“If we’re not shaping our own narrative, then we’re giving into what’s out there about who you are,” inmate Emile DeWeaver told a classroom of convicts, many of whom are murderers.
DeWeaver said that he believes inmates have the power to change how they are seen by the public by telling their story, their way.
“I complained a lot about the law and how it disenfranchised people,” DeWeaver said. “But what are we doing to inject ourselves into the conversation? Crafting an honest narrative may help someone do that.”
DeWeaver told the class that he was confident that they could tell their story and connect with readers by finding common ground and focusing on human elements all people share.
“Imagine if everyone were telling their story in an authentic way,” DeWeaver said. “That would be a powerful force against the dehumanizing narratives that fuel mass incarceration. That’s the most important thing for these guys.” He added, “Lasting rehabilitation begins with understanding that no matter how reprehensible your past actions were, you are human, and you’ve always been human. That makes you valuable.”
The first writing prompt for the class was, “Why are you here?”
“I started out just like any other family,” inmate Michael Macky said of his own story. “I started out good and free. What went wrong is my parenting suffered. I needed extended family support. Everyone needs someone to lean on,” he said.
Macky is serving a 75-year-to-life sentence for murder/robbery.
“The most important thing I learned from the class is unity,” Macky said. “I learned that I’m not in this alone, which is the first time I’ve experienced this on this scale. This class makes me feel like I can be myself—who I truly am at 34 years old. I haven’t had that feeling for 13 years—the amount of time I’ve been in prison.”
DeWeaver has had the opportunity to share his own story both with public officials, including State Senator Loni Hancock and Congresswoman Jackie Speier, and through the online magazine Drunk Monkeys.
DeWeaver said publishing parts of his life story online has allowed him to better connect with his daughter and has also broadened the perspective of others who have read his story, like the thinking of a mother whose niece was murdered.
“I’m amazed that people are amazed by our stories,” DeWeaver said.
In explaining some of the obstacles to creating a new narrative, DeWeaver said students should understand society’s anger and fear regarding the crime of murder, especially while remembering their victims never had a second chance.
“We have debt that we cannot pay. But, I personally will not stop trying to pay it,” DeWeaver said. “There are not a lot of ways for me to make amends, so it is my personal mission to do as much good as I could do. This is a part of me trying to introduce good into the world and to influence as many men to do the same.”
“I think it’s very structured and insightful. DeWeaver broke down a lot of the structure in how to tell our stories, and where to begin,” inmate David Le said. “Before this class, I thought I was communicating my ideas as clearly as I could. After the class, he gave me tools like universal needs and shared values, the main things he expressed in storytelling. That’s something I knew but didn’t take a look at until this class.”
According to Le, the likelihood that he will appear before the parole board has increased when Governor Jerry Brown signed into law SB 261 in October.
SB 261 allows those who were between age 18 to 22 at the time of committing a crime to appear before the parole board. A previous law, SB 260, only applied to those under the age of 18. Le has been in prison for a murder committed at age 21. He is now 31.
Le, who arrived at San Quentin in 2013, is working as a teacher’s aide and is enrolled in the prison’s college program. He said he also participates in several self-help groups.
DeWeaver encouraged the students to understand basic human needs like self-esteem, belonging and safety as tools of communication and human connection.
“We have to figure out who we are and where we want to be,” DeWeaver said. “Writing is a great tool to do this. I want to give people the opportunity to say in their own words, to say why they did what they did, and be able to communicate that to the public. In the long run we’ll be able to come up with human solutions to our country’s mass incarceration problem.”