Terrell “Big T,” 49

Terrell “Big T,” 49

Meet Terrell “Big T”…

People shouldn’t give up hope, like I once did. When we give up hope, we also give up on our loved ones.

Terrell “Big T,” 49

Incarcerated: 31 years

Interviewed by Edwin, in the West block of San Quentin

I took a deal of 18 to Life. My attorney told me if I took the plea bargain I would be getting out of prison in 10 years. That was in 1991. I am finally paroling on September 21, 2022. When I was 18 I had the belief system of a gang member living by the rules of the streets. I came in as a level IV inmate and was sent to Calipatria State Prison where things were different. I was told by the older guys (OGs)  I was never going home. Months later I went to the Security Housing Unit (SHU) and continued with my attitude of not caring about anything in life.

Tell me about your experience here at San Quentin. 

It’s a lot more peaceful in comparison to the other prisons I’ve been to. In fact, this is the most peaceful place that I have ever been.

Did SQ help you with your personal growth? 

Yes, the groups that were available to me, and I would say the inmates helped. More inmates are trying to go home in SQ than any other place I’ve been to.”

What are you taking from this whole experience in regards to your incarceration?

People shouldn’t give up hope, like I once did. When we give up hope, we also give up on our loved ones. We give up on a future we are capable of having in the free world.”

You came in at 18 and now you are going out at 49. What do you want to tell an 18 year kid old that is currently going through what you experienced? 

I would share the crazy things that I’ve been through in prison and the crazy stuff I have witnessed. To get a trade, an education, and to think about his future. This is more important than the homies. More importantly to think about his family and how he can help them once he is out of prison. 

If you could wind the hands of time back, what would you do differently? 

I would go back to when I was 15. I would stay in sports, continue with my education, and stay away from drug dealing and gang banging. I would help my family.

 What did you miss the most in your life while incarcerated? 

My family’s love. I missed raising my kids and knowing my nieces, nephews and granddaughter.

What’s next for you?

I  am settling down with my childhood sweetheart. I just want to have a happy life and experience an honest life. I am looking forward to fishing, boating, and picnicking and finally getting my drivers license for the first time. 

What is your biggest fear going out? 

Making any kind of mistake that will bring me back to prison. I said mistakes because I don’t intend to intentionally break any kind of laws. I just want to enjoy life with family, friends, and loved ones. 

Douglas, 58

Douglas, 58

Meet Douglas…

Who were you then and who are you now?
I am a survivor and my hope and my prayer is that in telling my story, someone will hear it and know that they are not alone. This is something that we deal with as child survivors. We feel that we are alone and have no one to turn to – especially behind these walls.

Incarcerated: 30 years

I am an artist, a woodworker, a cabinet maker and a bead-work 

I didn’t find out I was Native American until I was a teen. My father wouldn’t recognize it. As far as he was concerned, my mother’s heritage was Scottish and Irish, not Blackfoot Indian. 

It wasn’t until I reached a point in my healing where I could talk to my father again. It took me 36 years. October 1982 was our last fight. I was home on leave. A situation came up where he was bent out of shape and tried to take it out on my brother, Len. I wasn’t going for it. My father became violent and we got into a fistfight. My mom turned around with a skillet in her hand and said we wouldn’t fight in HER kitchen and we needed to take it outside. 

How did your relationship with your father impact you? 

I lived in absolute terror of my father. You need to understand that my father was abusive on all possible levels. He molested me when I was seven. It’s something that I’ve learned to handle with a lot of work. I couldn’t live locked away anymore. In my father’s household, boys don’t cry and don’t show emotion, so I shut down. The only emotion acceptable to my father was anger. 

How did this abuse impact you once you enlisted? 

I enlisted in the Navy at 17. I wanted to visit places around the world I hadn’t seen. Our family summer vacations were on average a month-long and my parents would load up the camper and we’d go camping. We went to Alabama, Arkansas, and by the time I was 17, I had been in all of the lower 48 states. I wanted to go overseas and the Navy gave me that opportunity. By 21, I had a first-class education in Aviation Electronics.  I got to travel overseas, all over the Pacific Rim, see countries and places that most people only dream of, got paid to do it, and had an absolute blast. In the military I learned the way my father raised me was set in stone. At home my job in life was to protect my younger brothers and sisters. By the time I got out of the service, between my training and the way that I was raised, I didn’t see Scott as a person, when I took his life, he was a target. I emasculated him because of my childhood trauma of being harmed and my anger towards all sex offenders and child molesters. I didn’t have the tools I have now to deal with someone hurting the girls. If someone hurt them they answered to me. It was like flipping a switch, especially after I found out he raped my friend’s wife. 

Who were you then and who are you now? 

I am a survivor and my hope and my prayer is that in telling my story, someone will hear it and know that they are not alone. This is something that we deal with as child survivors. We feel that we are alone and have no one to turn to – especially behind these walls. I’m working on accepting how empty I was of empathy, compassion, and feelings. The Victim Offender Education Group and the Veteran’s Healing Veterans Program laid the groundwork for the trauma and healing. They helped me deal with my criminal thinking, how I wrongly took the law into my own hands. I had to learn that contrary to how I was raised, taking an action like that is not my responsibility. I am not the law. It’s helped to tell my story and to be able to walk side by side with my sister on our path of healing. She’s the one that got me to understand that forgiving my father was not for him, but for myself.  

What would you tell your dad if he was alive right now? 

I was able to tell him for the first time in 45 years that I loved him. “I’m not going to mourn your death, we will celebrate the other side because you’re going to begin the next stage of your journey.” The only thing I ask is that when you see Grandpa, you do it with a smile on your face and peace in your heart.” 

After 35 years, what would you tell Scott if he was here now?  

I’d love to be able to tell him that I am so sorry for what I did to him because he didn’t deserve to have his life taken away. There is no possibel way I can make amends to his family for what I took from him and them, all those birthdays and special events missed because of my actions.  I ask myself now, “Who did I think I was to take him away from his family? What right did I have to take his life?” None. There’s no excuse or justification for my actions. With the work that I’ve done, you would think it would get easier to talk about, but it gets harder because I’m not shutting anything down inside myself. 

Do you forgive your father, do you forgive Scott? 

Scott has nothing for me to forgive him for, it’s the other way around. Whether he did what was said or not, or what I believed at that time. Fast forward a lifetime, I understand that it doesn’t matter what he did or didn’t do. What I did, doesn’t change it. I’ve come to terms and I’m at peace with the fact that I may spend the rest of my life in prison. Would I like to spend time with my sister,  daughter and grandkids? Yeah, I’d love to be able to do that, but the bottom line is: there’s a price to pay and I’m okay with paying that price. I accept the consequences. 

📸 Dougles’

🎤Interviewed by Edwin and Miguel, our inside West Block Correspondents  

Richard (Rock), 53

Meet Rock…

…people have different perceptions in their head about people and that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

Richard “Rock” 53

Incarcerated: 30 years

At nine, I was short and had a stance, so they called ‘lil Rock.’ When I got bigger, it became Rock, I was a gang member from Southern California, was never jumped and had no gang activity in prison. 

You say you’re hard-nosed and a hard ass, but you’re a big teddy bear, right?

Yeah, I love to help people, I have a soft spot for others in-need. I learned it from my mother, Vilma. One day she was working at the food bank and was given her favorite food, chili cheese pastrami fries. An individual asked her for some and she said, “No, here’s five dollars, go get your own.” That’s my mom, she’s always helped people no matter what. 

How long did it take to get your first visit in prison? 

28 years. He was my AA counselor, but since Covid, he hasn’t been able to come back. 

How do you feel about having a visit? 

I was nervous and excited at the same time. The visiting room felt like freedom, women’s perfumes, babies running around, ladies laughing and crying with their families, you didn’t have that funky feet smell. It was like Thanksgiving dinner, with chips and pies, women and babies. It was a different and beautiful atmosphere. Even though it took me almost 30 years to get a visit, I thought I’d never get a visit in prison, I thought, wow, someone is taking time out of their life to come and see me in prison. I almost cried. 

Why did you decide to go to school?

Two years after I came to prison, I was involved in a riot. It was the same year my mom passed away. She sent me her last letter saying, keep your head up and stay strong and don’t let anyone tell you differently. It inspired me to get my high school diploma. It took me 17 tries until I passed.  One of my teachers, Joy Aechebocker, told me if I passed, she would put me in the junior college program. It took me four years to get an AA degree. I got hooked on education. 

How does it make you feel to be there for others? 

When I started to let things in, I had to do this to let out my feelings. It feels better than survival. I felt way better. Helping people. I started having my soul flourishing, instead of having my face wrinkled like “Mean mugging” people all day. 

I get emotional. It helps me let my feelings in. It feels like my soul is fourishing. I noticed I change how I hold my face, I’ve stopped wrinkling it and ‘mean mugging’ people all day.   I’ve had six guys die on me. One had swastikas on him, he said to me, “I thought they were going to call a white guy to help me.” I said “You can call me all kinds of niggers if you want, but I’m the one taking you to the hospital.” When he was finished with his appointment, we both started crying. I asked, “How much better do you feel?” he said, “ I thought I’d never feel this way, but thank you.” That’s the way it’s supposed to be, people have different perceptions in their head about people and that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.  

Why do you isolate yourself in spite of how much you help people? 

 Well, all my life I have been distant. As a kid I chose my friends because I wanted to be sure to be included, but now as a man I see it for what it is. If they want to be my friend, they will. In prison, I don’t think it’s good to be friends with everyone, but it’s good to respect everyone. 

You’ve seen a lot of people suffer. what would you tell the families of those that passed away? 

The person you saw was no longer the person you would have seen. Pain takes a toll.  

Tell us about your job.

I am the Enforcer of Love. I think you gave up the right to sit and die when you come to prison,  when you’ve committed a crime. What I’m doing in trying to help. One time, I was taking a shower next to a guy, who suddenly,  on the spot, his vision was closing like blinds over a window. I said “Where’s your ID?” and took it to the officer’s station and got a wheelchair. I took him over to the Prison Hospital and the next day he passed away. I cried when I heard. I had to stay on track, I was taking care of Rick Colding who had testicular cancer. He wouldn’t eat. He had four days worth of food on his bed. I had to tell the sergeant. Every time nurses came by he would say he was good. He didn’t want to be taken from his cell and away from the fellas. You could smell him before you got to him, death, feces, vomit. He didn’t want anyone looking after him. He wanted to take care of himself,  “What are you a doctor?”  “I don’t care what you’re talking about, but you need help man.” We tricked him to get him to the hospital by telling him it was for a Covid test. They took him to hospice. He saw his family and kids via video before he passed away. My compassion comes from my mother. When I get into something I go all the way to the limit. I’m happy that I got this job because it allows people to see the other part of me instead of just being frigid. I like the person I am today, instead of who I was when I first came to prison. “Then they allow me to take them to the hospital, they see more compassion in me than I see in myself and this is one of the biggest reasons that I do the job to the best of my abilities.” 

You are determined to do this job regardless of the risk to your own health and life? 

Yes. During the Covid outbreak here I sat in my cell for 72 days before they asked me to move down to the first tier. I sat with no electrolytes or treatment. Both Sgt. Polanco and I took the Covid test the same day, only he passed away and I didn’t. Then, I started working again. I believe God called me to do this job. I’ve cleaned up blood, feces, and vomit. If I have the ability to move around, I’m going to still work, even if it means I could die. Ain’t no reason to stop now.  

🎤 Interviewed by Edwin and Miguel, our inside West Block Correspondents

🎧 Ear hustle episode Gold Coats and OG’s

Andrew, 48

Andrew, 48

Meet Andrew…

What would you tell the old Andrew?
“You need to relax from being the foolish person that you are.” The person I am today is happy and thankful for the foolish person that I was because through the old me, I was able to learn to be a better person. I am thankful for how this time has changed me. It really opened my eyes and helped me become a better person.

Incarcerated: 2 years

How do you feel about going home from San Quentin?
I’m excited and feel happier every day as it gets closer. My wife has been sick and I’d really like to be there to take care of her. She needs me out there. She had her foot amputated because of diabetes. She travels five hours to visit me, in her wheelchair but hasn’t been here lately because of the amputation. We’ve only had video visits and I was able to see her in her hospital bed. If this isn’t love, I don’t know what love is. We’ve been together off and on since ‘98.

How does it make you feel to be loved by her?
It feels really good, you never know when that person could be gone and if you’ll have the chance to tell them you love them, one last time. You never know how long you have with them. You want them to know how much they were there for you and thank them. If she could be there for me, then why can’t I be there for her, and give her the same love she gives me?
Being loved by her is what makes me want to change because I see the things she does for me while I’m here. She inspires me, seeing all the love she has to give. I can see that she is hurting and in pain yet she still loves me. As a human being, I can see there is more to life than just being behind these prison walls. She helps me see that in the real world. She’s calmed me down a lot from who I was before. Seeing all the love she has, gives me the inspiration to be a better man, husband and father to my kids.

What do you mean by “calmed me down?”
I used to be on drugs, the worst you can think of. I would not listen to her positive advice. I’d actually say, “You’re dumb, I don’t care.” I never listened to her, this time in prison, receiving real love, was an eye-opener.I thought I was bad because I was on drugs. This was a reality check.

What would you tell the old Andrew?
“You need to relax from being the foolish person that you are.” The person I am today is happy and thankful for the foolish person that I was because, through the old me, I was able to learn to be a better person. I am thankful for how this time has changed me. It really opened my eyes and helped me become a better person.

What made you finally listen to your wife?
My wife’s health worsened and I was looking at a life sentence. I saw that it was no joke. I’m here with my fellow peers that are lifers and it sucks because they don’t deserve that. I don’t want to end up like them, I got a second chance to live my life.

Coming out of San Quentin, what would you tell the world?
This is not a place for an individual to exist. When someone tells you something, please listen because behind the walls there’s a lot of ugly things. Be a good citizen and follow the law so you don’t end up in prison. You don’t want to be told when to do everything when to eat, use the phone, when to shower and when to even use the bathroom.

What are you going to do now when you get out?
I’m going to be with my wife, get married and take care of her the best I can. I want to be there for her.

What do you think about the Humans of San Quentin? How has it helped you or made an impact in your life?
It will work for people that want to make it work for themselves. People on the street might see the light on us, what we are doing, so those that are lost won’t commit a crime. It could wake them up to stay out or not come back to prison. If the judges and district attorneys who send us here had a minute to see our transformation from beginning to end, then they will note that we are human and do not belong here. They wanted to give me life, and now I got a second chance. I’m going home to take care of my wife.

Erick, 36

Erick, 36

Meet Erick…

…Art is a passion of mine where I can be creative and help someone else feel joy and satisfaction in what I draw and design, for them to feel a positive emotion. I was missing that in my life and they may be missing that in their life.

Incarcerated: 5 years
Interviewed by our inside team: Edwin and Miguel

How would you describe yourself?
I am a loyal, honest, driven person. I like to set goals and accomplish them. I have artistic goals and am trying to sell my art online to help my wife financially since she supports me in here. I design artwork on T-shirts, posters and coffee mugs. Morally she’s all my support. She likes my art a lot and believes in helping me be successful. Art is my creative, positive passion. I was missing that in my life and they may be missing that in their life.

Is that why you got into art?
Yes. It took me to come to prison to see I need to be creative to have a job, it’s how I feel fulfilled. I’m able to show my personality while telling a story. I use it as a healing tool. It brings me extreme happiness, satisfaction and a sense of euphoria that I created something new. Growing up my parents were not there for me emotionally. They did not praise or tell me I was doing anything right. In creating art, I give myself a sense of reassurance that I never received. I can praise myself. I started drawing as a kid in seventh grade. I was a natural. I left it alone for years until I saw others in prison doing it as a way to pass the time and stay occupied. It took off then.

Tell us about your tattoos.
In junior high, I was a chubby, geek. I liked video games, movies, and comic books – like Batman and X-men. My tattoos are an extension of that. On one arm is video games and the other is a haunted Halloween theme. I was an eccentric before I came to prison, 6’3″ hipster. I stick out in here.

Were you in the shadows as a kid?
Yes, I was extremely introverted. I only had a few friends in high school and the same ones after. I was bad at reading social cues. I’m more open to talk to people and extroverted now. In prison, it’s not good for your health to be an extrovert or too friendly.

What are your future plans?
I want to accomplish a successful online art business, get an AA degree in sociology and develop a deeper relationship with my wife. I want to maintain inner peace.
📸Erick’s wife Christine


Conversations from the cell introduction

Conversations from the cell introduction


Two of our team members Miguel and Edwin, who live behind the wall, took the initiative to interview men and snail mail them to us. Here we get to find out why.

Why did you start interviewing people?

Edwin: During the Omicron outbreak, I found myself inside West Block feeling tension in the air. It showed in people’s behavior. We were concerned with the uncertainty of the new variant. I found myself tense, confused and angry at the fact that my overnight family visit with loved ones was canceled three separate times. I asked myself, “How do other prisoners feel? What can I do to make a difference, how can I give a voice to the voiceless?” I was also reflecting on the fact that one of my inside team members, Miguel, had just been denied parole. I could see it in his eyes that he was stressed and going through it. I saw how he was hurt. I’ve been denied parole four times, and I know the feeling of being shut down. This is when I decided to invite Miguel to do interviews. Luckily, he agreed. We had volunteer jobs that let us out of our cells, I was a janitor and Miguel was a messenger. Miguel and I immediately became a good team.

Miguel: Living in West Block is a unique experience. It is the dirtiest housing unit with tons of flies and maggots permanently inhabiting the entryway. It is the most overcrowded with double-celled capacity of almost 800 people in one warehouse-style space. Navigating through the noise and chaos is a constant challenge. The ever-shifting conditions of the quarantine lockdown had ratcheted up the already stressful environment. We all wondered if we would get sick living only 18 inches apart. Will someone lose it, break mentally, or get violent? Will I get to call my family? Will I get to shower? Will I be able to leave this cell? Will I lose my property and only pictures of my family? What will happen next? It’s interesting to hear Edwin’s perspective on this collaboration. I wholeheartedly appreciate his care for me in a difficult time, and yet I didn’t see it the way he did. I was focused on writing and positive activities as I processed my emotions about my parole denial. I agreed to take the initiative with him because I saw he was serious about journalism, rehabilitation, and work. He set interview times, came to my cell to wake me up and kept on me about the next interview. I am a person that has a million ideas and can work on many at once, yet follow-through and actual completion can be a challenge. Where I struggle, Edwin has strength. The funniest thing about our partnership is that I did not like him at all when we first met! He has this air which is annoying. He often says, “I’m blunt,” to soften his directness and ability to cut through issues. If you do not know him this can be off-putting- it was to me- but once you get to know him it comes across as a real desire to move an objective forward. I appreciate this for real. I saw this as an opportunity to do something meaningful. It reflected on I want to be in this life. I wanted to act, under these conditions, because this kind of response truly gives my life meaning. To live my values, the ones I talk about, under pressure and no matter what- this gives me a sense of worth and validation that I could not have otherwise. This makes my failures and shortcomings worthwhile. For this I am the most grateful to those we interview, to HoSQ, and to Edwin.

What have you learned through these interviews?

Edwin: It has brought enlightenment to see into a world full of compassion, understanding and mainly empathy. When I have thought I have it bad, I saw someone else who has it worse, and they too want to be heard. It has taught me that if we work together inside these prison walls in a humane way, the sky shall not be the limit. Collectively we can accomplish just about anything in a prosocial way. It doesn’t matter your race or background or our prior social status. We are all humans who have fallen short of making the right choices. Each interviewee taught me something good about life, even the youngest ones. The reason why we took the approach to interview instead of having them write their stories and submit it by mail, was due to the lockdown. People get stressed out, angry and confused about this situation. We wanted to break through all of the negativity by creating a space for us all to socialize and to be heard during these hard times. People in prison can put a mask on and want to be seen as hard core, bad ass or at least not weak. We wanted to break that stigma. To show ourselves differently to the outside world.

Miguel: As often happens, Edwin speaks with positivity and clarity and I agree. He summed it up best when he said, “Everyone that we interviewed taught me something good about life, even the youngest ones.” I concur! I feel humbled when people agree to bare their soul to us, to trust us with their life experiences, wisdom. Then, entrust us with the responsibility to share their story in a real and caring way. Sandia Dirks, a journalistic mentor, taught me about not merely being a story-taker in seeking to be a storyteller. I always remember this as I interview another human being. I remember positionality and the relative perspective we can all have. This never excuses our actions, wrongdoing, or the harm we cause others, but there is a value to be seen in the lessons people choose to take from their actions. In the latest quarantine lockdown, I saw people that were in the exact same position as me, people that I could bear witness for, people that I could learn from. Edwin was the first one on this list.

Do you prepare for your interviews?

No. We pick our questions right there, spur of the moment. We refer to it as, “Keep it real and simple.” We naturally had this cool rhythm and vibe. Without thinking about it we were just on the same page. We wanted the real deal, the human side. From childhood traumas, to the impact of gun violence, and mainly we aim at highlighting the transformation of every single person.

Did you face any barriers?

Time. We were only out of our cells for 90 minutes a day. We had to interview, call families, workout and shower. Then, we had to ask people to give up their time for us. We also interviewed people through the bars of their cells. We tried to write and type standing up, but eventually we would sit on the bars outside their cell.

Is there anything else you want to share?

To us your voice matters. We personally think that when you engage in a conversation with someone they are more open to just say it how it is. We try to bring that genuine side out. Typically people who write in are more concerned about the grammar, spelling, or saying the “right” thing, as they are trying to pour out their thoughts. These can be discouraging. We are grateful to have the opportunity to be of service in what is a challenging environment, to be of service to those who may not yet have their humanity shown to the world.


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