How prisoners change young lives
By Charles David Henry, Photographs by Eddie Herena
A dozen teenage boys arrive at San Quentin and shuffle around, awkwardly trying to look cool. Flanked by rose bushes and razor wire, the Plaza is a luxuriant little square inside the prison gates. Each of them has a back-story but today the plan is to keep them out of prison — courtesy of San Quentin Utilization of Inmate Resources Experiences and Studies, better known as SQUIRES.
The Plaza is bounded with religious chapels on one side, and on the other a four-story “Adjustment Center,” a prison-within-a-prison housing gang bangers, men who’ve shanked other inmates, and worse.
Suddenly, Upumoni “Upu” Ama, a 6-foot-3-inch Samoan inmate, steps out to meet the teens. He and a half-dozen other inmates eyeball the teens, deciding which young man they want to spend time with during the tour.
“You’re going to spend the day here as one of us,” Upu says. “You’re going to eat our food, walk our yard, and step into our cells. But where you’re standing right now?” The big man pauses, and throws his arms open wide. “You’re in the middle. There’s the Adjustment Center, where the worst of the worst are. And, there’s the chapel — which signifies doing the right thing. The choice of where you ultimately want to end up is yours.”
SQUIRES has a long history. It started in 1964, when a man on Death Row was concerned about his son. Convicted murderer Ross Parker Keller’s teenage son was already in trouble with the law and might be headed to prison or worse, he feared, if there wasn’t some kind of intervention. But the boy wouldn’t share his feelings, or understand where his actions were taking him.
Keller wanted his son to taste the bitterness of prison life, and lose his freedom for a day, so he might not spend his life here. It might deter him from a life of crime. That boy’s fate is unknown — there’s not much documentation about the program’s early years— but Keller’s work has touched thousands of lives.
For decades, confronting a juvenile with an up-front, in-your-face approach was a traditional way of scaring troubled teenagers straight. Hardened lifers, violent men, offenders scream at young offenders, searing them with a nightmare view of the incarceration ahead if they didn’t go straight.
SQUIRES is not Scared Straight. It uses feelings instead of fear. The boys in the program get a tour of life behind bars, and they’re asked to say how it feels. SQUIRES wants them to trust the word of the prisoners, and themselves, and to look at their life in a new way.
In the late 70s, the Los Angeles County Probation Department asked the California Youth Authority to evaluate a project designed to send probation camp youth to a juvenile visitation program at San Quentin.
The County Board of Supervisors approved the youth offender program and agreed to send a small group of 16- to 17-year-olds from probation camps to San Quentin. A study made sometime later concluded that, 12 months after a visit, “those who participated in the program committed fewer offenses, drug and property offenses subsequent to their experience when compared with similar youths who did not.”
Within the year, Contra Costa County wanted access. In time, groups of 20 to 40 kids started coming every two weeks. Kids qualify for the program after being busted six or more times, often for violent crimes.
Wall City recently spent a day with one of them. Out of respect for his age, we’ll call him Kid. A 14-year-old from Novato, just a few miles north of San Quentin, here in Marin County, he arrived impeccably dressed in designer jeans and expensive Nikes. His eyes are wide and he looks nervously from side to side. In the Plaza, he listens to Upu narrate the history of the prison.
Before he knows it, another prisoner walks up to him. “I’m Adnan Khan,” he says, thrusting out his hand. “Those are cool Jordans, where are you from?” Adnan inquires. “Is this your first time in prison?”
Wary, Kid acknowledges Adnan’s question with a nod.
Adnan, 32, recently elected as Chairman, has been in prison for 14 years on a robbery-murder conviction. He is an American Muslim of Pakistani heritage who has a long history with SQUIRES, including a visit as part of the program when he was 15. Though it didn’t take, he’s now an earnest believer in trying to wave off others. He is a mentor, the guy who pairs up with the visitors — and maybe saves them, too.
Adnan keeps up his conversation with Kid, looking to gain his confidence, and perhaps pick up a little trust. It seems to work; Kid’s fear eases as they descend together to the Lower Yard, turning that corner to where hundreds of convicts are crowded together.
They make their way past the sports players and the walkers, criminals doing their time, some clearly showing years of incarceration. In the Education Building, they start orientation.
Miguel Quezada, a second-degree murderer facilitating the meeting, establishes “three group agreements”:
• Respect — “treat others like you want to be treated”
• Honesty — “be honest to the group and yourself” and
• Confidentiality — “what happens and what is said in the room, stays in this room.”
Like Adnan, Miguel tells them what he’s in for — it’s part of creating a safe space where boys and inmates can speak comfortably about tough personal struggles.
“Adults aren’t allowed to speak if the group doesn’t want their participation,” says David “Rome” Monroe. In another classroom, a parent is asked to leave because the boys want to speak openly and freely about their delinquency issues or the reason they came to San Quentin.
Miguel tells Kid to read the questions on a white board. Do you have problems with your parents? Are you a truant? Do you smoke? Drink? Drugs? Gang bang? Even in a small group, where he can open up some, Kid deflects some of the toughest questions.
“Your sponsor told me that you are a pimp, facing serious time in Juvenile Hall or the Youth Authority for pandering and drug possession. What brings you to SQUIRES?” says David.
“My probation officer told me that SQUIRES could help me.”
“Help you do what?” says Miguel.
“He told me I need to understand why hustling, taking money, is so important to me. Why do I want girls and women to give me money, he asks me why do I have them buying me clothes, you know, expensive jewelry and stuff like that,” Kid says.
“Is that the only reason you came here today?” David probes deeper.
“I mean, my probation officer thinks like maybe I can explain why I act like this, and then, you know, I mean it could get me some help, you know,” Kid stumbles through his explanation.
David tells them about his own stray years, the drugs and the violence. “But, have you ever stopped to thinks about how embarrassing you are, how disappointing you are to you mother?” he says. “Do you realize how scared she is every time you leave her house, knowing that something bad and ugly could happen to you?”
Kid angrily stares back at him, and then looks around uncertainly. Before he can figure out a quick, slick snap-back comment, Adnan, playing the good cop, redirects a question to another boy, and the cycle of questions from mentors starts over again. Kid has an expression on his face that indicates he has more to say about the situation, as the group’s attention turns to another boy.
After a morning of questions, probes, and responses, the youngsters are escorted to the Receiving and Release (R&R) section. It’s the first step to the prison for new arrivals, where all inmates are stripped, searched and processed into San Quentin. There’s bedding, Miguel says, prison clothes and personal hygiene, and a psychological evaluation, even if you’re headed to Death Row. R&R is also the last step for those released from San Quentin to the streets.
Kid wanders into Cell C and lies on the steel bunk.
“What do you think about this place?” says Adnan.
“It’s cold in there, man,” Kid responds.
They slowly walk past the hospital, Adjustment Center, and library.
Adnan presses Kid about his relationship with his mother and father.
“What do your parents think about you not going to school and all the troubles you got yourself into?” he asks.
“I only got my mother. I don’t know where my father is. I mean, you know, she wants me to do good, you know. I mean, but what can she? I mean the money I get helps with my little brother and baby sister,” Kid explains.
They stop at North Block, living quarters to over 700 convicted felons. Each 4-foot by 9-foot by 12-foot space holds two adult men every night. “Man, this space is smaller than my bathroom. Animals have more room,” Kid says sarcastically.
“Go inside. This is what you’ll get when you come to prison,” Miguel mockingly responds.
The group is escorted around to an area where 25 inmates flock together and shower.
“You like taking showers with men?” Adnan asks.
“Hell no,” Kid quickly answers.
“Then don’t come to prison,” says Adnan.
Outside, they catch up to the group at an antechamber with a steel door fit for a siege castle. A facilitator talks about the men inside — not the kinds of murderers they’ve spent the day with, but the bad ones that the state plans to kill. “Turn around fast and face the wall, they’re told, if any of the condemned is brought in or out,” Adnan says as he notices how quickly Kid steps back from the above the entrance, “Condemned Row.”
Then, more cells. Alpine is for the rapists, pedophiles, and gang dropouts, all wary of beatings on the yard. Badger has inmates waiting for their move to a higher security prison. Carson is for disciplinary problems, where they are in solitary confinement. Donner, that’s more inmates on Death Row, plus convicts with disciplinary problems.
An inmate at Badger, like all of them locked down 23 hours a day, sees a SQUIRES juvenile. “Hey little boy, you’re cute,” he yells to Kid. “Come here baby, I want some of your little ***. I want you to be my cellie.” Another inmate joins in, just as an alarm goes off.
The prison rule is for all inmates to drop to the ground, but Kid and many other boys panic and rush for the exit. They were stopped by a correctional officer and told to “get down.”
When the incident is cleared, the boys go to South Block for chow. Kid and three other boys, standard bag lunches in hand, immediately complain about their turkey bologna, the bland bread and the lifeless carrots.
“You want this ****,” Kid pushes his lunch to the center of the table.
“Don’t like prison food?” says Adnan.
“Man, this **** is garbage,” he pouts.
“This is what you get everyday,” Adnan adds.
“If you continue doing what you’re doing you’ll be eating lunch with us,” says Miguel.
THE “ROUND UP”
After leaving the chow hall, Kid and the boys go back to the same classroom for what is called the “Round Up.” By this time, they are emotionally drained but excited from the day’s encounter; Kid is gregarious and a lot more extroverted. He can’t stop talking.
Adnan, asked each boy to explain what stood out about the tour that caught their attention. One boy said the cells were “just too small for me to spend the rest of my life in, I can’t do it.” Another boy said, “Man I don’t like stripping so I can be searched.”
“Man, at first I didn’t know what do, this funny look scary guy in the cell starting screaming about how pretty my butt was. I first, I … started to run for the door and the bell went off, that confused me,” Kid said.
The mentors tell them what happens when an inmate is sent to the Level Three and Four prisons to start his sentence. The racial conflicts, the daily violence, the seething hate as an everyday fact of life. Sometimes an inmate’s best friends will jump him, Kid hears. He winces.
It keeps coming. Want to be worthy of staying in the yard? Show papers that you’re not a rapist? You hurt a kid? Get a beating. Drug deal goes bad? Get a beating. Wrong race, wrong time? You’ll catch a knife.
After the cells and the taunts, the bad food and the harsh orders, this summation of pain and confusion is too much for Kid.
As the day’s tour comes to an end, sponsor Raphaele Casale tells the boys, parents and youth offender organizers, “It’s important for you to remember your experience with SQUIRES’ mentors. The men in blue have gone through everything you are going through now; learn from the bad choices they made. Every one of them regrets the consequences of their split-second decisions.”
SQUIRES will continue to enhance its therapeutic message by training mentors to break down the artificial barriers that the young offenders build. The objective is to get them to talk about their problems, abuse and trauma.
Because those problems extend well beyond California, SQUIRES is facilitating networking and sharing information about the problems that youth here struggle with and how the program works. Internationally, teenagers suffer from the same peer pressures.
SQUIRES’ message of congeniality has drawn praise from government officials, law and probation enforcement, social service providers, unified school districts, juvenile and youth organizations, parents, guardians and the youth.
Casale encourages the young men to spend more time with their families and organizations that promote youth activities. SQUIRES has in the past year developed a website to facilitate sharing of information about juvenile delinquency and youth problems worldwide.
Will Adnan ever see Kid again, here on the yard as a fellow convict? There’s no way to know. SQUIRES doesn’t formally monitor its results. That’s part of its confidential design. The program aims to persuade and influence but not intrude.
For Adnan, it’s enough to make a start. Problems this deep don’t change fast. Prison is the most “one day at a time” place you can be — work with what you’ve got, try to stay positive, and think about the long game.
But he had to take some pride when he heard Kid say at the end of the day, “I got to tell my mom to call my probation officer Monday, **** this prison, this **** is for the birds.”