Dale, 51

Dale, 51

Meet Dale…

Last year I helped over 90,000 Californians and I’m on track for over 100,000 this year. I focus on those people. Not following the rules got me in prison but what better thing could I be doing.

Dale, 51

Incarcerated: 26 years

Housed: Valley State Prison, California

I work in a Prison Industry Authority optical factory. It produces thousands of pairs of glasses each week. After my parole violation was extended for a 5th time in 2021, I was a bit despondent and depressed. Shortly after I was approached by my correctional counselor and asked if I would be interested in a job in optical. At first I hesitated for a couple reasons: one, people who have done nothing wrong had been fired for the actions of others. Second, it required getting up very early, for an eight hour a day, 5 days a week, for a fraction of a dollar per hour. I had become accustomed to no such obligation, and I had become lazy. I didn’t take the application, but immediately something nagged me. I decided to approach the counselor. During the interview I told the supervisor my concerns, and said all I hoped for was: not to be held accountable for anyone else’s behavior and acknowledged for the job I do. I did my best. I started to notice the many different frames and styles. It occurred to me that each represented a different person. Women, men, boys, girls and infants.

I started having this joy of imagining different people. My considerations and thoughts kept going to the Californians behind these frames waiting for their prescriptions. I often hear complaints: the hours, the pennies for pay, the cops, but all I could think about are the people behind the frames who didn’t know or need to know me. But I get to be a help to each of them! After several months my work ethic put me in a position to run a department. It was here I started counting how many Californians I helped each day. When other guys complain, or I get ridiculed for hard work, I’d walk up, grab a pair of frames and state, “This may not be your sister, brother, daughter or son, but it’s someone’s and I work because people need their glasses.” Last year I helped over 90,000 Californians and I’m on track for over 100,000 this year. I focus on those people. Not following the rules got me in prison but what better thing could I be doing. The value I get is the great feeling that no matter what past mistake I made, I am helping people. 

Our Wedding Day, by Jimmy

Our Wedding Day, by Jimmy

Our Wedding Day

Jimmy, 38

Incarcerated: 20 years

The most beautiful dark brown eyes set in a divine Navajo face looked up at me. Her hair done in a ribbon, her dress and white blouse pressed. In her wedding dress, I saw her for the first time since she snagged me up at a powwow. I was scared, was I really good enough for this girl? I worried about whether or not I could make her happy, make her smile and laugh, and feel safe and supported. I have felt intense love and adoration for this woman since the day we met. Now, on our wedding day in Stockton Prison, my brain was melting into a sticky soup of doubt and self judgment. Then she smiled. I looked at this wonderful woman, and in those eyes I can never seem to look away from, I saw me, I saw us and I felt the deepest sense of tranquility I have only ever achieved in the hottest sweat lodges. She asked me if I was ready and I smiled and said yes.There were so many things that had gone horribly wrong leading up to October 15th 2022, our wedding day.

She agreed to marry me two years earlier. We turned in our papers to be married on June 8th of ‘21, but Covid killed our hopes, just like it almost killed me. With no visits, random phone times and almost no way of communicating, we both were scared, alone, and afraid for the other. But the prison emails and my long, consistent, weekly letter responses kept hope and our love alive. This girl, my wonderful blessing from the creator, who grew up on a reservation just north of mine, who spent the last several years waiting to marry me, and I her, patiently thinking and planning for us. She never faltered, never doubted, and kept me afloat. Without her I would have been totally lost years ago. She is my good medicine. When she said “I do” it was the most meaningful two words ever spoken to me. At night, I sit at our lodge in San Quentin and I count all the reasons why I am so in love with this wife of mine.


Darnell, 26 years inside

Darnell, 26 years inside

Darnell Washington “Mo”

Released after 26 years

Diane: How were you feeling when you first found out you were going to get released?

Darnell: When I went to the board and was found suitable, I was like… wow. I did it! I went in there with no expectations. I walked in as if I was going to have a conversation about who I was and who I am now. I wasn’t worried about what they thought of me because I know who I am, and that was the bottom line. I think sometimes people go into the board thinking of it as an adverse situation. They have their guard set with an attitude and facial expressions, voice or body language. I decided to let that go and go in with an open mind.

Diane: What was your reaction when they said you were found suitable?

Darnell: There was an emptiness… there was no pressure. I just marinated in what was said. When the committee told me, “Do what you said you’re going to do when you get out. Don’t disappoint us,” about what I said I want to do in my community, that hit me. That’s something I really remember that motivated me to stay on the right path. 

Diane: What happened next? 

Darnell: I went back to the yard. Everyone knew I went to the board and they kept telling me I would get a date. All my friends were there and they were clowning me, like, “I know you got the date.” I asked why, and they said, “We see you walking down the road looking like George Jefferson!” They were proud of me. They had so much confidence in me that I was going to get the date. That’s something I had to work on to understand. They saw the change in me, and I just hope they do the same thing. They kept asking me a lot of questions about what I did and I said, “I don’t have the answers. Only you know what you’ve been through and what you’ve got to do when you go in there. I’m not going to tell you. I can tell you what I said, but I have no answers. That’s the most important thing. They were like, “Okay,” and next thing you know, everyone was asking the things in my cell, my stuff.

Diane: How did you feel the night before you were going to be released?

Darnell: I was really calm. I went to sleep at a normal time. I did everything I normally do: my little prayer and meditation. I’m a practicing Buddhist, and it’s about being in the present moment. I wasn’t trying to look to the future or think about what I missed. I wanted to enjoy this moment right now and have the rest of my mind clear. The next morning when I woke up to go home, that was a great feeling, but also a sad feeling because I knew I was leaving a lot of friends behind that should be out as well. It was bittersweet. Once I got released and they drove me to where I was going, my mom and my children were there, and that was emotional. There was crying and tears. It took me a while. I’m still getting used to the fact that this is really true and I’m home after 26 years.

Diane: Tell me about the reunion with your family.

Darnell: As soon as I got out of the car, my kids came running up and hugged me. My older brother was there, my cousins, friends… I said, “Where’s mom?” They said she drove the wrong way. Before she got there, we had to leave the premises so we went up the street. My mom and my sister came, and there was a lot of hugging and crying. We have a video of us holding each other. It was really a blessing. I went to the board on the 4th, and my mom turned 75 on the 9th. I’m a momma’s boy, so that was really special.

Diane: What did you do next?

Darnell: We went to eat at House of Pancakes. That was nice. My first meal was fried chicken and waffles. Then, they took me shopping and I bought some clothes, before we went to the AirBnb. We were driving and all of the sudden, I told my friend to pull over because I had to throw up. It came from motion sickness because I hadn’t been in a car in so long. The rest of that week I was really nauseated every time I was in the car. I’m used to it now because I’ve been in the car a lot. 

 The day after I got out, I was sitting in my room, and I just broke down because of all the emotions from being out, all the love and support I received… I let it all out. I called my mom and talked to her and my kids about it. That’s basically what we prepare for when we get out in our prevention plan. I did exactly what I was supposed to do: call and talk to people about what I’m feeling and going through. Pre-release plans do come in handy so you don’t resort to drinking or whatever your vices were.

Diane: What do you remember about your first night being free?

Darnell: It was cool, being underneath my mom, with her and watching TV with her, being with my kids and hearing them say, “Dad this” and “Dad, that,” and taking pictures with them. My grandma and my grandsons were there. There were people coming by. My son got me a cellphone, and people kept trying to call. The phone kept ringing, and I had to throw the phone to the side. It was too overwhelming. I think that’s something we have to be careful with, coming home and being overwhelmed. I just had to be with my immediate family. 

Diane: Where are you staying now?

Darnell: I’ve been at the transition house. It’s nice, a four-bedroom, three-bathroom house. Living room, dining room. There’s eight of us here; most of them work. We have a beautiful backyard with a waterfall. It’s like a zen backyard. I can go back there and look at the Koi fish in the pond and relax. 

Diane: How long do you stay there?

Darnell: I have to be there for six months. After that, I can get my own place. I plan on going back to LA no later than a year. 

Diane: What are your days like?

Darnell: I don’t work yet. In the mornings, I work out in the backyard like I did in prison. After that, I sit and meditate. Then people come by and take me out to eat or to events. I’m building relationships with people and networking for my non-profit.

Diane: Have you been able to get your birth certificate, driver’s license and social security number?

Darnell: In prison somebody told me I could get my birth certificate right then, so I filled out the form and paid the notary $20 at the prison. They sent it to my mom, and she told me that they found my social security card in my grandmother’s Bible. Then I had to get my California ID. I signed up for that, it’s been over a month and a half and I haven’t received it. I went to the DMV and told them what happened. I had to fill out the form again, and they didn’t charge me. I went to one booth, and they told me to wait in line until they called my number. Then I went up, and the guy told me to do the exact same thing again. I’m like, “I just did this!” So I had patience, and did it again. They said I would get it in two to three weeks. I had a hold on getting my driver’s license, because it was suspended for something from years ago. I was waiting to get a hearing which wasn’t until June. I stayed consistent and kept calling, and they moved it up to last week. They took the hold off, and I should get the paperwork and be able to go get my driver’s license. 

Diane: Are you ready?

Darnell: Yeah, having people take me places is getting me used to the traffic. Looking over my shoulder, even though I’m the passenger, is really preparing me to drive. 

Diane: Where did you parole to?

Darnell: Castro Valley. All my family is in LA. I stayed up here and I’m going to ease my way back into LA. I’m like the pillar of my family and I don’t want to be overwhelmed. I’ve been networking with people like my big brother. I’m getting my non-profit started, so that paperwork is in process. 

Diane: What is your non-profit about?

Darnell: I want to start my non-profit called, African American Community Healing. I would be able to fund summer camps for kids in the community, bring yoga, art and mindful meditation to them and mental health classes. There’s a great park in our community I’d like to remodel. On a day that we have mindfulness, people could go see a psychiatrist or mental health specialist then. They would be more likely to go being in the community so it’s more convenient to them. I know people who would go which would lead to other people going, as well. That’s something we really need in our community. Our communities have a lot of healing to do. I thought about this alot, I’ve had to deal with it myself. For example, when I wrote that piece for you at Humans of San Quentin, I got a lot of positive responses from that. That reflection is exactly what we need in our communities and the issues I feel are  happening everyday in our communities.

Diane: Are you still doing yoga?

Darnell: Yes, four times a week, I do my strenuous workout, then my situps, then I close out with yoga. Then I listen to my Thich Nhat Hanh bell chant. That’s how I wind all the way down.

Diane: What are you looking forward to?

Darnell: Building my community up, building my relationships and bringing a change to our community, bringing unity, peace and harmony with our different communities.

Jesse, 43

Jesse, 43

Meet Jesse…

I haven’t seen my mom in 21 years. She suffered a lot of abuse and trauma and she is the strongest person I know.

Jesse, 43
Incarcerated: 21 years
Housed: San Quentin State Prison

I am serving 200 years to life for attempted murder. I haven’t seen my mom in 21 years. She suffered a lot of abuse and trauma and she is the strongest person I know. She makes me laugh every time we talk and says she’s holding on until I come home. I live my life to honor her love without violence. I love you mom! And to all moms and women everywhere, we lift you up. Happy Mother’s Day from the Humans of San Quentin.

Rahsaan, 22 years inside

Rahsaan, 22 years inside

Rahsaan Thomas, 50
Released after 22 years

Diane: How has it been going and what have you been doing?

Rahsaan: That’s a big question. I’m working for Ear Hustle. Working on getting funding for my films. Working on one of my films for a film festival. And I’m having some fun. I’ve been to two Warriors games, two Brooklyn Nets games, I’m going to a Giants-Dodgers game on Monday, and I just got back from New York after a 10 day trip. I got to speak at Columbia for a screening of a film called, What These Walls Won’t Hold directed by Adamu Taye Chan. I’m a co-producer, and it just made it to the San Francisco international film festival. It’s gonna be played on April 15th and 16th. We’re up against W. Kamau Bell and his documentary about growing up mixed-race. I’ve been to a lot of dinners. I went on a dinner tour with a whole bunch of people that supported me while I was inside. I got to see my family. I got to see my son and spend a few days with him when I was in New York. 

Diane: You’ve been all over the place!

Rahsaan: Yeah and a lot of Zoom meetings.

Diane: Let’s start from the beginning. Share with us your parole board hearing.

Rahsaan: I didn’t go with the expectation that I would get a date on the first try; since that’s really difficult. I didn’t let the fact that it’s difficult discourage me. I prepared for it, prepared for it, prepared for it… and it worked out. I went in there, and I was really honest in a way I thought they weren’t going to like, but I guess honesty is the best policy. At the end of the hearing, when they found me suitable, I was really happy. I think the six months wait to actually walk out the door is like a blessing because you know people don’t have a clear path to freedom. While you’re going through the review process there’s a chance they can change their mind, so you feel the pressure of that. And just not knowing the date- how do you plan and not have a date? When should family come? When do you do this? When do you do that? Not having the actual date is kind of nerve wracking. But it went pretty fast now that it’s over with. I went out the doors to a beautiful reception. There were probably about 40 people there. Got like 40 hugs the day I got out, a lot of hugs. Hugs used to be contraband and no longer contraband, so that was great.

Diane: Were you nervous the night before you were released?

Rahsaan: Not really nervous, just anxious. I just wanted to be out and done with the process. That morning there were five of us waiting to be released, and you can’t be released in front of the prison unless you have a ride. If you don’t have a ride, then they  take you straight to the bus stop. Reports were coming in that there were all these people out there waiting since 6am and it was 9:30 already and they didn’t let me go yet. I’m like, “Uh what’s going on? I got these people out waiting in the cold.” They were waiting for one guy. They didn’t know whether he had a ride or if they had to take him to the bus stop. He was supposed to have a ride, but his people didn’t check in. They weren’t there. They were doing all this stuff to try to find these people, and I was just like, “Can’t you just take us and come back for him?” Finally they made some sense and at about ten they took us, but I felt bad that the whole time people were out there waiting.

Diane: How did you feel stepping out of the van?

Rahsaan: I felt blessed. I never felt so much love in my life. Ironically, one guy did go straight to the bus stop and didn’t have that feeling at all. Other people got that feeling but from less people. It was just beautiful to have it from so many people and I am just trying to figure out how to duplicate that for everybody, because that was just beautiful to have that much love and support.

Diane: What was the first thing you wanted to do? 

Rahsaan: EAT! I went to the nearest restaurant and called my mom and my son on the way. I had an iPhone waiting for me in front of the prison, so that was amazing. I planned ahead. So I was able to call all these people on my way to the restaurant. I had french toast and steak, which I was dreaming about, and eggs and hashbrowns. It was delicious.

Diane: Where did they take you from there?

Rahsaan: Shopping! All I had was the clothes on my back. This program called No More Tears donated $200 dollars for me on a gift card so I could buy some clothes.

Diane: What change did you notice in 22 years?

Rahsaan: The homelessness in the Bay Area got really bad, and when I went to New York, how much cleaner and nicer it got. But the biggest change is that everything is online and you use your email and need a code for everything. 

Diane: Where did you spend your first night?

Rahsaan: In transitional housing in Oakland.

Diane: How did it feel to be in an actual bed?

Rahsaan: It was nice and soft. The bed in prison hurt my body. No matter what position I slept in, something’s going to hurt the next day. I just got used to having a hurt body. But now this body is healing and this bed hugs you. It’s totally different. It’s way nicer. I sleep on my side with no shoulder pain. I could sleep on my back without any back pain. It’s just nice. The best part: there’s no cellie! No cellie, ah so beautiful! No other human being in the room. If you want to fart, nobody complaining about it, nobody you got to compromise with, there’s nobody there snoring, there’s nobody to wake when you want to go to the bathroom… There’s room, there’s space, there’s privacy.

Diane: Are you still in transitional housing? 

Rahsaan: Yeah, I am stuck here for six months minimum.

Diane: Tell us about your work. 

Rahsaan: I get some time working for Empowerment Avenue and Ear Hustle. Those are the two main jobs. On Mondays and Tuesdays I actually go into the studio to work with Ear Hustle and then the rest of the week I’m mostly doing the Empowerment Avenue stuff working from home on the computer. 

Diane: How is work going?

Rahsaan: I’m pretty good at tech. I can kind of do the basics, but I keep running into little snags. For instance, I didn’t know that if you have your mouse in your pocket, it freezes your computer. I was thinking my computer was trash, but it was that the mouse was in my pocket. Just little things like that. I keep running into little snags. Other than that, the transition is going pretty smooth. I had a hold on my driver’s license from New York City from when I was a youngster and had violations. I had to take a driving improvement class. I just got it off today. It felt good to finally get a license. It’s still going to take some time- I’ve got to take a road test and stuff. I’m looking forward to getting a license and getting mobile.

Diane: You mentioned you went home to New York. How was it? 

Rahsaan: I had this advice to get there two hours early, but that just seemed ridiculous, so I checked in online the night before and got there 90 minutes early. It wasn’t bad. I was sitting around for an hour waiting for the plane. It didn’t take long to check in. It’s a new process- you have to take off your shoes, go through the X-ray machine. All that stuff was new. The flight just felt like a flight. I had a window seat, so as soon as I saw New York City from the plane, that’s when I got really excited. 

Diane: What was it like seeing your son?

Rahsaan: Strange. When I left, he was five, and now he’s 27! We hung out a couple of times, it felt good. My older son was supposed to come up and see me, but he wasn’t able to make it, so I only got to see my younger son. But it was great, we went to a Brooklyn Nets game. We established that connection and made some memories. 

Diane: Where do you want to be live when you’re off parole?

Rahsaan:  I don’t know; in a perfect world and if I had enough money, I’d live on both coasts. New York is amazing- on a whole other level. Shopping is better… It came with a course of gentrification. A lot of people don’t live in New York City anymore. They have cameras and speed trackers, so for safety, it’s a new and improved New York. It came at a hot price, but there’s neighborhoods that are still good and going strong. They’re still resisting gentrification. I’d love to live there again. I actually found employment in New York- a little consultant gig. And they’d fly me back home once or twice, so I’m looking forward to going back. Somebody wants me to speak at Columbia University in the fall, so I’m looking for any excuse to be in New York and see my family.

Diane: Do you have a favorite experience since being out?

Rahsaan: That’s tough… so many. The Brooklyn Nets thing was a different experience, and seeing my son and mom again. Going shopping in New York was fun. The whole New York trip. Everything. The Columbia screening. The Marshall Project. I’m overwhelmed with amazing experiences. The Warrior games. I got to hang out with amazing people. The Korean barbeque. This was my first time doing Korean barbeque, it’s amazing. I think I do have a favorite one: my mom threw me a fish fry reception when I got home. I had a whole crew from Oakland that was out there for the Columbia screening. I had these two families, the family I created and the family I inherited, come together and eat this amazing fried lobster and shrimp. We had all this music. It was really amazing to see my family’s vibe and show so much love. We had so much fried fish! Shrimp scampi, fried shrimp, seafood, catfish, bass, regular and fried lobster. My mom made it all.

Diane: We talked a little about plans. Do you have any immediate or long term plans?

Rahsaan: I have a long term dream to have a system-impacted film crew going around making films about us. Feature films, documentaries, fiction, an array of that. That’s the long-term dream. In the meantime, there’s this program called Empowerment Avenue. We empower incarcerated people through art and writing, because that’s the one loophole where we can make money while incarcerated. Other than that, you can’t have a career to get revenue. This is the one way we can get them paid for their work. Not only that, but we get them into mainstream publications. Their solutions, their voices, and their wisdom get out there and have a powerful impact. We had an amazing art show and gallery in Crown Heights in Brooklyn called Save the Flower. It’s about feminism. It was amazing, they did really well. It started with just volunteers. We want to give guys in San Quentin greater access to society. We’re hitting the ceiling. I want to get past the ceiling. I published eight articles in my eight years in San Quentin, other than San Quentin news. I wanted to go farther, but I didn’t have an email, call for submissions, permission to publish or anything. Anyways, for this grant proposal, my friend got a bunch of writer friends to do it, and the response has been so successful. We keep having more and more success. 

Diane: Anything else you want to share?

Rahsaan: I’m just blessed. I found out that, while I thought I was being a lousy friend, it’s really hard to get back to people. I constantly have calls coming in and my time keeps getting booked up. But, everybody is lousy in communication. Everybody’s so busy.

Diane: Have you been back to San Quentin? Do you have any plans?

Rahsaan: Yeah, I’m trying to get cleared. I’m going to go back for the Brothers Keepers. Ear Hustle wants me to go back in and do my duties there. I also want to volunteer to help the program I started that’s kind of fallen apart because of Covid.