Lockdown Stories

Gary Harrell and Roy Gilstrap, “The Cell,” 2013. Mixed media diorama, 12 H x 17 W x 6 D.
Photo by Peter Merts.

COVID-19 ended all in-person classes in March; the last time I was in the classroom was on March 11. It took awhile, but by early June a “distance-learning” setup began which, while agonizingly slow and inconsistent and unsatisfying, at least is something and not nothing as the residents of San Quentin live through an unprecedented nightmare.

As stories come to me now through the institutional mail, I wanted to start posting some of them here (with explicit permission from the authors) as they get typed up. (Please note that all rights to these stories remain with the authors.) Some of these are fiction, and some are direct experiences of their COVID afflictions. As you read, please feel encouraged to respond in the comments so I know there’s some engagement.

You can find lockdown stories HERE (or go to the Lockdown Stories tab on the menu).

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The Prison Within

The Prison Within, a new documentary featuring former Brother in Pen Troy Williams, was released on August 25, and it’s a beautiful film. Troy’s rumination on his journey into the heart of restorative justice works to weave and bookend the elements of the film together. Here’s a quote from a great review in The Guardian:

In an astonishing feat of empathy, the Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG) program pairs an offender with a “surrogate victim”, who is a person hurt by a similar crime, whether it be rape, robbery or murder. In tearful conversations, the offender and victim share their experiences and find common ground. In that way, restorative justice serves victims as well as the offenders, helping both heal from trauma to better reintegrate into society. Emotionally, victims are in a prison too.

I found this film to be such a compelling exploration of the nature of trauma, and even more rare, the nature of healing and restoration, both personal and collective. Throughout the film in various ways, it was apparent that deep healing is not a solo path, but something that requires role models and companions, and that the willingness to allow oneself to enter those emotionally complex and excruciating places in the presence of others is part of the redemption. One of the taglines for the movie is “Everyone has a story,” which resonates richly for me in the experience of the creative writing workshop at San Quentin–and this documentary highlighted that it’s not only that everyone has a story but that we need to hear each other’s stories, we need to tell our stories. It is rare in our individualistic culture to find a message so deeply rooted in the ways that our healing is bound up with each other.

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny…” –MLK

Restorative justice shines bright in this film as the path that intersects compassion, justice, accountability, and mercy. It stirs a longing in me to live in a world where this is practiced. What would the world be like if children were steeped in how to process pain, be accountable for wrongs, give and receive forgiveness, and be reconciled with one another? And not just taught it but had it modeled, over and over, all around them? As this film streamed into my living room during a time of pervasive and dangerous division in our country, I felt the urgency of being a part of the trajectory it described: where a woman’s experience of brutal torture as a child makes her uniquely equipped to make profound connection with men who have committed tragic crimes… where a man who committed a heartless murder finds himself uniquely equipped to bring healing and a release from bitterness to a woman whose husband was murdered mercilessly. Such counter-intuitive and paradoxical movements feel like the very kind of thing that is most needed at this moment in the life of our world. As one who seeks to follow the teachings of Jesus, I would describe these movements as very Jesus-y in the way that life surprisingly, unexpectedly, comes out of death, and things that were done in the grip of evil end up being put to the service of good.

This movie is rentable or purchase-able on Youtube, iTunes, and Amazon (but we should all permanently boycott Amazon as much as possible so don’t get it there 🙂 ).

A bonus tidbit is that Troy got to meet Jordan Peele and Lupita Nyong’o at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (where The Prison Within won the Social Justice Award for Documentary Film).

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Inside prison, he said, “there is genius and there’s compassion and there’s creativity.”

Check out a new article featuring our beloved Emile DeWeaver, in a story highlighting the fact that “violent offenders” may be some of the people our communities most need out here.

Along the way, Emile mentions the importance of writing… and the photographer captured this authorial gaze.

“California could cut its prison population in half and free 50,000 people. Amid pandemic, will the state act?” by Jason Fagone, SF Chronicle 08-14-2020. photo by Santiago Mejia

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Ronnie Goodman, beautiful soul

I was very sad to learn that the artist Ronnie Goodman died in his homeless encampment on 16th and Capp. I met Ronnie in San Quentin where he was a fixture in the art studio. He did the covers for two of our anthologies and was beloved by many in and out of San Quentin. I was so glad when he got out and was able to enjoy painting, running, and breathing in the beauty of the city.

I didn’t know Ronnie as well as many people in Arts in Corrections at San Quentin, but I knew enough to know that he was a gentle and generous soul who walked lightly in this world, giving himself away. I’m heartbroken to hear that he died so young when he still had so much to give that the world needs. But it’s clear he touched many, many people in his 60 years on this planet.

Thank you, Ronnie.

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“Aren’t You Grateful You’re Not In Prison Anymore?”

An OG’s Perspective by Watani Stiner

This article will be featured in a forthcoming issue of the San Quentin News.

Arnulfo Garcia, Juan Haines, pre-parole Watani, and Kevin Sawyer at a Creative Writing annual reading, 2014 (photo by Peter Merts)
Watani returns to San Quentin post-parole in 2015 and is welcomed warmly (photo from Life of the Law 2015)

Watani Stiner was interviewed by his former creative writing teacher, Zoe Mullery, on July 22, 2020, regarding the outbreak of Coronavirus at San Quentin State Prison. Watani paroled from San Quentin in January 2015 after serving 26 years (5 from 1969-1974, when he escaped; 21 more from 1994-2015 after he voluntarily returned from being a fugitive in South America, in order to assist his children to be able to come to the US.)

ZOE: Watani, you were telling me that you were having a reaction to some things you have heard well-meaning family members and other people say about the situation in San Quentin. Can you tell me what you were feeling about the questions they were asking you?

WATANI: What’s going on inside San Quentin and the situation with COVID-19 that’s devastating that place—for someone who was inside for 21 straight years, that brings up a whole lot of feelings inside of me. Even though I’m out of San Quentin now, the relationships with people I grew to love and who I worked with for 21 years are very much alive. When people talk about what’s going on inside San Quentin now it’s always framed like: “Aren’t you grateful you’re not in prison anymore?” It’s not that simple. I have deep relationships that were formed over many years of incarceration. And now I’m out. And it’s as if I’m supposed to feel like I won the lottery and now I’m good, and those who are left behind are the losers, the unfortunate ones. It’s not meant to be insensitive, but there’s just a whole bunch of reactions inside of me when I hear that. Because I know the thoughts, the struggles, of those still inside, and it’s impossible for me to disconnect myself from that. It’s hard for me to say ME, it’s still WE.

Continue reading
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‘I’m being treated like I’m not a person’

I posted about the article in the Chronicle that came out on July 25 featuring Brothers in Pen writers Troy Williams and Watani Stiner. Another article also came out in the Chronicle on July 30 for which I was interviewed: “‘I’m being treated like I’m not a person’: Fear and disease inside San Quentin.” It quotes former members of the class Adnan Khan and Wayne Boatwright, and considers what it’s like inside in the midst of COVID. I have appreciated that the Chronicle has kept the story in the headlines and has covered it empathetically.

You can read it here.

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Juan Haines keeps reporting from inside the nightmare

Juan Moreno Haines has been a pillar in the creative writing class for more than 10 years. I linked to one of Juan’s stories in a previous post, but I think his ongoing reporting deserves a post of its own. Juan published a pre-COVID story back in February, ominously, about how when you get sick at San Quentin you end up in solitary confinement. Now he’s tested positive for COVID-19 and was placed in solitary confinement. He has continued to write and has gotten his articles and updates out via phone calls when they were still allowed, and through the mail. It seemed worthwhile to try and gather them here as part of the ongoing story of what is happening with my students and everyone else at San Quentin.

(Photo by Peter Merts, 2017)

IN SAN QUENTIN PRISON, GETTING THE FLU CAN LAND YOU IN SOLITARY CONFINEMENT (02-20-2020 in The Appeal)

Inside Prison Amid Coronavirus Pandemic: Incarcerated Journalist Says Millions Behind Bars at Risk (03-17-2020 on Democracy Now)

IN OVERCROWDED SAN QUENTIN, CORONAVIRUS SHELTER-IN-PLACE MEASURES MEAN DECREASED QUALITY OF LIFE (04-16-2020 in The Appeal)

AFTER MORE THAN 25 YEARS BEHIND BARS, HE’S AT HIGH RISK FOR CORONAVIRUS. NOW HE’S GOING HOME (05-14-2020 in The Appeal)

IN THE MIDDLE OF A PANDEMIC, PRISONERS AT SAN QUENTIN ARE PUNISHED FOR BEING SICK (06-23-2020 in The Appeal)

“Man Down:” Left in the Hole at San Quentin During a Coronavirus Crisis (07-07-2020 in The Appeal)

AT SAN QUENTIN, OVERCROWDING LAID THE GROUNDWORK FOR AN EXPLOSIVE COVID-19 OUTBREAK (07-21-2020 in The Appeal)

At San Quentin, a Desperate Man Goes on Hunger Strike to Protest Conditions in a COVID-19 Isolation Unit (08-10-2020 in Solitary Watch)

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Two important articles about the dire situation at San Quentin

Two students in the Creative Writing class, Rahsaan Thomas and Kevin Sawyer, just came out with big articles about the COVID nightmare they are living through.

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After 23 years at SQ, concern for so many still there suffering

Having spent 23 years (of my 39 total in prison) in the small community of San Quentin, the people with whom I did this time—and many were there the entire period—are of course a source of concern for me here and now.

I was at San Quentin during outbreaks of norovirus and chicken pox. Seeing what it was like to go through them, it was not difficult to predict the inevitable when something came along which was spread so much easier. I heard Juan Haines talking on Democracy Now about this as not a question of “if” this would happen, but “when.”

The idea of treatment and containment of this virus is not a simple matter. There are those who have no trust at all in what medical will do. I have known many individuals who served decades without seeing a doctor. After a botched colonoscopy on myself—the effects of which cause me pain to this day—many refused to undergo the same procedure, and I cannot blame them. Even after the ruling back in 2008 that the California prison medical was grossly inadequate, nothing really changed. Maybe improvements have come about in the three years since I paroled, but there is a culture of CYA (Cover Your Ass) which consumes all sorts of time and effort… That isn’t to say there are no caring and concerned staff; they are there. But they must maneuver the landmines of manipulations of the incarcerated, and staff who declare them “Inmate Lovers.”

And so the broken prison medical system ran head-on into the cataclysmic events which are defining so much of everyone’s lives. I’d like to think that out of this crisis there will be more that is good rather than bad for our society. I am not deluded that utopia is on the horizon, or for that matter Armageddon. I only hope that many who are suffering will recover, including two San Quentin sergeants who I knew as caring and compassionate.

Stay as safe as you possibly can, wherever you are.

Ken Brydon

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San Quentin’s 8:46

The chillingly slow, savagely calm, brutally calculated murder of George Floyd on video by a uniformed officer with his hands in his pockets, impervious to any cries for relief from either the man he is kneeling on or the bystanders or even a fellow officer… this murder’s eight minutes and forty-six seconds opening into infinity, on repeat, an endless, reverberating echo of hundreds, tens of thousands, millions of others subjected to the same shocking disregard for the sacredness and value of their lives— that same knee is now on the neck of people at San Quentin, where from a close but unbridgeable distance those on the outside are forced to watch helplessly, hearing their pleas for mercy, while the state seems to smirk with its hands in its pockets. The helplessness, outrage, grief and anxiety of this bystander is amplified exponentially by the thousands directly experiencing it, yet there seems to be no amount of agony that changes the outcome or influences the hearts of those whose decisions shape the situation. That is how I see the parable of George Floyd; that is the heart-crushing reality: no amount of suffering, entreaty, or appeal to God seems to stir the conscience or sympathy or sense of justice or meaningful action of those who have been entrusted with tremendous power over the lives of others.

An article came out in the Chronicle today with Watani Stiner, Troy Williams and I talking about the effect of programs being shut down in San Quentin. It’s a good topic, one of the many things to talk about in the ever-worsening Superdome catastrophe that is San Quentin in a pandemic, and I’m glad that the Chronicle has been covering the story. But it felt very weird to have this cheerful, laughing photo accompany such a painful topic. I wrote a comment for the online version of the article today:

Thanks to the Chronicle for ongoing coverage of the devastation at San Quentin. As one of the people featured in the lead photo, though, I feel an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance at our big moment of laughter next to an article about the tremendous anguish of thousands of people as if we were yucking it up while San Quentin suffers. The photographer, Brandon Ruffin, took a whole lot of photos that were serious and lent themselves to the tone of the subject, and I’m not sure what the editorial process was in choosing this particular one as the lead for this story. It makes me think about how our emotions are affected by certain juxtapositions. While it’s a photo that did capture the camaraderie of that moment, I feel moved to write this response to say to anyone affected by the situation at San Quentin that the lightheartedness of that photo does not reflect the concern, mourning, outrage and distress we were discussing, the direness of the situation of my students and their families and loved ones and all the rest of those incarcerated at San Quentin in the midst of this catastrophe. (I also feel awkward that we took our masks off for the photo… as someone who tries very hard to be diligent about pandemic safety.) My heart is heavy from morning till night over this situation, and my prayers are frequent for all those affected.  –Zoe Mullery

Please continue to advocate, pray, write letters…

“In God’s hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all humanity.” —Job 12:10

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