Thanksgiving in North Block, through the years

Juan Moreno Haines is a pillar of the Brothers in Pen creative writing class. (Us short people like to be called pillars from time to time.) I believe he joined the class in 2010, so at 13 years in he’s crept up on record holders Kenny Brydon (14 years) and Watani Stiner (13 years) for longest continuous membership in the class. He has been a pillar in the sense of upholding all we do in this class, from writing stories, listening intently and generously to other people’s stories, deeply engaging in discussions of literature, welcoming guests, and putting on our “annual” public reading (sometimes a bit of a longer stretch between events… I think we may have one coming up at the end of April). He has looked for ways to support the practicalities of running the class, from helping us manage our NEO word processor fleet to helping us get stories printed and sometimes even emailed. He notices when people are struggling and persistently walks in Arnulfo Garcia’s footsteps in terms of seeing people’s hidden gifts and calling them out. He’s got his little black book in his shirt pocket to help him keep track of all the projects, people, story ideas, to-dos, appointments, birthdays, pertinent facts, middle-of-the-night genius moments… seems to work well for him.

Every year since 2015, Juan has written a piece at Thanksgiving, “Thanksgiving in North Block,” which he mails out to a wide circle of friends. I have posted a couple of them on this site, but have been meaning to put them all together and post them as one Juanish swoop through the years. I seem to be missing 2018 and 2019; if I can round those up I will add them to the document… but for now click here to find Thanksgiving in North Block, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2020, 2021, and 2022. Thanksgivings due to Juan.

PS I’m not even going to mention that this is the first post I’ve made since 2020. I won’t try and describe the strange difficulties of communication I’ve experienced. I’m hoping this post is the first to break a logjam.

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So much. Too much.

Art by Osbun Walton, shared by Talib Brooks

I am, as usual, way behind in keeping up with all that is going on. So much to share. Charles “Talib” Brooks got out of prison a month ago! I was able to host him and Jonathan Chiu — who also was briefly a member of Brothers in Pen, and who also was released from prison recently, in May — on a Zoom forum talking about the situation at San Quentin, and they both had much to say. Talib’s first Zoom! I started to put together a Google doc with resources for further reading, including articles featuring Jonathan. And just yesterday, Talib came out with a wonderful article, “Writing Through Prison Storms,” in PLACES journal that explores some of his experience — and his cellmate’s another Brother in Pen, Walton — during the pandemic inside San Quentin. Please take a look at that great article, and share your comments, and join me in being grateful that Talib has lived to tell the story of his ordeal at SQ, and to remember those still there–including Walton. Some of Walton’s stories are or will be posted on this blog’s page, Lockdown Stories.

Make Skeletons Dance by C. K. Gerhartsreiter

I haven’t yet posted about Prison Renaissance’s wonderful art show “Meet Us Quickly,” curated by Brother in Pen Rahsaan Thomas, at the Museum of the African Diaspora. Brother in Pen writer C. K. Gerhartsreiter has a painting in the show entitled “Make Skeletons Dance” that employs the use of nautical signal flags. Prison Renaissance is auctioning off all the paintings; 85% of the proceeds will go to the artist, and 15% to Prison Renaissance. Make a bid by December 15 to buy a painting!

There have been so many other things happening that I have not reported here. Did I REALLY fail to post that Rahsaan Thomas, as a co-host of Ear Hustle, was a finalist for the PULITZER PRIZE?? I was absolutely sure that I had posted about that, but evidence seems to prove otherwise. THE PULITZER PRIZE! The actual Pulitzer Prize. I know they didn’t win — This American Life did — but being a finalist means you got as close as you can get to winning, and just think about how many podcasts there are in the universe right now. Good storytelling continues to be a necessity in the life of our culture. Congratulations to Earlonne, Nigel, and to our own Rahsaan “New York” Thomas, the story man.

from the Guardian article,

Juan Haines and Kevin Sawyer had a great article in the Guardian, a tremendously respected journal, about a mock election held at San Quentin. Shortly thereafter, my parents called me up one day and said “Juan’s on TV!” He was being interviewed by the BBC, and my parents not only happened to catch it, but were tech-savvy enough to record it. A story Juan wrote in the class, “Shadows and Shades,” also won the PEN Fielding A. Dawson Prize for fiction, and was featured in a special live PEN event read by the wonderful actor Elvis Nolasco. You can see it here.

Former Brother in Pen Wayne Boatwright continues to post insightful and provocative articles on Medium, coming out of the higher education he received at San Quentin.

Aly Tamboura helped resurrect the San Quentin News, and got Kenny Brydon, SQ News’ first Editor-in-Chief after its 2008 resurrection, writing for it again as well as many others. Aly’s daughter Alyssa also made the news by starting a program to help mediate relationships between families and incarcerated loved ones, which during COVID has also morphed into sending books to children of incarcerated parents.

More to say but I will stop there for now, and post more soon. Please keep checking back with this blog’s LOCKDOWN STORIES page, as I will continue posting stories as I receive them and get them typed. Thank you for your interest and please share your thoughts in the comments, if you like.

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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)


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




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