With Professor Maura Tarnoff, students from Santa Clara University visited San Quentin State Prison on January, 27, 2019 to participate in a 3-hour Workshop led by Marin Shakespeare Company’s Lesley Currier. Students and inmate actors explored the themes of “justice” and “mercy” through theatre games and Shakespeare readings. Some of the students wrote reflections about the experience:
San Quentin Reflection by Leslie Catano
Going to San Quentin was truly a life changing event in my life that I will often look
back on as time goes on. This experience completely shattered my preconceived notion of what
prison is. I have never been inside a prison and I do not know anyone in prison. I expected the
prisons to be scary hardcore thugs with no joy in their life. But that was not the case. Throughout
the workshop they kept cracking jokes, making everyone laugh, but they were able to get serious
when needed and make themselves vulnerable. The inmates were very excited to interact with us
and they repeatedly expressed their gratitude towards us and told us that we can make a
difference in the world. It was impacting to hear many of the men’s stories because a majority of
them have had a difficult life that I could not imagine going through. From this experience, I
realized how easy it is to see mass incarceration as just a statistic, but once you have a
conversation with these inmates it humanizes the problem. It’s hard to humanize the issue to the
outside world because it is difficult for those on the outside to have an opportunity to go inside a
prison. The inmates informed me about some of their projects in an attempt to bridge this gap
with some examples being a podcast called Ear Hustle and a program Restore Justice. This
experience allowed me to see Stevenson’s ideas and part of his experiences first-hand. One of the
most eye-opening portions of the workshop was towards the beginning when Lesley Currier split
us up into small groups and asked us to define “justice” and “mercy” which were important
concepts of Just Mercy. Many inmates have faced injustices and they shared their own
experiences which opened my eyes to further understand and develop a different definition of
these complicated, intertwined words. As their shared their own stories I became more conscious
of all that has been provided to me and have become more grateful of the opportunities I have,
even the smallest things like walking freely to class. When I came back from the workshop I was
telling all my friends about how this experience was life-changing and many were shocked
because a prison has a negative connotation. As I told my friends they were happy for me but
they didn’t share the same feelings that I did and I realized how Bryan Stevenson was right when
he said this is an issue that we need to get close to. I hope more students are able to attend the
Shakespeare workshop because I think the more people that are able to humanize mass incarceration, the greater chance there is of making a difference.
Reflections by Renzo Huarcaya
Attending San Quentin gave me insight into the prison system of California after we were
introduced to inmates. Before even attending the prison, I was already under the stigma that the
prisoners were going to be stereotypical of the media’s portrayal of inmates. I assumed they were
going to be hesitant of the workshop, slightly ignorant to the ethics of workshops, etc. However,
after meeting the inmates, I completely changed my mindset on those who are residents of the
prison. The title “Prisoner” is simply a title is not a definition of who these people are. The
workshop started off with ice breakers such as introducing ourselves and our interests. The
prisoners were even more engaged than some of the students, including me. Being awake this
early on the weekend, I could tell that the prisoners were overwhelmingly excited to be there.
After splitting up into groups, we had to define justice and mercy in our words. The inmates than
discussed their thoughts and how they aim to solve this issue. One of the prisoners mentioned
that his current interest in law allows him to study morality and its integration into the
courtroom. Their ideas were so eloquently expressed and I was surprised to see how collected
their thoughts were on the United States legislation. They were respectful towards my opinion
and those also in my group. I was genuinely content with seeing the inmates work together with
us to formulate a definition of justice and mercy incorporating both perspectives. We shared our
ideas with the large group and hearing common themes in the definitions made me realize that
these prisoners weren’t that different from us. We moved on to the acting portion of the
workshop where we were split by birthday month and given a prompt to act out. The prisoners
worked very kindly with us to create an appropriate scene to the prompt given. Seeing them act
out the scenes was a spectacle in itself. The inmates were over the top in their acting skill; the
scenes ranged from dramatic and mystic to satirical and comedic. It was truly heartwarming to
see the inmates interact with one another and enjoy their time within the walls of which the law
placed them. At the end of the workshop, we all stepped outside and shared what we gained from
the workshop. A prisoner shared that he sees hope for the future generation after interacting with
us. Another student said she was completely surprised by what she saw and she holds very
positive views on the prisoners than before her brain was washed by the media. One prisoner in
particular than came up my friend and I. He told us how happy he was that he was able to break
the media’s image of prisoners to us just by acting like himself. I hope to do many workshops
like this in the future as I have now gained new perspective into the prison system and the people
that are within those walls.
Reflections by Valeria Rojas
The day started off with us meeting up in front of the Admissions Building and Varsi Hall. The time was 6:30 am, it was about 30 degrees Fahrenheit, the sun had yet to make an appearance and the previous day I had played an entire rugby game; to sum it up, I was tired, cold, aching, and truly contemplating whether I should have even showed up for roll call. We finally got into the bus and I slept the entire ride there, with periods where I would wake up from the sound of my own snoring (slightly embarrassing but regardless, I caught up on the sleep that I had lost). I woke up the final time to Ms. Tarnoff making an announcement that we were about 30 minutes early and we were going to wait in the Target parking lot until we could go into the parking lot of the prison. After waiting those 30 very long minutes, we were finally able to get back on the road and head to San Quentin. At first, I worried that I was not going to be able to get through the gate because I didn’t have the same identification that I had submitted in my clearance form but everything went swimmingly well and we got through the gate within 10-15 minutes.
We got into the prison and it looked nothing like how I expected it to look. I was expecting barbed wire and padlocks and graffiti, but I was completely wrong! It looked like a college campus and once we rounded the corner of the housing units, I saw a whole community playing sports such as baseball and soccer, and inmates being apart of a yoga class. We stopped in front of a classroom looking building and mingled among each other until some inmates came to talk to us. At first, admittedly, I felt queasy, thinking to myself “what did I get myself into?” but once an inmate came up to me and introduced himself, I took the bull by the horns and let loose. I put my hand out to shake his hand but he refused because of a cold (so considerate!) and he showed me the way in. The inmates and our group all went inside and we set up a circle of chairs; one of the inmates pulled up a chair for me and asked me to sit next to him, I was honored. We began to introduce ourselves, Lesley asking us to state our name, our major, and who we defined ourselves as. I went toward the end I said confidently, “I am Valeria Rojas, I’m a neuroscience major, and I’m a rugby player”. The people around me exclaimed in astonishment and curiosity, getting many questions about what position I played and if I could flex my muscles (HAHA I DIED!).
We then got into the part of the workshop in which we split up into smaller groups and discussed what we felt mercy and justice meant to us and if we could act it out. We decided on doing the well-known phrase “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” by covering our eyes, ears, and mouths and one of the inmates volunteered to act as if he was receiving the public death sentencing. The next activity consisted of acting out a certain prompt based on the complexes of mercy and justice, our prompt being “a judge making a decision based on personal experience with the defendant instead of the crime at hand.” I was paired with 2 inmates and 2 classmates. During our closing exercise, we were asked to state a take-away and I said seemed to really resonate with one of the inmates in particular, who came up to me afterward with tears in his eyes and exclaiming that what I had said meant more to him than whatever else everyone had said and I was honored and I gave him a big bear hug and I was even saddened at having to leave them there.
The media and many other news outlets chose to only portray the worst aspects of prison life and inmates. Although, of course, these people have committed crimes and broken the law but many inmates understand the error of their ways and being able to witness for myself that “prison reform” is essentially corralling the misfits of society in a 6 by 8 foot cell without giving them another thought, completely shunned from family and the world…this is not reform at all, this is sweeping the problem under the rug. I feel embarrassed that I believed the narrative that real-life prisons are similar to “Prison Break” or “Narcos Mexico” but I’m glad that I was able to change my opinion and experience this hands-on workshop; it was completely eye-opening and I would recommend it to any one, dare I even say it was life-changing.
Reflection by Celeste
I did not know what to expect when we were walking into the prison. In order to go in with a more open mind, I refrained from researching more about San Quentin and the people it held, and I am glad I did. Once I saw the crowds of prisoners in blue, walking and playing sports in the yard, it was like I had entered an alternate world. Of course, I was a little nervous at the beginning, but once we got into the group and I saw how comfortable the inmates seemed, I relaxed as well.
What hit me the most was during several of the activities we did, I forgot where I really was, and the “type” of people that were around me. I was simply having a good time being creative, and speaking about important topics like justice and mercy. It is just completely different when you look around a room and see how much these two terms really affect people who have endured such struggles as some of the prisoners. It completely altered my perspective of what I even thought justice and mercy was. I got to put myself in the shoes of someone with deep regret for their actions, and I had to try to understand what it would feel like to not feel worthy of mercy.
At times, I found myself being a little emotional hearing the stories of the inmates and then seeing their ability to still be happy, and joyful and crack jokes was very inspirational. I think Bryan Stevenson is 100% correct when he says that in order to fix such a broken justice system as ours, we have to get up close and personal with those affected by it. Only then can you understand the true horrors of the prison-industrial complex. It also was fascinating to see how well versed they all appeared to be in current social issues and political drama. I envisioned them as being cut-off from the outside world completely, but I also feel very grateful for being able to be a part of that learning. Coming from the perspective of a college student, where my priority is to learn, I feel honored to be able to have maybe helped the inmates just a little bit to experience and learn more about the “outside” world.
Overall, I truly felt like going to San Quentin was completely an experience that was only going to be beneficial to myself and enlighten my world view on the harsh stereotypes around prisoners. But as the program went on, and the inmates kept saying how much they got from it too, it was just almost an overwhelming joy that could be felt throughout the room. A beautiful space where people can just feel like regular humans, and forget labels and past actions. I absolutely loved this experience, and would not hesitate to do it again if I had the chance.
San Quentin Reflection by Karina Gonzalez-Lopez
When I was first offered the opportunity to travel to San Quentin with the LEAD
Scholars CTW program, I decided to take it just because it seemed interesting but I did not really
know what to expect; however, after completing the trip and the workshop I am very pleased I
decided to participate. What I found quite interesting about this experience was the way that the
inmates were so open to share and go before everyone in the workshop. In my case, I was very
shy to share or to actually be actively participating however seeing the way that the inmates were
comfortable and pretty much open to anything really helped me in participating more.
Something that I learned while in San Quentin that I wish everyone could see is that the
way in which the media portrays prisoners isn’t actually the way that it is. There are many
entertainment shows that show prisoners as violent and hostile, however, from what I saw, this
was not the case at all. All of the prisoners at San Quentin were very nice and friendly. In fact,
from the looks of it, the prisoners are trusted by the guards because most of the time there was no
actual need for a guard to be in the room with us when inmated were present.
While in the prison, while hearing the stories of the inmates, a connection that I with my
CTW course is the level of injustice that exists. Throughout his book, Bryan Stevenson talks
about the way in which people are often times wrongfully convicted or given long sentences for
small crimes. Hearing about the three strikes law and the way that often times it is not fair to
prisoners when they have only been convicted once or twice seemed really unfair to me. The
concept was not new to me, however, as I had previously learned about it in CTW. Although I
was aware of the issues of mass incarceration, I think that “getting close” to see and hear the
stories of the inmates really was crucial for understanding the issue. The workshop also enabled
me to see this because interacting with the inmates I was able to see that they were actually nice
caring people who were invested and benefiting from the Shakespeare workshops being held
here. This was noticeable as I saw the positive attitude and passion they held when in the
Overall, the experience was a once in a lifetime experience for me. I do not regret going
and am glad that I actually pushed myself out of my comfort zone by going because it taught me
a lot and opened my eyes up to see the truth.
San Quentin Reflection by Astrid Anaya
I have always been interested in the judicial system and the mass incarceration that is
happening in the United States at the moment. I took a sociology course in high school in which
I watched the documentary called “The 13th Amendment” which flourished my interest and from
that point on I watched so many documentaries of the problem we have with mass incarceration.
The media portrays those incarcerated as less than humans because they forfeited any rights as
soon as they broke the law but this is such a narrow way to think. There are innocent people in
prison at the moment but due to their background they could not afford a good representation to
take on their case resulting in them going to prison. The trip to San Quentin allowed me to see
everything for myself and not be misguided by what the media says about those in prisons. I met
so many amazing people who did not have a guide throughout their life resulting in them going
down the wrong path or they did what they did to protect a loved one. I was not there to judge
them but to go get to know them. They were all so friendly and so open with us which is
something I was not expecting. I was in a small group and one of the prisoners was an older
gentle and he gave us so much advice on life. He wanted us to succeed even though he just met
us which I found very heartwarming. They all were like that, they want us all to be someone and
make the world better.
One specific experience that stuck out to me is when one of the prisoners at the end said
that he has hope for the future because of us and that meant so much to me. They all see us as a
solution to the problem that is mass incarceration due to the fact that we went to see them on a
Sunday morning. I got a chance to talk to that same gentleman one-on-one which was a life
changing experience. I never thought I would get the opportunity to get to do that. I expected
them to be closed off but that was not the case, they were all so humorous and lighthearted. They
allowed us to see how they are all humans just like us even though they broke the law. It is easy
to put them in prison and forget about them but that is the wrong way to do things. We have to
give them the tools to succeed when they are released. The Shakespeare program at San Quentin
does just this, they are educated and learning about important people such as Shakespeare. We
read a part to two of his plays and the prisons would tell us the plot line of them which was
impressive. Some of they had not had much education before going to prison so this program
helps them out a lot. It always allows them to express their feelings in a positive way which is
very helpful when you are stuck in a place with no way out and you get stuck in your thoughts.
The trip to San Quentin was life changing and I wish more people took the time to see that they
are people just like us and put more importance on the rehabilitation programs such as the
Shakespeare one because it really does make a difference.
San Quentin Visit Reflection by Marina Menendez
When I first got to San Quentin I, admittedly, felt a bit nervous about what and who I
would encounter during my visit there. I had never been to a prison before and I honestly did not
know what to expect. The workshop we participated in with the prisoners consisted of reading
Shakespeare, interpreting it, and even creating skits while in groups. The work we were doing
with the prisoners allowed us to get very close to them and really engage with them. As the day
progressed, I got to know each of the prisoners and have conversations with them about various
topics. What surprised me the most was how welcoming, inviting, and funny all the prisoners
were. When I was placed in groups with them, no matter the activity, they were always
genuinely interested to know my name, where I was from, and what I was studying at Santa
Clara. The fact that they were so willing to listen to me and equally as willing to share about
their past and their crimes was truly amazing for me.
Each of the prisoners that I encountered at San Quentin treated me with kindness and
respect. When I entered the prison, I held a preconceived notion, like many others, that anyone
who was in prison deserved to be there and could not possibly have a background that included
anything but evil. After speaking with the prisoners at San Quentin I was thoroughly convinced
that the stereotype is not the truth at all. All the prisoners we met at San Quentin had different
backgrounds, ones that included family, love, and much more. Once they became prisoners the
way that people viewed them shifted completely, they were no longer extended the same
compassion and/or humanity that the rest of society is. By going in with an open mind and an open heart I was able to appreciate all the good that the men had to offer. At no point during my
visit did I feel fear around any of the men, on the contrary, they assured me that they wanted us
students to feel safe and happy. By the time my fellow classmates and I left the prison I had
laughed and smiled so much that I genuinely felt as though I was able to see all the men in a new
light. Now that I had the chance to see the men on such a vulnerable level, I understand that they
are much more than just “prisoners”. That label placed on them on society does not allow for
their true nature to shine through.
Reflections by Maria Gutierrez Orozco
The trip to San Quentin was a very enlightening experience. The Shakespeare program there helped me see how our class topics of justice, mercy and education can be applied in a practical way. Reading and writing can serve as a form of healing and reconciliation with one’s self and others, which I did not fully grasp the extent of it until I went to visit the program and participated in various community-building activities with the inmates. Those in the program chose to be there. It shows how they want to get their lives back on track and how it helps them connect with others to build strong relationships. The words of Just Mercy now had a more relatable feeling. Because the author, Bryan Stevenson, worked with death row inmates and got to know a lot about their lives and experiences, he was able to understand where they were coming from. The insight he received from them not only strengthened their relationship but it also provided Stevenson with tools to better support them. Stevenson worked years with his clients, and I only got to experience a fraction of what he did. The workshop proved to me how there is still much to learn on how to change prisons nationally in order to focus on restorative justice rather than punitive justice. Shakespeare at San Quentin gives inmates an opportunity to find ways to express themselves in a healthy way and pick up some skills, while they are doing time, that would be useful in their everyday lives. It is great to see how these programs are leading the campaign towards restorative justice, and I hope the criminal justice system in our country follows the same footsteps in embodying mercy.
San Quentin Prison Reflection by Camila Calle
Through CTW I was able to go on trip to San Quentin, a prison for men located in Marin
County. Going into this experience I was not quite sure what to expect because I had an image of
prison that came from the media growing up. The truth was that I was scared and nervous, but
the best experiences are the ones when you are put out of your comfort zone. The first moment
that stood out to me was when our class passes security and was allowed to walk through the
courtyard, without any guards in sight. The sight of the large courtyard with same many men in
the same color uniform was a sight I had never seen before. This fright that I had within me
slowly went away when the prisoners themselves started coming up and being very friendly to
us. From this moment one I had a wakeup call, I knew that it is true when they say do not believe
everything you see in the news. The conversations we had when separated into groups, were so
meaningful, which showed that these men even though they went through the wrong path at
some point in their life were passionate. Even in prison, which is not a easy place to be they
seemed to find joy being with our class. One quote a prisoner said to my small group that stood
out was, “ Don’t let them tell you that you young people are the future because you guys are also
the present.” These men were so well informed about topics and were so willing to be open about
what had brought them there in the first place. The idea of justice and mercy was talked about in
one of the circle discussions, but this one story really put it into perspective. This one prisoner
shares that he chose justice over mercy when he committed the crime of murdering his sister’s
rapist. These are stories that are hard to talk about and I can’t even imagine having to deal with
that internal debate. This is an example of how the system is broken and also the rule of the three
law. I came out with a whole new mindset about the prison system and people who are part of it.
This is an experience I believe many should have even if they feel uncomfortable doing it
because understanding that the media is not always right is very important.