Humans Behind Bars
A stain on the otherwise squeaky clean map of Marin County, a massive complex that occupies some of the most valuable real estate in California, a century-and-a-half-old structure that one observes only briefly through the windows of the Golden Gate Ferry, a giant length of weather-worn cement surrounding a place shrouded in mystery and rumors: San Quentin State Prison.
San Quentin is California’s oldest prison. Its inmate population is 3,774, which is 122% of its intended capacity. It holds California’s condemned row for male inmates, 741 prisoners who have been sentenced to death, men who are waiting there to one day (maybe) undergo lethal injection at the end of a criminal-judicial-penal process that costs more than $300 million per execution.
These numbers and disturbing images of prison are what we tend to call up if we think of San Quentin. Yes, these numbers are real, and yes, some of the dramatic and depressing representations of life in prison we see on TV may have at least some truth to them. But this overused image of prison, informed by the politician’s statistics and TV’s distortion of reality, must not be used to summarize every prison, and certainly not San Quentin. After all, this institution exists for the purpose of working with humans, real humans—not TV characters and not numbers.
Perspectives and perceptions of San Quentin vary widely depending on who you talk to about life within its walls, interacting with inmates, and serving the California community at large. A correctional sergeant like Jefferson Puu, for instance, may tell a very different story of San Quentin than Lesley Currier, who directs Shakespeare at San Quentin, an inmate group dedicated to studying and performing Shakespeare’s masterpieces.
“I used to tell myself ‘If I don’t get played today, then I’m not doing my job,” Puu explains, “It’s a game to them.”
Every interaction must be calculated and intentional, otherwise he risks getting manipulated, making himself vulnerable to them somehow or another so that they may have leverage with which to demand concessions, dangerous concessions. Understanding that getting hustled was an inevitability at first, Puu chose to learn from amateur mistakes in order to master the game of conversational chess that he must play every day.
“This job’s not for everyone. You’ve gotta mentally prepare yourself. The bottom line is you’ve gotta be able to communicate with these inmates.”
After 15 years as a correctional sergeant, Puu has reached fluency in this form of communication. Still, there remains a fine line between opening up to contact with prisoners while not exposing oneself to manipulation, a line which Puu must walk whenever he steps foot inside the San Quentin cell blocks.
Puu’s perspective on inmates is not the only story to be told, however; other members of the San Quentin community hold very different views of prisoners. Volunteers in rehabilitative programs for inmates, for instance, have far different views of prisoners than those of a correctional sergeant like Puu.
Delia Cohen, who directs TEDx at San Quentin, has a far different idea of communication with inmates. Her approach and objectives in volunteering at San Quentin are completely unlike those of Puu; “showing humanity and how we are all connected,” is Cohen’s goal. Deconstructing the mask that inmates must constantly wear through storytelling can be a relief to prisoners. “Acting hard” and “playing the role,” as Puu puts it, undoubtedly has a damaging effect on inmates, far from a rehabilitative one, and for those who have had sufficient time to reflect on and reconsider their lives, Cohen and the TEDx program serve as resources for learning how to be human again. Within the group of inmates who opt to participate, there must be a certain level of trust between them and Cohen that is absent elsewhere; there is no fear of manipulation or being “played.” They are all there with a sincere interest in bettering themselves through storytelling and sharing their life struggles.
“Many of [the inmates] are victims themselves,” says Lesley Currier, director of Shakespeare at San Quentin, a group dedicated to the study and performance of Shakespeare’s classics, “I’ve heard so many stories of 7-year-olds seeing their father shot and killed in front of their eyes, or a 9-year-old being jumped into a gang because both parents are gang members, or a 5-year-old seeing someone come into his apartment and start shooting, or young men who’ve seen their mothers prostitute themselves to put food on the table… There’s such a weight of pain, so many different kinds of pain.”
Getting inmates to leave behind the unhealthy persona required of them is possible with programs like these, but it requires mutual trust between inmate and volunteer. Expressing one’s pain by drawing comparisons between their experiences and Macbeth, a man who decides to commit murder — which is a common experience for some of these men — and then is permanently troubled by that decision, can be a very raw exposition of one’s life and struggles. In these moments, the men “learn how to empathize”; the common human experience is on full display and can be discussed in a way that it cannot be in the recreational yard and that it usually is not with a correctional sergeant or guard.
“Our goal is to be human together. The guards don’t get to do that. Their goal is to maintain everybody’s health and safety. Our goal with an arts program is to explore our shared humanity,” Currier says.
In the cell blocks and under the supervision of guards, inmates learn how to cooperate and behave; in rehabilitative programs like Currier’s and Cohen’s, inmates learn how to empathize and regain humanity. This is the inherent difference between these two spheres of prison life. This is not to say either one is better or more valuable, because they serve two completely different but equally important purposes; one aims to maintain safety, both within and outside the prison, and punish those the justice system has deemed worthy of punishment, while the other aims to heal and fundamentally change inmates, and maybe one day reintegrate them into society.It is also important to keep these two spheres in context because, after all, San Quentin is a prison. The rehabilitative programs that Currier and Cohen run, for instance, are programs that inmates choose to join with the intention of improving their lives. Obviously, many inmates at a state prison are threats to society who are, at least initially, beyond the point of being rehabilitated by an arts program, and certainly would not elect to join one, and therefore must be dealt with by people like Puu.
It is also important to keep these two spheres in context because, after all, San Quentin is a prison. The rehabilitative programs that Currier and Cohen run, for instance, are programs that inmates choose to join with the intention of improving their lives. Obviously, many inmates at a state prison are threats to society who are, at least initially, beyond the point of being rehabilitated by an arts program, and certainly would not elect to join one, and therefore must be dealt with by people like Puu.
In the end, however, rehabilitative programs like Currier’s and Cohen’s have observable positive effects on inmates. “[The inmates] say that they see, through programs like this, that it’s better to get along with people than to hate people,” Currier explains. Not only can the effects of the programs be beneficial for the inmates involved in the program, but arguably for the entire prison population and potentially our society as a whole; “we’ve had men say that they’ve learned how to feel empathy… and the capacity to imagine what it feels like to be somebody else,” Currier says, “It’s a lot harder to hurt someone when you can imagine what they feel.”
Despite all the controversy and debate surrounding the California state prison system—like capital punishment, overcrowding, and underfunding—these types of rehabilitative programs are at least one part of one prison that is doing one thing right: recognizing our common humanity.