Traveling beyond the expected.

Part 1 of a 4-part series.

Seagulls. Sparkling water and endless blue sky. A million dollar view. We are standing outside San Quentin State Prison, after saying goodbye to Norman, the Lyft driver we chatted with during the morning rush hour on Hwy 101, as he shared stories of growing up in Berkeley, coming of age in the Sixties, doing a tour in Vietnam. As he yanked out a tissue from between the seats, he dabbed his eyes and excused himself for becoming teary. “It’s just that I don’t often have a chance to talk about it all, he said,” as we reassured him that we understood.

After all, we were on our way to spend the day touring the oldest prison in California, looking for answers, inspiration, a different way of seeing things. Norman, who confessed that he’d been a prison guard himself back in the day, dropped us off at the front gate at 8:55 am sharp. We were immediately aware of the relaxed and welcoming demeanor of the officer checking traffic and individuals entering the property. If you gaze past the concertina wire and California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation signage, the prison looks like a Hollywood set. An ancient stucco-fronted building marked “Hospital” appears to be a perfect place to tie up a horse while stopping inside for a whiskey.

Part 2 of a 4-part series.

Steve Emrick, Community Partnership Manager, is just back from a few days off, and he’s playing catch up with a phone ringing and a steady flow staff stopping in his office, but he remains focused and interested in our discussion. It’s clear that San Quentin has many visitors and Steve is adept at being pulled in many directions at once. We are the visitors from Colorado and are warmly welcomed by everyone.

Steve Emrick arrived at San Quentin with a background in art and education, clearly a different breed from the more prevalent law enforcement or criminal justice professional. This is a man, we learned, who is willing to try innovative educational offerings from theatre to painting to poetry to creative writing, all strengthened by a relationship with California Arts-in-Corrections, a rare program that years ago, spearheaded a humanizing approach to lifting men up through learning and prison arts.

After an introduction to Emrick’s stick-his-neck-out approach to encouraging art and education, we begin a tour of the prison. Leaving his office we notice the staff greeting each other and us as friendly passersby, remarking on the beautiful day, saying hello to men working or reaching out to Steve with a question. With each person, whether in the administrative offices or a worker wearing prison attire, he is patient, knowledgeable and generous with his answers to endless questions. There is a vibe here we aren’t used to. There is a pleasant feeling, everyone complicit in approaching their role with humanity rather than wielding power over the powerless.

[The next installment in this series will be posted on Sunday, October 15]