When San Quentin inmate Robert Dubner took his life on Feb. 17, 2005, it stunned the prison community, especially his best friend, Marvin Mutch.
“We ate breakfast and dinner together for about 17 years,” Mutch said. “That morning, we sat at the table and talked about the politics of the day. Then he went back to his cell and committed suicide.”
Dubner was well-liked, Mutch said, adding, “I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t see what this guy was going through—a guy who was an hour away from committing suicide,” Mutch said.
In an attempt to understand, Mutch wrote to several crisis intervention organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Marcia Blackstock of Bay Area Women Against Rape (BAWAR) answered.
BAWAR trained several men in crisis/suicide prevention as well as male sexual assault survivor counseling. The course took almost two years to complete and it was state-certified—those students became the first Brothers’ Keepers.
Brothers’ Keepers provides inmates in need with support, counsel, friendship, reinforcement, and serves as positive role models.
Mutch returned to San Quentin on Aug. 14 for the certification of 21 new Brother’s Keepers to get starfish lapel pins.
The Starfish Story: After a fierce storm, an old man walked along the beach. Thousands of starfish had washed ashore. They were all dying.
The old man saw a younger man pick one up and throw it back into the ocean. The young man did this repeatedly.
“Why are you doing that?” the old man asked. “There’s too many of them. It won’t make a difference.”
The young man threw another one back and replied, “It made a difference to that one.”
“Am I your brother’s keeper?” asked host, Tare Beltranchuc, of the nearly 100 men and women in the prison’s Protestant Chapel. They responded with applause and cheers.
The goal of Brothers’ Keepers is to maintain a team of well-trained peer counselors. They use active listening to create an atmosphere of trust and confidence in order to meet the physical, psychological, and emotional needs of inmates in crisis. As peer counselors, Brothers’ Keepers are not mental health professionals, rather they are trusted, knowledgeable peers.
When Brothers’ Keepers was founded, inmates who asked for mental health services were looked at negatively by board commissioners. With this in mind, Brothers’ Keepers sought to help inmates confidentially.
“The goal is to reach people when their crisis is small so that it doesn’t become worse,” Blackstock said. “They are willing to talk about issues, like a parole board denial. We have the cream of the crop. They care about the community and are the best counselors.”
Today, prison staffers call Brothers’ Keepers when an inmate is in crisis.
Recruiting new Brothers’ Keepers involves an interview process led by the men.
When alumnus Phoeun You asked Jesus Perez to take the training, Perez said, “There was something that Phoeun saw in me that I didn’t see in myself. I didn’t see myself as a helper. I’m an introvert. But after the training, I learned to talk people like I was talking to my best friend—I could do that.”
Brothers’ Keepers is sponsored by Insight Prison Project (IPP).
“The work that you guys are doing is what we need in the community, not only in here, but out there,” said IPP executive director Leonard Rubio.
Eleven years after his friend committed suicide, Mutch was released from prison.
In the free world, Mutch met Susan Barber of Mission Hospice & Home Care through mutual friends involved in compassionate care. He asked her if she’d provide hospice training for Brothers’ Keepers, because people behind bars also deal with death and dying.
Mutch says that hospice training is a natural evolution of the compassionate care that’s taught in Brothers’ Keepers.
He continues service-related work as co-founder and associate director of Humane Prison Hospice Project.
Greg “White Eagle” Coates provided music with a wood flute as an interlude and Quentin Blues performed several songs, including I’ll Always Be Your Friend.
Prior to Quentin Blues’ performance Richie Morris said, “I’ve lost 52 family members in my 32-year prison stay and I’ve never had the opportunity to properly grieve—I’m working through that right now.”
- Susan Barber
- Diane Beynon
- Marcia Blackstock
- Melissa Bryan
- Lisa Deal
- Keith DeBlasi
- Sandra Fish
- Julie Posadas Guzman
- Nate Hinerman
- David Jordan
- B.J. Miller
- Ladybird Morgan
- Marvin Mutch
- MK Nelson
- Dr. Kathleen O’Meara