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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Life… In the Coronapocalypse

In the coming days and weeks, I hope to post more articles and thoughts from former members of the class as they reflect on their lives outside and on those they left behind the walls of San Quentin, especially now during this ongoing COVID catastrophe. This first one comes from Joe Krauter, who paroled in December 2019. -ZM

“The sick have to hunger strike to be heard. Like taking yourself hostage by pointing a gun to your own head to demand fair treatment.”

Life… In The Coronapocalypse

By Joe Krauter

A lot of crap happened to me when I first got out….

My whole parole plan got demolished thanks to a devastatingly unprepared Transitional Housing system; I was forced into a program that had absolutely Zero ability to accommodate me for my mental health needs and requirements, let alone be sympathetic.

If they were sympathetic, I couldn’t tell.

Parole basically told me that I had to ‘suck it up and deal.’

The only person who seemed to give a damn at the first was my clinician issued to me by parole. I’m still grateful for her and still see her to this day.

Lots has happened since then. But I’m choosing to focus on the good that has happened to me in spite of the rough ride that I’ve had since paroling from prison.

I’ve got a good job, helping people during the Coronapocalypse; there are a lot of folks who’ve been displaced [the city’s word for hard working folks becoming homeless because they lost their jobs and therefore couldn’t pay the rent even though there was supposed to be “rent forgiveness”].

I’ve reconnected with old and very loving friends who I thought were gone forever.

And I live in a kickass house with some great people who want nothing but the best for me and try to help me in the best ways possible.

To quote one of my favorite shows, The Simpsons: “Everything’s coming up Milhouse,” meaning that things are looking seriously positive for me for the truly first time in my life. The therapies and tool box I’ve built over the years let me see the good instead of the drowning negative.

I’m even going back to school….

Yes, folks things are looking up. God help me if I lose most of the extra flub I’m carrying around the midsection I’ll think I’m dead and gone to heaven [haha].

I can even learn to cook the favorite foods my family loved to make when I was young. To Honor them, my grandmothers and others who have passed.

As I sit here in this little office at 9:56pm, listening to the sirens of the Tenderloin first responders and the Rattle-Bang-Crash of the number 38 bus zoom by over the steel plates that the city is using to repair the roads. I can’t honestly feel sad right now.

In this, The Coronapocalypse, there is hope and success. Perseverance can overcome this tragedy. The politicians were right in their mouthing of sounds in this regard.

I don’t know if We’re in this together or not…but I see individuals trying and living to overcome this crisis.

I’m inspired by my brothers and sisters in San Quentin doubling down and risking their lives to demand health and safety. The sick have to hunger strike to be heard.

Like taking yourself hostage by pointing a gun to your own head to demand fair treatment.

I owe them these words, folks. I owe them life and living life for them in this Coronapocalypse. I owe them the promises I made to them to live and “never come back.”

For them and for me I will do that.

Coming to you live from the Coronapocalypse, be well and strive folks.

—Joe Krauter

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San Quentin COVID catastrophe


Emile DeWeaver speaking at San Quentin protest on June 28, 2020.
Photo by Paul Kuroda

The current unfolding humanitarian disaster at San Quentin is, I’m sure, not something anyone is just finding out about on July 9, 2020, but just in case you don’t know the details, here is a quick recap. The COVID-19 virus was brought in late May into San Quentin via a transfer of 122 men from California Institute for Men in Chino where the outbreak was raging. Until that time, SQ had been completely COVID-free. (This transfer has been called “The worst prison health screw-up in state history” by Assemblyman Marc Levine.) Within one month, more than 1/3 or possibly 1/2 of the population tested positive, and as of today at least 7 if not more have died (accurate numbers are difficult to obtain). Also, on June 8, another transfer occurred out of SQ, bringing the virus to other prisons where there had been little or no incidence of the virus. The deadly negligence and “reckless indifference” (Judge Tigar’s phrase) of the transfers, the exploding cases of coronavirus and lack of proper care for people once they have tested positive, has created a situation at San Quentin that is an unimaginable nightmare in which people are being sent to solitary confinement for being sick, people testing negative are sharing a cell with people testing positive, people are locked down for 23 or 24 hours a day without access to phone calls or basic hygiene necessities or decent food, many of those who are sick are put in cells which have not been cleaned and don’t have electricity so that they have no means of making a cup of tea or soup or getting the news or even just watching or listening to something to pass the time. These are just a few of the naked facts of the situation inside. James King, in the press conference I watched today, said that a UCSF doctor called the situation at SQ “the Chernobyl of COVID.” James said that he considered it to be the “Hurricane Katrina of COVID,” and that San Quentin was the Louisiana Superdome, only with no cameras to show to the world what it’s like inside.

For us San Quentin Prison Arts Project teachers, it’s taken weeks to jump through all the hoops necessary to start sending packets with lessons and reading material in. So far I have been able to send in one packet. I have tried to keep close tabs on the news and I know that for sure Juan Haines and Rahsaan Thomas from the class have tested positive, and I’m sure there are more. Juan has managed to get some news out about his situation. His reports have been featured on Democracy Now and other news sources.

Because a lot of people ask me what they can do, I am starting to create a very brief resource sheet, which I will continue to update as I go along. This is a non-comprehensive list, just a few things thrown together. Please feel free to let me know of glaring omissions, or great resources that should be included.

Please keep the pressure on Newsom and others (see resource sheet) and please keep praying for the men as they endure this horrific situation. The fact that this is happening in the midst of the George Floyd protests and worldwide outrage over the inhumane treatment of people of color is an unbearable irony.

I’m going to open up this space for former students to post about the current situation. I’m hoping you’ll see some posts coming from here in the very near future.

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Pen Hustle

Brothers in Pen has been featured in a podcast!

There is a wonderful organization in Skagit County, Washington, called Underground Writing, a “literature-based creative writing program serving migrant, incarcerated, recovery, and other at-risk communities in northern Washington through literacy and personal transformation.  Underground Writing facilitates generative readings of literature spanning the tradition—from ancient texts to those written in our workshops.   Honoring the transforming power of the word, we believe that attentive reading leads to attentive writing, and that attentive writing has the power to assist in the restoration of communities, the imagination, and individual lives.”

Last March, the good folks of Underground Writing, Matt Malyon and Alvin Shim, interviewed me about Brothers in Pen. The podcast, entitled “Community Spotlight: Zoe Mullery & Brothers in Pen,” was aired on April 22, and it’s taken me exactly a month to get the word out on this blog. Fortunately, Brothers in Pen doesn’t get old, so listen at your leisure.

On the same day, I read some short excerpts from various pieces from the class, and that recording of me reading those excerpts was released as a separate audiozine. You can hear those here. The following excerpts were selected (note: these are not complete stories but excerpts from stories):

In other Underground Writing news, they invited Brothers in Pen writers to write letters of encouragement and advice to young men and women who are entering juvie, with the idea of including the letters in a kind of hope packet for them as they find themselves in a difficult place. It was a wonderful assignment and many heartfelt letters were written. When UW completes the project, I’ll share from those letters—they were beautiful.

Thanks to Matt and Alvin for creating this bridge between Brothers in Pen and Underground Writing.  I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Zoe, Matt, Alvin

Alvin Shim and Matt Malyon of Underground Writing, making Zoe squint with the radiance of their sincerity


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Making Us Proud

Adnan ReStore JusticeA few months ago I wrote about former Brother in Pen Adnan Khan being the first person to be released under the new law SB1437, which changes the felony murder rule. Adnan has a story in our most recent anthology, Pens Up, Don’t Shoot. Today, I saw this post: Adnan has just been named the Co-Executive Director of Re:Store Justice, an organization founded in 2017 working in partnership with incarcerated people, survivors of crime, district attorneys, and the community. The organization offers such things as victim-offender dialogues, transformative justice classes in prison, Days of Healing for those impacted by violence, legal representation, advocacy, re-entry work, and more.

Thanks, Adnan, for making us proud and giving your time and energy to serving others with your many gifts! And you look really sharp in that suit.

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Hobnobbing with the stars

Kenny Brydon sent this photo of him and his old pal Joyce Carol Oates at a reading at City Lights Bookstore. Joyce Carol Oates was the editor of Prison Noir (clutched in Kenny’s hand), a collection of prison stories which included a story by Kenny.

Kenny and joyce

A couple of nights later, Kenny and I were both at City Lights for a reading of a good friend of Brothers in Pen, Keith Scribner, who gave a reading from his new novel Old Newgate Road. I’m already well into my collector’s item autographed copy and I’m hooked…Keith Kenny Zoe

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John Brown’s Body lives on

Screen Shot 2019-02-16 at 6.08.44 PMIn 2002, director Joe De Francisco produced a single performance of the play John Brown’s Body at San Quentin, after nearly three years of rehearsals under extremely difficult conditions. The performance entered legend status. (I am sad to say that I heard about the performance at the time and had no idea what a powerful and historic moment I could have experienced firsthand. I still regret it.) In 2013, Joe released the moving documentary John Brown’s Body at San Quentin Prison to much acclaim. He has now made available for free the film of the entire original performance. Both the documentary about the play and the play itself are so worth watching. You can find both on his website along with a study guide.

Four out of the nine cast members are alums of the creative writing class: J.B. Wells, Larry Miller, Ronin Holmes, and Noble Butler. JB and Noble were both present at our first Brothers in Pen Reunion last October. Ronin, I hear, is at Solano where he continues to perform Shakespeare and, I hope, write stories, and I’d love to hear from Larry Miller again, who had poetry in our very first anthology. Larry?

John Browns Body guys

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“The restorative power of creative writing: Incarcerated people find healing through the written word”

This is the lovely article that was written about our Annual Public Reading in October, and published in the San Quentin News

Inmates captivated a San Quentin audience of more than 100 on Oct. 20 in the Catholic chapel. They told stories inspired by their childhood, life in prison, dreams and nightmares.

  • Brothers in Pen creative writing group           (photo: Peter Merts)

More than 20 inmates read the stories they had written with the encouragement of instructor Zoe Mullery.“Writing—that’s what saved me in prison,” said Joe Camacho, a former prisoner and alumnus of the writing program called Brothers in Pen. “It became a survival skill to take the stress away and to not think about where I was at.”

“Writing—that’s what saved me in prison. Four years ago, Zoe promised to make me famous,” said inmate author James R. Metters Jr. before reading Pops, a story about his absentee father. “Today, I feel famous.”

“I don’t feel like their instructor,” said Mullery. “I consider myself a real member of the group.

“I’ve learned so much from everybody’s stories about what it means to be human.”

For the first time in the event’s 12-year history, formerly incarcerated alumni returned to San Quentin to listen to their fellow writers at the event. Included were Camacho, Carl Irons, Watani Stiner and J.B. Wells.

“When I first started writing, I was angry at the government, angry at myself— just angry,” Stiner recalled. “I wanted to tell my story and set the historical record straight.

“I’ll never forget Zoe’s annoying little comments on my work. Who is this White girl telling me how to write my story? But what she was doing was helping me to pull back the layers of my story.”

“This is my third year at this event, and each year my heart is healed even deeper,” said Tammy Appling-Cabading, marketing and communications director for St. Mary’s College. “I continue to learn, continue to grow.”

“What an amazing adventure today has been,” said retired teacher Mary Prophet, who worked with Education Not Incarceration. She directed her questions about criminal justice reform toward Charles Daron and his harrowing account of violent retaliation from Corcoran corrections officers in the ’90s.

“Restorative justice has to take place in an individual,” Daron reflected, “and only when that individual is ready.”

“I try and focus on the solutions,” added inmate author Charles “Talib” Brooks, who first learned to read and write in prison and has since achieved a GED.

“It’s really fabulous—getting to interact with you guys and listen to your stories,” observed Alice Morison. She explained that her great-grandfather, Josiah Parker Ames, had been a warden at SQ in the 1880s. “Especially to see this prison evolve from a penal colony model to a rehabby model.”

The outside guests were particularly interested in understanding what drives these men to write.

“When I write, I fly; I’m out of here,” Richie Morris explained. “I’m in a place where I know I’m finding healing.”

“I remember a letter my grandson wrote to me,” shared Alex Briggs, who held the child as an infant 24 years ago before starting his incarceration. “He said he only knows me through my stories.”

“Coming in here has always been difficult for me in many ways,” Stiner said. “I spent 26 years total in prison, and I see men I’ve walked the yard with.

“For me to be out and knowing that these men are in here is hard. I know that they would serve society better out there.”

“I’ve been inspired by a lot of the men I’ve met in prison,” said prisoner Kevin D. Sawyer. “When I write, I try and have an underlying political message, because I want people to think.”

“People in here are every bit as smart as any random cross-section of the outside population,” said Carol Newburg, project manager for SQ’s Prison Arts Projects. “The experience of coming in and talking to people here— there’s nothing else quite like it.”

“How many times do you have the opportunity to visit with inmates at a prison like this, known worldwide?” asked Mike Mullery, Zoe’s father, who came with her whole family. “When she asked us to come, we were all totally ready.”

Complete anthologies of current and past events are available at


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Emile’s Freedom Isn’t Even New Anymore

emileI have been slow in reporting on the excellent reality of Emile DeWeaver’s gigantic freedom. Jerry Brown commuted his sentence from 67 years to the 20 he’d already served. He has been out since I think September. I saw him. It’s really true. He is thriving and smiling that big Emile smile. Why didn’t I take a photo? I stole this one off the internet, a place where you can find many things about Emile. You’ll have to take my word for it. Emile is DeWeavering the world so nimbly and magnificently.

Soon I will interview him for this blog and get some Emile reflections straight from the man himself. Meanwhile, he wrote about his commutation with typical DeWeaver eloquence, so I will let him speak for himself.

Redemption is not just for me

Gov. Jerry Brown commuted my sentence in December from 67 years to life to 20 years to life — a rare act of mercy. I had imagined the effects of a commutation on my life; the commutation’s effect on incarcerated people at San Quentin State Prison, though, surprised me. The night of my commutation, men cheered in their cells like the 49ers had just won the Super Bowl. It felt fantastic to hear men call out to me with joy, but I also recognized that they weren’t cheering for me. They were applauding something much more important than me.

That “something” is difficult to convey, as it showed up in emotions more than in concrete events. In their questions, I heard a thousand times: Emile, why do you take so many self-help classes? Why are you always reading? Who are you trying to impress? These questions didn’t come from everyone; but when they came, they felt loaded with judgment.

I felt like people wanted to tear me down.

I was wrong, people hadn’t wanted to tear me down. Their concerns were analogous to those of Denzel Washington’s character in the film “Fences.” He degraded his son’s sports dreams in a misguided attempt to protect his son from disappointment. Listening to them cheering for my commutation, I realized that what I’d taken as judgment was fear for me. My questioners had anticipated my “inevitable disappointment” and wanted to protect me, in their imperfect way.

Now they cheered, because they’d been wrong. And they’d never been happier to be wrong.

“They don’t give that kind of stuff to people like us, you know?” one man told me. “That kind of stuff is only for other people.” He had a thunderstruck look that reminded me of my own arrival at San Quentin. I met dozens of free people (volunteers in the prison) who wanted me to succeed — which wasn’t consistent with my internal narrative about a society that wanted me to fail. I’d found a community that wanted me, and I had never admitted to myself how desperately I wanted that. It proved an epiphany in my rehabilitation.

Six years later, I witnessed a similar moment of realization by the man who thought commutations were only for white people or rich people. His narrative, common in prison, about an “entire system” arrayed against him, was cracking.

A father spoke to a room of incarcerated journalists who work on the prison newspaper and radio news program about the effects of my commutation on him. “Before Emile, I wasn’t doing anything,” he said. “I didn’t care … I was never going home. Now, I’m going to do something.”

His sentiment isn’t isolated; I’ve watched it spread from man to man all month. I’m at the middle of how Gov. Brown’s act of mercy fuels exponential change. People who said they “didn’t care” are admitting to themselves that they both want to care and can be restorative members of their communities. They’re energized to transform their lives; and their transformations can change the lives around them, just as my transformation ripples through the world around me.

Media coverage billed me as “a more obvious choice” for clemency and a model of rehabilitation. I’m humbled. And I respectfully offer that in 20 years I learned to be this man from a lot of worthy men who don’t have my writing skills and so don’t have my visibility. Hundreds of them will file for a commutation this year. Imagine the power to spread transformation in a hundred acts of mercy.


(This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on Feb. 1, 2018.) 

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