, only two of whom have returned to the prison.
Free to Succeed was founded to support incarcerated students. “During the pandemic, they all tutored me and helped me with my college writing,” said Alex Ross, one of the program’s participants. “If it weren’t for Free to Succeed, I’d most likely have quit college.”
Alight Justice is a group dedicated to healing. “[The program] is based on victim awareness as well as victim impact — how different groups see and heal with each other,” said Billie Mizell, a volunteer who helps to sponsor the group.
“Be prepared to challenge yourself on how you view things and people,” added Chris Marshall, an incarcerated facilitator. “[Alight Justice] challenges stereotypes while living together in harmony.”
As the Day of Peace continues to evolve, the lives of Nguyen and Menchaca took different paths. Nguyen has become renowned in the California prison system as a symbol of peace, while Menchaca’s role has been mostly lost to history.
In 2011, Nguyen appeared before the parole board. He’d served 20 years for aiding and abetting a first-degree murder as a juvenile at the age of 16. The board found him suitable for parole, but set his release date to August 12, 2023.
In an unprecedented turn of events, then-Governor Jerry Brown reversed the board’s decision saying, “While I do not downplay the seriousness of Mr. Nguyen’s crime, I note that it was Mr. Nguyen’s crime partners who initiated the confrontation that resulted in the murder. Mr. Nguyen did not participate in the assault and was not aware that it would take place. At the time, Mr. Nguyen was just 16 years old and was influenced to participate in the crime by his adult crime partners.”
The Governor concluded, “In this unique case, I believe Mr. Nguyen’s exceptional rehabilitation dictates that he should receive an immediate release on parole.” He was 36 when he was released from prison in 2011.
Two years before Nguyen’s was released, Menchaca was commended by Lt. Sam Robinson.
Robinson wrote in a memorandum, “Menchaca’s decision that day both demonstrates an authentic change in the type of decision making that resulted in his incarceration and exemplifies the effectiveness of his success in working to change himself from a liability to an asset.” Robinson continued, “Inmate Menchaca and the other TRUST members should receive due credit and commendation for his selfless actions on that day.”
Menchaca never showed anyone this letter — he says he protected those volunteers because it was simply the right thing to do; it was never about the accolades.
“No one’s ever read this letter until I showed it to San Quentin News,” he said on September 9. Menchaca is scheduled to appear before the parole board sometime in 2023.
This history of the Day of Peace reminds us that the event is greater than symbolic gestures and the availability of rehabilitative services. It was originated to remind us of what people are willing to do in times of crisis, and the recognition given for these heroic acts has the power to inspire many — within and outside of prison walls.