Acting with Compassion and Truth (ACT) is a first of its kind of prison program that explores how cultural differences affect the way people with diverse sexual orientations are treated. The group consists of LGBTQ people as well as heterosexual/cisgender people.
California prison officials and a journalist came to San Quentin, on April 10, to see how ACT functions.
A Hmong inmate, Lee Xiong, told a compelling story about how his culture treats gay people.
He said that if a father, traditional Hmong values, learned that his child was gay, “that child would be taken out fishing or hunting and he’d never come back.”
Xiong then revealed that his youngest brother had recently come out as gay. To gain insight to his conflict, he sought out and had a conversation with people in the San Quentin LGBTQ community. He said coming to ACT opened his awareness about his brother.
“This class literally saved my brother’s life,” Xiong said.
ACT’s outside sponsor, Billie Mizell said, Xiong’s response to his younger brother serves as an inspiration, “for all those brave enough to join [ACT]. Mizell added, “Hopefully we can soon replicate ACT in other prisons. Lee revealed a deep love of family and community by showing up for this group and he has worked as hard as anyone I’ve ever seen to acquire the tools needed to be a good brother and good ally. I have seen the ripple effect go far beyond the walls to bring healing an relationship to family and friends on the outside.”
Holly Stuckey, a transgender inmate, quietly sat across from Mizell, She listened to inmates talk about sexual identity issues.
She said she stayed away from ACT for several months, because of shyness.
“I want to start coming back regularly,” Stuckey said. “I’m a meek person. Billie does a good job and that keeps me motivated to come back.”
ACT first began four years ago as an idea presented by Mike Nelson. Before the class started, Mizell said, “I remember asking LGBTQ community what they wanted ACT to be about. I kept hearing that they want to educate the larger community about what it means to be a LGBTQ member in order to reduce the violence, build empathy and to bring both LGBTQ and women’s issues into a man’s prison.”
After some preliminary introductions, Mizell asked the group to use a couple words to describe their feelings about inviting guests that day: excited/nervous; anxious/confused; curious/ awkward; and older/wiser were just a few.
After the check in, Juan Meza and Michael Adams stood in front of a white board.
Meza referred to a ginger bread sketch with brains drawn inside the head, a heart inside the chest area, and symbols for male, female and male/female in the genital area.
Meza pointed to the heart and asked what it represents. “Romantic attraction,” said one participant. “Sexual orientation,” said another. “Right,” said Meza.
“What about this?” he asked pointing at the brain. “Gender identity,” shouted several participants.
Also on the board, LGBTQIA was written. Meza asked what the “T” referred to. “Gender,” the class responded.
“What about the ‘G?’” Meza asked. “Sexual Orientation,” several participants said.
Meza asked where to place “girl” on the ginger bread sketch. A participant called out,“That’s biology.” Another said, “That’s in your head.”
He went through all the words to show how gender is constructed by various terms.
“Terminology is important in the way we communicate,” Meza said as he drew four long lines on the board and labeled the columns, 1-Racial Slurs, 2-Derogatory Terms for Women, 3- Derogatory Terms for LGBTQ and 4-Terms to disparage the Prisoner Masculinity.
The room sat in momentary silence after the participants filled in the columns with slurs and terms. (The majority of the terms are not appropriate for publication.)
Meza then drew a line across the column to demonstrate the intersectionality of the LGBTQ community with ethnic groups as well as incarcerated people.
“When we see the intersectionality of these words, we can see how we ourselves give these words power,” Meza said. “If we didn’t use these words against women, other races and the LGBTQ community, then they’d have no power to be used against us as incarcerated people.” He added, “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will break your spirits.”
Eddie DeWeaver chimed in to say, “These words are precursors to violence. They demean people and are used to justify violence.”
Mizell added, “When many people hear these words, knowing that they are precursors to violence, fear comes into play. We all want to live in a place where we feel safe.”
R. “Nephew” Bankston raised his hand and told a story about getting a rules violation about 10 years ago, because he refused to let a LGBTQ inmate become his cellie.
“I’m not living with a homosexual,” Bankston said about how he felt. “We don’t do that,” he added, referring to peer pressure.
Bankston said he came to prison as a teenager in 2001. He then lowered his head and said, “I know what hate looks like. It was a long struggle for me, but now I know that I have to treat people different from that. When I first came to this class, I came just to get a chrono (laudatory informational letter), but when my older brother told me to start calling him she, she taught me all those things in my past were wrong. Now, I’m not here for the chrono. I need to understand my sister.”
“It’s going to be a struggle to learn,” Bankston said. “The board didn’t tell me to come to this class. I’m doing it for me. I sent my sister a visiting form and I’m taking baby steps. It’s for me to figure out where we go from here.”
Mike Adams talked about a time while being housed in North Block that he was afraid of people like Bankston.
“Hearing that Nephew is striving to be a better person helps me heal,” Adams said.
Bankston responded, “When Mike told me that he feared me. That sat with me for a long time.” Bankston looked at Adams and said, “I’m going to do my best to treat you better.”
He added, “I didn’t know the power of words.”
The federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) makes sexual harassment or assault in prison a serious crime. Amy Miller, an Associate Director for CDCR, asked the class, if anyone ever accepted a derogatory term directed at them, or used a slur against someone else just to be accepted. Nearly all the hands in the class went up.
Miller has more than 23 years of experience in working in California corrections. She oversees CDCR’s Female Offender Programs and Services/Special Housing. The office manages and provides oversight to the state’s three female correctional facilities, Folsom State Prison, California Medical Facility, California Health Care Facility, community correctional facilities, and three conservation camps that house women wild land firefighters. It also manages special programs including policies regarding transgender inmates and the implementation of PREA.
The PREA Statewide coordinator Captain Shannon Stark noted that everybody had a choice where they sat in the classroom. She noted that in other prisons that she’d visited blacks would have sat with blacks, whites with whites and Mexicans with Mexicans. Here, she said there’s diversity.
The class ended with inmate Zakir “Egypt” Jones performing an original rap/ hop-hop song, called I know. She was the inspiration for the song came to her in a dream and an epiphany to where her life was going.
The entire class, including CDCR officials, had their heads bobbing and fingers snapping.
In a later interview, Bankston said that what he learned from the ACT class, he could take to the rest of his community.
“This shows that it’s possible. It’s a good thing to see. People need to hear your struggles. Nephew shows that it’s real,” Stark said.
“It is important to honor the original pilot group who built ACT,” Mizell said. In addition to Meza and Adams, they are Michael “Yoshi” Nelson, Lady Jae Clark, Azrall “Big Az” Ford, Todd “Silk” Williams, C.J. Smith, Mark Hensley, John Windham, Philip Melendez, and Ray Aldridge.