As I walk through the iron doors, gates banging behind me, I often feel like I am entering a foreign world.
For the past nine years, I have been running groups for “lifers” at San Quentin State Prison. These are men, sentenced to 15 years to life for first- and second-degree murder or attempted murder, who after spending at least 20 or 30 years behind bars are eligible for parole. There are some 10,000 of them among the 167,000 inmates in the California prison system.
The guys in my group at San Quentin might be called “hardened criminals” and not worthy of parole. My experience has taught me otherwise. These are felons who have gone the extra mile to come to terms with their crimes, who have redeemed their lives and are ready to join society, having worked hard to change their lives.
Yet many have been denied release by the parole board or the governor. They differ from Death Row prisoners, who will die in prison or be executed.
My group, New Leaf on Life, is for lifers who are interested in this kind of self-help program. It is self-selecting and inmate-run. I am the sponsor, along with another private citizen and one prison employee. The room is a classroom where 35 prisoners, the speaker, myself and my co-sponsor run the class. The guards are outside the room and down the hall, should we need them.
That has never happened.
One of my first encounters at San Quentin was with a prisoner named Vinny. I related to him immediately, with his thick Brooklyn accent, his mellow Buddhist ways and the ability to relate to all he encountered. He is a lovely guy, one who is respected by guards and inmates alike. He is in for having permanently disabled a man in a botched robbery attempt in the late 70s while on drugs.
Another inmate in my group is John D. He was an engineer and a respected businessman who killed his wife in 1985 in an argument that got physical. John was recently paroled after 22 years inside, primarily through his own legal efforts.
Another of my guys is Marv, a man who to this day, after more than 30 years, insists that he is innocent. The newest D.A. on this case believes the same. Marv was prosecuted years ago by a D.A. who did believe Marv was guilty, although there was only circumstantial evidence. Nonetheless he remains incarcerated, now in a medical facility due to small strokes and deteriorating health.
I find this kind of work the most meaningful undertaking I have ever done. I have learned that people can redeem themselves; that they go through many changes when they have been inside so long.
First they might be the thugs that brought them there, but then they mature, they awaken to the crimes that they did, and they then engage in programs in an attempt to change their lives. Later they atone, feeling remorse and taking responsibility for their actions.
MAKES NO SENSE
Men who have gone though this process through multiple programs and self-help activities deserve another chance. Why is it that we do not give them the opportunity they have earned? Why do we spend $57.92 a day, or $34 billion a year to keep them locked up, when so many men who have made such visible progress could be paroled?
I know that we live in an anti-crime climate, but this makes no sense to me.
This article appeared previously in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.