We’re out in the yard now, and there are groups of men everywhere, hanging out in small groups, sitting around steel tables or playing basketball while others count push-ups. We’re walking along a crooked path of concrete walkways and stairs; nothing like the carefully planned layout of any more recently designed prison. Our first stop is an art class, where an engaged and friendly teacher is having the men re-create book covers for novels. It’s a quiet space; the artists are hunched over their work in concentration. The reimagined covers are professional and boldly imagined improvements over some classic covers I recognize. There is an unfamiliar feeling here- things seem relaxed; it’s nearly impossible to know these men are prisoners, they could be students in a college drawing class.
At San Quentin, many of the incarcerated men we meet have emerged as thought leaders and hard-working, dedicated inmates producing professional work in their areas of passion and expertise. We meet “Wall Street” and watch his TED talk- he’s the guru of financial literacy at the prison, and he provides us with a riveting lesson on separating our financial decisions from our emotional ones.
We are here, in part, because we follow Ear Hustle, the extraordinary podcast that takes the listener inside San Quentin prison and presents a different story every few weeks, always authentic and gripping and personal.
Arriving at the media offices, we are ushered into the San Quentin News newsroom, which shares offices with a video production team as well as a dedicated space where Ear Hustle is produced and recorded. Written by prisoners, the newspaper advances social justice by highlighting positive programs and legislative solutions to bring attention to mass incarceration.
The men are buzzing with purpose and productivity- thrilled to meet us and as cordial as seasoned professionals. Meeting Earlonne, co-host of Ear Hustle and Antwone, the program’s sound designer, is a high point of the morning. These are men serving brutally long sentences to life, but you wouldn’t know it from the life-affirming attitude that is projected throughout the studio. We pose for photos, ask questions about the schedule on the whiteboard, marvel over the sound engineering software. We meet different volunteer “coaches” working with prisoners and their projects in the office, and with a supportive liaison to the outside world, everyone appears to manage without the almighty Internet.
It’s an oddly natural scene, unimaginable at any other facility I’ve ever spent time in. We are waiting for an escort to walk us from the newsroom back to Steve Emrick’s office. The facility is large and sprawling, and we need to be patient until someone can assist us. The office guys are sitting out in the sun on old upholstered office chairs, highlighter in hand and what looks like newspaper galleys they’re proofing. They invite us to sit down. They pull up some chairs, and then we are hanging out at San Quentin, with a sense of regret as we realize it’s time to leave. Although everyone seems to have something more they want to show us and tell us about, by mid-afternoon we’re overwhelmed, in the best possible way.
Imagine the possibilities. That phrase keeps running through my head as I look around and do one more reality check as I pass across the yard again. It’s a rough place, but there is a force of goodness here too.
T.S. Eliot says in his poem, Ash Wednesday,
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks.
My thoughts, as we say our thank you and goodbyes, are all over the place- returning over and over again to the difference between the struggle I often feel I am facing with the Words Beyond Bars program and the ease I felt with Steve Emrick, as he explained why book discussion is not a priority for him right now: He has college classes being taught inside, local professors teaching English with a reading syllabus. The incarcerated readers are being provided with the means to an Associate’s degree, and many are studying hard after a day’s work. While this is not the same as dissecting a novel in a small community of readers, with expectations for community building and increased self-esteem, we are all, education-minded as we are, barking up the right tree. San Quentin has fed the spirit building given of life that reminds me that everything is meant to shift and change. San Quentin reminded me not to lose sight of the essential humanity of those who commit terrible crimes, and to never give up on another’s transformation.
Sitting on the deck of a Golden Gate ferry heading back to San Francisco, we watch the prison fade from view. The foamy wake behind us seems to part some impossible sea between the men we’d met and the life we were returning to. We were unaware that San Francisco Fleet Week, a beloved public event to honor the contributions of the US Armed Forces was the reason that the Blue Angels were flying in dramatic perfection overhead. Somehow the awe-inspiring display conjured up image of a path forward, just as the prison disappeared out of view.
A middle-aged woman seated behind me tapped me on the shoulder, having read the T-shirt I’d worn proudly for the visit. “Did you just read to the prisoners?” she asked me. “That place just gives me shivers,” she commented, pulling her arms tightly around her, as if in protection from her vision of monsters. “Oh, there are a lot of good guys there. They’re not all what you’re imagining.”
I left it at that and turned around to take in what was left of the trip.