Raiveon Wooden, 7 years inside

Raiveon Wooden, 7 years inside

Diane: You were given an indeterminate sentence, can you explain that? 

Raiveon: Basically an indeterminate sentence is when a person has a release date that is set for a specific time. When I went to trial, they told me I had to serve 11 years fulfilling at least 85% of my sentence.

Diane: Did you get any time taken off your sentence?

Raiveon: Yes for the college classes I took. I also got 84 days off during the pandemic for safety. I also got another five weeks off because I was in a program to go to school, so I got the weeks off to continue working in school.

Diane: Tell me about the morning you were released. You surprised your mom! 

Raiveon: Yeah, she didn’t know what was coming. Part of me felt bad because throughout the whole time I was in prison she was just stuck on, I’m getting out in October not September. When the van pulled out of the gate, it was crazy because I see her and I see you, right, and so I’m like damn. I said, “I’m here, what the hell?” I was kind of surprised. I was so surprised to see you and I was surprised while trying to surprise my mom. Then when I saw my mom, it was adorable because she thought we were just visiting outside, I wasn’t being released. She was like, oh baby, that’s nice of the prison to let you visit us out here. I said no, I’m going home. Right there, she’s like, oh my God you’re coming home? Please don’t play with me. I was like, no, we’re going home, I’m like come on and then next you know ….. the tears start. It was very, very beautiful. I say that was like the highlight of her day, she can’t ever stop talking about that. 

Diane: What happens at the office?

Raiveon: I was chilling with my niece and nephew, with my dad in the room. Everyone was talking, you know like a big happy family. It was amazing and the best memories. 

Diane: Your parole office was okay with you going home? 

Raiveon: If I have a place to stay at, they will accept it. He’s very cool you know, ain’t got no complaints and you know he’s basically all based on communication with you. And so that’s one thing we agreed on, and so far he’s proud of me. He accepted me because I have somewhere to go. You know ’cause I’m doing my thing and I’m checking in this program. 

Diane: And what program are you checking in? 

Raiveon: This program is called Geo. It’s based on things like substance abuse or anger management. It helps people that also have struggled with families. They have all types of stuff you could think of. So right now it’s mandatory to take anger management. The reason is because my anger sometimes gets the best of me. I also use this space to talk to people and vent. I have people to talk to and do homework with in the program. 

Diane: What are you going to do next? 

Raiveon: Right now I am currently looking for a job. I haven’t heard anything yet, but one is developer management. I basically want to be in TV shows, movies, like the big screens basically. I would love to be in a show like Flash or Black Lightning. I want to start with TV shows and work my way up to movies. In the future, I want to travel and go to hollywood. 

Diane: Is there a goal you made for yourself once you were released? 

Raiveon: I’ve been at peace with myself, it’s fully inside. I’m still hurting with this one thing I had to work on, with a woman named Suraya. She’s a really good friend of mine, like a big sister. I’ve been really wanting to get in touch with her and just hug her because she took a lot of the burden off me. It’s just one of my little small things to focus on right now. 

Diane: While inside you talked a lot about suicide and negative thoughts, how has that affected you post incarceration?

Raiveon: It still pops up, but I have stuff now that I could focus on. I’m not contained in a cell or dorm full of dudes. I can function better now and can release some of my outlets, my triggers. I’ve had to be less selfish and see that people actually care about me. It has already been better with the people in my life seeing me. It is one thing for them to say they love me, but it is all based on action. These people were a huge help for me in prison and continue now that I am out. My support system has only grown now that I am out.

Raiveon: One thing when I was incarcerated, I took a lot of energy with the programming and my resources and my support group. Now that I’m out, they all started to support me in a way that helped me get back on my feet. So I say, that’s one of the things I’m proud of myself. 

Diane: If you could have a super power what would it be? 

Raiveon: I would say my power would be anywhere with elements. You know, fire, wind or earth. I grew up watching Avatar The Last Airbender. I always admired that type of power. I am proud I could stand out like I don’t want super strength or speed, I just want something original. I would also want to be a part of the Lanterns, which is a long story, but in short, I would want to start with the Green Lantern because that represents real power. Then I would move to Red Lantern which is rage. I would want this progression with my superpowers.

Diane: Do you think you gained any real life superpowers from prison? 

Raiveon: My real power is my energy. That’s why you and I connected so well, we both have an immense amount of energy. I feel like God answered my prayers in making me a real life superhero without powers. Another thing I have is that I can see people fully, because I have been seen fully. I have been seen by you, the good and the bad. Now I try to do that with other people. I don’t want to give a false impression of who I am.

Diane: Anything else you want to add?

Raiveon: Some people come into your life for a season or are only meant to be there for a season. Those are the ones that fuel you like a rocket. Then the people in the rocket with you are the people in your life forever.

Jesus Cortez, 23 years inside

Jesus Cortez, 23 years inside

Diane: What went through your mind when you heard you were found suitable? 

Jesus: I didn’t think I was going to get a grant because of the nature of the crime, which was on an officer. Once he said, “We find you suitable for parole,” I started crying from the weight of the hearing. I thought of my mother who passed in 2018. I thought about my daughter, my sisters, my family, everybody who stood in my corner. I just started sobbing like a child. I was just so grateful and told the commissioner, “Thank you very much, you’re going to hear good things about me, I promise you that.” 

Diane: What happened next?

Jesus: I was given 140 days, but the governor sent my grant back to the parole board commissioners asking them to review it again. He didn’t want to sign off on my release. On July 18th, the panel had a hearing and people showed up to advocate for me. They decided that my grant was appropriate and scheduled my release. I was no longer a threat in society. The emotional response it elicited was so real, I felt it big time. I was cautiously optimistic, only because my story isn’t one of those regular cases. In prison, I was deeply immersed into negative danger, so I can empathize with the governor’s concern. My thoughts were, even if they didn’t release me, I’d be OK because my peace isn’t dictated by my physical freedom. When the officer said, “Roll up your mattress and leave it right here, you’re being released tomorrow morning.” That’s when it hit. That’s when it really hit me. I was going home. 

Diane: I haven’t heard someone talk about being at peace and transfer it to not being released. Your emotional intelligence is so admirable. 

Jesus: Yeah, thank you, but you know the beautiful thing about it, right? I didn’t know I was doing that. I had already prepared my family in the event the panel sided with the governor. They would express to me that they’re praying for my release. I would always remind them that they didn’t have to pray. I did not want my family to be devastated. 

Diane: When you talk about your family, who are you talking about?

Jesus: My daughter. She had to grow up without a responsible father figure in her life. I carried that with me for a long time. I’m also very close with all my sisters and their kids. For my first parole hearing, my sister wrote a letter to the panel. In that letter, she said something that just tore me up inside, she said it didn’t matter where I was moved. She said nothing was gonna ever hold her back from having a relationship with her brother and making sure her children had a relationship with me too. Even though she knew  I wasn’t doing good, she would constantly be like “Hey, knock it off.” She always had hope I was going to snap out of it. My sister made it happen, where I was able to meet my daughter for the first time. She brought my daughter to a surprise visit. Little did she know that surprise visit would be my turning point. 

Diane: How was that your turning point?

Jesus: I was back in the hole after I had assaulted another human being with a weapon. Exactly a month later, my daughter showed up for the visit. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the process of these visits, but they take us through a little booth, and you’re on the other side of a glass window from your loved ones. They see when they’re taking the handcuffs off as soon as you walk into the little booth. I noticed that the same little girl that I was writing to throughout all these years was sitting down right there on the other side of the glass window. She picked up the phone and put her hand on the little table on the other side of the booth. She put her head down and cried. For the first time it hit me like, damn, what am I doing? What am I doing? This little girl cried with so much pain. I went back after this visit, and I cried like I’ve never cried since I was a child. I sat down, in the little cell, in the hole, and I don’t know what compelled me to do it, but I just started writing. May I share it with you? 

“I was blessed to meet the beautiful angel that in my dreams I had always just seen. A seat on the other side of the glass window took her beauty and her bravery, my soul was shook. She was filled with so much pain that if it could scream, it would sound so loud.”

Diane: That’s beautiful. I would love to publish it on our poetry page on our website, if that’s OK with you. 

Jesus: I’ll send it. It’s just hitting me right now. I don’t know, but maybe it’s all these people and all this freedom. In the poem, she cried for me, and I wish she hadn’t. “Her strength and courage helped her fight through her tears like a warrior, with daggers, with spears. Our hearts will forever be connected  like the prints on our palms. The proof will never be rejected. I love you daughter with all my heart.” That last line slapped me right in the face, because my whole identity was tied to my gang associations there. I was searching for love in all the wrong places. The true love that I was seeking was under my breath. My siblings, even my father, my mom, everybody. It was the perception that I had of not being loved and not being cared about that caused depression to manifest within myself through violence and substance abuse. I needed to make a change. When I met my daughter, I was immersed in gang culture. I was viewed as somebody very influential in prison. It was an internal battle between “Hey, I can’t let this go” and “Look what you caused your daughter.” My sister said, “What’s going to happen if you’re released back to the main line, the general population? 

One of the things I left out – I was barely released after doing time every year in isolation. She asked me why. My response – they disrespected me. She said, what’s going to happen if somebody disrespects you again when you’re released? I told her, I’m not going to let myself be disrespected, and my sister looked at me with disgust in her face. Jessie, you’re doing the same thing you did. You are hurting your daughter like you did in 1999.

I broke down. I told an officer I needed help. I wanted to let go of all this identity  I had cultivated, this gang identity that gave me everything. The wall of lies is fragile when it hits with the hammer of truth. I didn’t know how to communicate. I didn’t have tools; I didn’t have conflict resolution skills. It was difficult for me to ignore those impulses, but everything I was experiencing whether it was disrespect from another person or from another inmate, I was looking at it through the lens of how is this going to affect my daughter and my siblings if I do something stupid. 

Jesus: When I started taking classes, I soaking it up like a sponge. I knew one of the main things I had to do, that I’d never done, was be vulnerable. I remembered how my daughter cried and what my sister told me. The more I learned through these classes, the easier it became. After three or four years of learning and practicing my tools, it became second nature. That’s what I shared with the commissioners the day I was given a grant. 

Diane: How is your relationship with your daughter today? 

Jesus: Today we have a relationship based on communication. I value her. I hear her. Today my daughter can speak to me about anything because we have a relationship that’s founded on trust and she trusts I’m not going to do anything stupid.

Diane: How do you know she trusts you? 

Jesus: She has expressed it to me herself. Being transparent with her has strengthened our relationship. The night of my incarceration her mom was eight months pregnant with her. She asked me not to go out, not to leave. I said I’ll be right back but I chose my gang over both of them. I made it difficult for this child. Even before she was born. When I expressed that to my daughter, she stood in silence for ten minutes and said, dad, thank you. 

Now I believe if every human being could understand the impact of what they did to their victims, they wouldn’t be doing a lot of things they are doing today. 

Diane: Self-awareness, right? What was your crime? It was against a police officer?

Jesus: Yes. It was the gang mentality I was adhering to, I felt offended and betrayed by my friend. I realize now it was never what he did or the feelings of betrayal. They were the same feelings I felt towards my mom every time she sent me back to  live with my father, knowing he abused me. I blamed everybody else for what I was going through. Now I have a beautiful relationship with my father, through dialoguing with him, I’ve been able to help him see why he was so angry and took it out on my siblings and me. 

Diane: You’re a living example of how people can change. 

Jesus: My father had a lot of problems coming over to a country that was foreign to him and not being able to speak. A month after he arrived, his father was murdered in Mexico. He was carrying around a lot of unprocessed trauma when he met my mother. My father was so angry. He taught us how he was treated. How he was brought up. My mom didn’t want to have more kids. She already had two kids and it was difficult for her being young, raising them on her own so she made it very clear to my father that she didn’t want any more kids. But my father deceived my mother and next thing you know, shes pregnant with me. After they separated,  my mom was very short with me. Every time she looked at me, I was reminding her of a lie. I was reminding her of my father. 

Diane: You stopped the intergenerational cycle of violence. Please elaborate.  

Jesus: When my girlfriend said she was pregnant, my grandma was there and asked me, if I wanted a daughter or a son?” Immediately, I said I wanted a daughter. In our Mexican culture, it’s not macho to hit a woman. So in my mind, if it’s a girl, she’s going to be safe from me. If it was a boy, I was scared I was going to raise him like my father raised me. When I shared this with my father, he just broke down. My girlfriend gave birth to my daughter when I was in prison. We didn’t ask about her, which contributed to the downward spiral I was on. The Lord has blessed me to go on. By God’s grace I’ve been able to be effective working with at-risk youth. It takes someone who’s been through it to reach somebody who’s going through it. This is my passion and what I’m pursuing today. This is one of my dreams and I can’t wait to help pay it forward with these youngsters because it’s a crazy world out here. God willing, they’ll be able to contribute. 

Diane: How was the day you were released? 

Jesus: My sister, her family and my daughter came to pick me up. The officer driving us to the gate says hey, no loitering. I was like man, I want to be able to hug my family. It was very overwhelming and we all just broke down crying. Right there, right there in the parking lot. Then we drove to see my family, over 34 of my siblings,  nieces and nephews were there. It was just beautiful. I was only able to spend an hour with them, but just to be able to embrace everyone who came into this world, while I was in prison. It’s a day I will never forget. Tears of joy and when they hugged me, it was a tighter hug, like they didn’t want to let me go. It was very beautiful. Thank you for asking.

Maurice Reed, 11 Years Inside

Maurice Reed, 11 Years Inside

Diane: Inside you were doing wonderful things like dancing and performing, have you had a chance out here?

Maurice: I’m not. We’ve been getting grants to shoot a post incarceration film, post about me, it’s been pretty cool. We just came back from Alcatraz the other day where we shot some footage. 

Diane: What are you doing on Alcatraz?

Maurice: We danced. Antoine Banks choreographed a dance scene on the yard and took some shots around the prison to incorporate into the film. 

Diane: Well next time you film there, let me know I’ll hop on that boat with you. 

Maurice: Ok!  We were all giddy and stuff being there, we missed a lot of stuff, so I’m thinking about going back. I’ll let you know. It reminded me of San Quentin. It’s an ugly place to be, but it’s a beautiful place at the same time.

Diane: Let’s back up and get a little history. Did you have a parole hearing? 

Maurice: Yes. I was found suitable at the board hearing. I had to wait for En Banc Consideration, which is when the governor might choose to decide to overrule the board’s decision. During an En Banc anybody from the public can come and comment.  It could be all up to the victim’s family.  I was so anxious the governor could say no, and I’d have to go through this process all over again.

Diane: Why were you considered for an En Banc?

Maurice: It was a political thing during COVID where the governor wanted to get re-elected and didn’t want no blood on his hands. He was sending so many people to En Bank. It was ridiculous.

Diane: What happened when you heard you were being freed?

Maurice: I cried because of all the hard work I’d done and all the people who helped me. And I was leaving behind people I felt should be there with me, youngsters who look up to me. It was an emotional rollercoaster. I’m trying to link people up to people  out here with those I was leaving behind. It was three days between when I got found suitable and when I left. During that time, I was just a water faucet. I told the guys inside I needed one day to myself. I spent a few hours just walking the yard, looking at the sunset. I did  a lot of self-reflection, going into the classrooms where we did a lot of our work. Just thinking about how I’m never going to forget the guys still here.

Diane: How did you body react to all the news?

Maurice: The first night before I was to leave, I couldn’t sleep. I’m staring at the ceiling, my mind is racing, like I got a lot of stuff I want to do. Then the last two days I slept like a baby. Finally, at three in the morning, everybody was up and yelling my name as I walked by. I’m trying to hold it together all right, don’t cry, but they’re crying as I’m walking down. I’m saying goodbye to so many people. My hands are getting clammy. I’m putting on fresh clothes. Oh my God, staring at my jeans and they have pockets that’s not made-up. I’m like, yo, this is dope. It’s simple things. I got color on me. I got a colored shirt. I’m feeling good. Then they’re like you can’t leave until we know there’s somebody out there at the gate for you. They said they’d called the number I’d given them and no one would pick up the phone, so I gave them another number and they’re not picking up. Finally, my man picked up. He had his phone off, he said he didn’t know. There’s a camera crew at the gate and that’s my people. I get in the van and get through the gate and I hear cheers and I just break down and start crying. My mom and sister came, and a friend took me shopping.  I just try to be modest and not, you know, spend a lot.

Diane: What was the first food you ate?

Maurice: We went to IHOP and I had raspberry pancakes with some candy store caramel stuff on top and a big cup of coffee. Everybody was trying to like having this big old thing, but I’m just happy to be free. You can get me coffee and donuts. I’m cool. 

Diane: What happened next?

Maurice: I had all my stuff set up for Alameda County. I had three jobs lined up. I had schooling set up and at the very last minute they said, we want you to go to Woodland, California for six months at the sober living house. I didn’t really get to  hang out with my family. They had a cake and like a little small gathering ready for me, but I didn’t get to go to it. I had to hurry up to get to Woodland.  

Diane: Wow, and how long were you at the sober living house? 

Maurice: Six months. 

Diane: What was it like?

Maurice: Oh my God. Horrible. It’s like a compound. Cockroaches. Dirty. But the employees were so nice and cool and went out of their way to help people. I wouldn’t want them to lose their jobs. I couldn’t have company. I’m isolated from my family, and when they do come up here, they have to stay outside the gate and wait for me. That was kind of upsetting because I was seeing more of my family in prison than I was there. 

Diane: What did you do to pass the time? 

Maurice: I started painting. I  worked out a lot. Inside I was part of the organization called, No More Tears and they helped me like real- real- real. They gave me stuff to do like calling people, checking on people, and doing Zoom meetings with a teacher named, Amie Dowling, from San Francisco University. She would pay me to talk to her class about certain topics and stuff. They wanted me to stay here. I was like-NO – I’m going back to the Bay Area where I have all my support.

Diane: It’s so weird they would put you there. How did you get transferred?

Maurice: One of my friends was a  house manager here and he like you know. Hey, I know you. I want you to come here. I’ll vouch for you, and he put in a good word for me and within a next couple days I was here. 

Diane: Where’s here?

Maurice:  Castro Valley in a house with just four people. The house is a really big house. I do the yard work. I feel so comfortable here. It’s a nice neighborhood, nice people, me and all my roommates get along well. I don’t have to pay unless I get a job.

Diane: What are your goals now?

Maurice: Finishing the film.  I’m almost finished with my phonebook, random poems that I wrote on the inside. It’s raw. Like how I want it to be. There’s no clear cut storyline or nothing like that. 

Diane: What’s the film about? 

Maurice: Amie Dowling came to see me, we did an artistic ensemble together in San Quentin. We’re like let’s do something and see what we get from it. We went to Mare Island in Vallejo and just started doing movement. We didn’t have a clear cut direction, no storyboard, no nothing. We found this snack shack. Let’s use this as a backdrop and we just started doing movements about post incarceration.  Yeah, we are free, but we are never free from our experience of San Quentin. You’ll see me in different outfits, different pieces of me, but in actuality they’re all me, you know, and it’s for me to meet the incarcerated me, who I was, and who I am today. It’s a beautiful thing. 

Diane: So what’s your endgame look like?

Maurice: We just got published in a dance magazine recently. We’ve been working on trying to wake up every day and be like yo, this is our job. Not no nine to five. I would love to do this. All day, all night. 

Diane: Tell us about your family.

Maurice:  The kids are running me crazy. I’m like ‘the favorite uncle.’ My sister got her license to be a nurse and I want to celebrate her and help her with the kids. My brother is a workaholic. I love the kids, but only in pieces of time. My mom, I love this woman. My family is great and I have a family who are not blood, we always talk every day.

Diane: In 13 years, what did you notice had changed out here? 

Maurice: The increase in the homeless population. Oakland was full of encampments on the side of the road. Empty parking lots are full of homeless camps. It’s heartbreaking and it’s everywhere. How do we have all this money and stuff but no place where people can eat and shower and stuff like that? 

Diane: Do you have any advice or encouraging words for people inside prison? If so, what would you tell them? 

Maurice: I would say follow your heart and surround yourself with people who are looking to do positive things.  Stay persistent and try to better yourself. Move forward and have empathy for others. Do programs. Do the group work.  I see these older guys really changing things. I want to be a part of that, people doing more than just serving their time. The guys who got less time are the ones who need groups the most because they’re coming in doing the same stuff that they’re doing on the streets.  Groups create change.

Diane: You’re so positive it’s awesome talking to you. I have one more question. What does Humans of San Quentin mean to incarcerated people?

Maurice: I love the title. I wanted to get into the media because the media always puts a twist on the stories of people that’s incarcerated. They don’t talk about people graduating, they don’t talk about the sets they do in tech; they talk about the bad things. So I want to humanize these stories. It’s a beautiful thing that makes you want to listen. Why doesn’t society not see people who made a mistake as human? Officers and staff inside like yo, we committed worse crimes than that. We just never got caught. Yeah, I really appreciate the name. 

David Baxter, 18 years inside

David Baxter, 18 years inside

David Baxter, 18 years inside

Diane: Take us back to the days leading up to your release.

David: It was a couple nights before. Sleep was not an option. My mind was racing. Even though you’re prepared, you’re still not prepared. You don’t know what to expect. The unknown can be scary, but it can be exciting at the same time. Nobody knew I was being released but my mother and my girlfriend. The night before, I just prayed, I don’t pray a lot, yet I prayed then. I prayed for strength for this next phase of my life. I was preparing for the biggest transition in my life. Clearly, I’ve never gone through something like this. Twenty years is not a small amount of time, I mean it’s TWENTY years. I was just mentally preparing, overwhelmingly excited and elated. I was more excited than nervous. The whole week before I was sending boxes home so I could just walk out the door with my bag.

 

Diane: Walk me through that morning. I assume the corrections officer came to get you?

David: Yes, I woke up to a correctional officer saying, “I think you’re leaving today, you have to wait for them to call you.” I called my mom to make sure she was out front. She was. I pretty much sat with my close circle of friends giving me well wishes, it’s always a bittersweet moment when someone you care about is leaving. I’ve taken that walk with people leaving us inside, so many times before. I always wondered when my day would finally come. For 19 years – I wondered. 

 

Diane: Did you have clothes to change into? 

David: Yes, I went out with a pair of busted sneakers because I had no other sneakers.  A pair of jeans and a regular t-shirt because I knew my mom had clothes outside the gate for me. Ultimately, my call came to go to booking and intake. When I arrived, the correctional officers took pictures of me for some reason, maybe it was to see any new tattoos. I was lucky enough to have my ID and my Massachusetts health card, which many people released still don’t have. Those cards have made this transition much easier, they help with attaining bank accounts and things of that nature. The Department of Corrections scored on that one. It might be the only thing they scored on. I walked out with my records. They also handed me an envelope with a $15 check with what I have in my canteen account. Not out of their account – out of my account. I had to ask, “Did you give me $15 bucks or is this out of my account?!”

 

Diane: Do they give you any money at all?

David: No! Nineteen years of hard time and labor and I couldn’t even get $15 bucks from the state. It felt so surreal to walk out that door and see a loved one waiting. I can’t even reflect on the emotion, it was a very emotional moment. It felt real to just get in the car without being shackled and cuffed. It felt weird and overwhelming because I hadn’t had that motion in so long. It was so weird and I was so happy. The first person I called was my girlfriend. I had her on the phone with my mother. That was the most emotional moment I’ve had since I’ve been home. That was all worth it, a very emotional moment for me and for her. She’s so happy I’m home. I still can’t believe it. After that, I went and changed, and the second thing is I texted my daughter. 

 

Diane: How old is she?

David: She’s 21. She’s in her third year in college for journalism. 

 

Diane: Have you had a chance to see her since you’ve been out?

David: No, she’s at Indiana University. I talk regularly on Facetime and she sends pictures. It’s beautiful. It’s so good to be able to send a couple of dollars here and there if I have it.

 

Diane: What was the first meal you enjoyed?

David: Seafood! I’ve been eating seafood since I’ve been here. Any chance I get, seafood is my choice of food. 

 

Diane: How does it feel to be out?

David: I see people looking at me and they just have no idea what I just went through. It’s amazing how they just don’t know a person’s story and the trenches of hell that I just came from. They can’t see my perseverance. Nothing can get me down; I’m high off life. I’m feeling good, everything’s beautiful. I just love it. I’m in a happy place now and I’m taking it one day at a time. I haven’t been this happy in a long time. I’m just happy to be here. I’m ready to start putting the pieces together slowly but surely. I’m not going to rush. I’m mentally prepared for this. Nothing will happen overnight, that’s what I started preparing for. 

 

Diane: Are you in a transitional house?

David: Yeah, I’m in what they call a halfway house. It’s called Gavin house. I asked to stay here. It’s a four to six month inpatient program, and it gives me time to assess my situation. I think I need to be around professionals who understand my situation. 

 

Diane: What’s it like?

David: It’s rigorous. I did not know this house was geared towards recovery. When I say geared toward recovery, I mean geared toward recovery. I’m talking about one or two meetings a week- it’s all they do.

 

Diane: And you’re required to go to them?

David: Yeah, because I’m here. I’m required to go to them. That’s what this is! The Gavin Foundation is a good foundation. They’re probably the most resource-filled program in the state. The house is located on Castle Island surrounded by water. Beautiful. It’s hard to explain- it’s such a majestic look, especially at dawn. It’s breathtakingly beautiful. There’s water everywhere. It’s just crazy.

 

Diane: Nice, for re-entry you mean?

David: Yeah, they got the pesos. If I went to a regular halfway house it probably wouldn’t be as resourceful. We’ve even had cookouts since I’ve been here. When you finish here and you still have nowhere to go, you could probably get away with a three-quarter house. That’s less restrictive. You are not required to pay full rent, maybe $125 a week. That’s nothing compared to the rich and over-priced places like New York and San Francisco. 

 

Diane: How were you able to stay at The Gavin House?

David: I was proactive. I started searching way before my parole. I got a list of all the houses in the state. I had heard about the Gavin House- I couldn’t get in here by myself. It’s definitely who you know. I called some people that dealt with the foundation directly. They did in one phone call what I couldn’t do in eight months, if I’m gonna be honest. It shows that everything is politicized, and nepotism plays a part. Reentry should not be in that space, but unfortunately it is. It got me on the top of the list. It’s a good place. They have food to eat, but it has certain rules. There are certain jobs I can’t get. You have to be back at the house by 5 o’clock for the community meal. That’s like the gospel rule. I’m like, “I care about my career. I don’t care about eating chicken wings with you.” 

 

Diane: What do you want to do for work?

David: I want to work with the youth and emerging adults in the human service field. That’s my passion. I may have to wait until I can get out of here. I’ll need to be flexible to work with the youth and I can’t do that living here. I might have to take a job anywhere just to get money. I might have to do that despite my level of education and skill. I may have to suck it up as they say. I’ve been offered two supervising positions because I know people, but I couldn’t take them because I’m in this program. I have swallowed my pride and started applying to jobs like Trader Joe’s and Home Depot. 

 

Diane: What do you look forward to everyday?

David: Well, I’m in a city I’ve never been to and know nothing about. Sometimes when everybody goes out, I have to stay. Sometimes I have friends come and get me. I have a friend in Lynn, Massachusetts who has driven me around. He took me to Nike, bought me some sneakers and a couple of shirts, and took me out to eat. I also have my friend who sent you the photos. I spend most of my time with her. She helps me with my resume and using the laptop. 

 

Diane: How did you score a laptop?

David: I was at Emerson college the other day. They gave me a laptop and I’m trying to figure out how to use it. I want to really know how to use it. I’m trying to practice everyday. These are the skills I’m going to need to work in today’s field, no matter what I do. I love technology. All I do is sit and play with it. I’m curious. “What does this do?” I see everybody now with this system. I’m always asking, “How do you do that? What is that app?” I’m learning quickly. Sometimes you’ll have to tell me something twice, but definitely not three times. Some things I just figure out on my own. It helps that they gave us tablets in prison, and they had an Android set-up so I was already ahead of the game on some things. There’s all this new software. I’m familiar with Excel, but they have all these programs I’ve never heard of. I’m like, “Alright, don’t worry about it, difficult takes a day, impossible takes a week, I’ll be back. Next time you see me, I will know about that.”

 

Diane: How are you? You’ve had a couple job offers, you have family, friends and a good house. Sounds like you’re in a good situation.

David: Well, I’m in a situation. Right now, it’s probably a good situation for me. I don’t know where I’m going after. I’m not from here, so I don’t know what I’m going to do. I have to worry about housing. I want to stay here, that was my whole purpose of coming here. It would be so easy to move to western Massachusetts where I resided before. My whole purpose was coming to engage in situations to see if I could make this my home.

 

Diane: Did you have a choice where you were going to live?

David: Yeah, I could parole wherever I wanted to. You give them the address and you go. People and places and things have to change if you want to change. I don’t believe that going back to the western part of the state and the cities and towns I was before was the best thing for me. Old friends, old tropes, old behaviors. 

 

Diane: What about your parole officer?

David: I only have to deal with him for a year, which is great. I’ve only had one interaction with him. The first day I came home. He put the ankle bracelet on me. I see him the first Tuesday of the month. Everybody in the Gavin House that’s on parole has him, so they say he’s alright. 

 

Diane: In an ideal world, what kind of job would you get?

David:  I want to work with youth at a non-profit, like the one that was offered to me. But the shifts are seven to five. Four days on, three days off, on a ten hour shift, so I couldn’t work there and live at the Gavin House. There’s another non-profit called Bridge Over Troubled Waters. The Human Resources Department wanted me to be a supervisor. It would have required me to work during the afternoon and in the evening. I can’t do that and live here, so that’s two jobs out the window. Great salaries, great benefits, great organizations.

Thanh Tran, 6 years inside

Thanh Tran, 6 years inside

Thanh Tran, 6 years inside

Diane: Start when your sentence was commuted.

Thanh: In January, the governor commuted my sentence. He said, “This person deserves a second chance to be in society.” I went in front of a parole board to argue my case, that I am a rehabilitated human being and not a threat to society. However, I wouldn’t have the chance to get out until next year at the earliest, if all things worked out. The District Attorney of Santa Clara said, “You know what? Thanh deserves to be out right now.” He resentenced me to 1170D,” which is basically resentencing for a myriad of reasons, but in my situation, it was for good conduct. It was May when I got resentenced, and literally two weeks later, I was kicked out the door.

Diane: Tell us about your release.

Thanh: I got my box of clothes, and as I’m changing out they were like, “Hey, you actually have to do a rapid Covid test real quick? You know, I’m floating, I’m joyous, I’m out of here, this is the win, I’m ecstatic. I go into this Covid test and I’m like, “This is nothing, I don’t feel sick. I should be good. They were like, “Hey, you have Covid! As a matter of fact, we recommend that you’re sent directly to a hotel. We don’t recommend you go back to your family.” I was like, “Woah, this is crazy to make these last-minute adjustments right when everyone is outside at the gates for me.” I wasn’t sure what to do. I called my partner, “What do you think is the right move?” They’re like, “Give Thanh back to us – we want him back right now. We’ll take care of him.”

Diane: Were you nervous the night before? Did you sleep?

Thanh: No, I didn’t sleep at all. The night before I was released, I stayed up all night talking to my bunkie, my closest friend. We talked about our plans, our goals, we talked about basically everything I was going to do when I’m free. I think somewhere around three I must have passed out. Two hours later, I’m fully dressed and ready to go. I’m ready for the CO to pop the cell and let me out because I’m ready to go home. 10 ½ years was plenty for me. 

Diane: How were the officers when you were leaving?

Thanh: The officers were all very cordial. They were all business, making sure I was the person that was supposed to be getting released. I must have had my name and CDCR number checked seven times on the way out. When they told me I’m Covid positive, they made me double-mask up, double-glove up. I kinda looked like one of those guys who kidnapped ET. I’m in this hazmat suit, essentially. I got into the van and couldn’t breathe because of this double mask and face shield. Finally, I saw all my family and loved ones and we did this weird dance of – do we hug or not? Some of them said, “Screw it, we’ll quarantine with you,” and gave me a hug. I broke down in tears and cried. I couldn’t believe that it was really over. I’ve been out for two months now, and it still feels shocking to me. Just now, I’m here mopping my foster mom’s house and I’m like, “Damn, I’m really here mopping my foster mom’s house; I’m not in a cage anymore.” It’s still mind-blowing.

Diane: Take us back to your release at the gate.

Thanh: I got in the car with my partner, Lupe, who took me back to Sacramento, and I quarantined with her and my little sister who actually had Covid. It was like a little quarantine party, it was excellent.

Diane: What was your first meal?

Thanh: My first meal was terrible. I was starving. I said, “Let’s just stop and grab some food, so we stopped by Jack ‘N’ the Box. It was greasy as hell. My body was used to eating Top Ramen. I’m not going back to Jack ‘N’ the Box ever again. That was my first terrible meal.

Diane: What was your first good meal?

Thanh: My elderly foster Mom rolled up in the driveway of my little sister’s house with vegetarian food from the temple. I hadn’t eaten that since I was a little kid. It was the best meal ever because one, it was delicious, two, it was healthy and three, it was nostalgic.

Diane: What did she make?

Thanh: She made Bì Bún, white noodles with vegetables and a vegetarian alternative for shredded pork, made of shredded potatoes. It’s all vegetarian and it’s amazing. 

Diane: Was your parole officer okay with you going to Sacramento?

Thanh: Actually, my parole required me to go to Sacramento. I wanted to go to San Jose where I have housing. My parole forced me to go to Sacramento and I was like, “Alright, that’s where my little sister’s quarantining anyway, so it wasn’t a big deal. It actually worked out for parole, but now I’m stuck in Sacramento because my parole transfer is not working out. 

Diane: What were those first couple of days like?

Thanh: It was wonderful. I was Covid-positive but I didn’t have any symptoms.

I just hung out with my little sister. We were in the house for a week talking and catching up. We played board games. It was beautiful.

Daine: You mentioned you and your cellie talked about your hopes and goals. Have you accomplished any since you were released?

Thanh: There were small goals. I told him, “I want to be at the gates to pick you up,” because he was in the process of getting resentenced himself. He’s supposed to be coming home any day now, as a matter of fact. I also talked about career goals, like doing policy work. I talked about doing music. Since I’ve been out, I officially got hired with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. I’m also in the Comm Department doing film work. I’m actually living out those dreams. Those steps are manifesting as we speak. I’m still working on my music goals. Music is a big investment on the front end financially before you ever see any returns. I was on the San Quentin Mixtapes if you ever heard of that. I sing and I rap…kind of like some Drake-type vibe. I rap about love, relationships, hustlin,’ grindin,’working hard for what you deserve.  I rap about things I experienced on the streets and about how you have to be above that stuff. I don’t rap about guns, I don’t rap about selling drugs, I don’t rap about violence, none of that stuff. I’m trying to invite people to go a different way. I’m trying to give people motivation – like, “Go get a job, bro!”

Diane: Did you experience any transitional shock?

Thanh: They’re so many things that shocked me, like driving. I was tripping out- people are such dangerous drivers. I remember when my little sister helped me set up a TV in my room. We had a remote controller, she hit the little microphone button to start talking to it and it shocked the shit out of me. I was like, “Hold on! How long have you had this technology?” The youth shocked me. Being around my nieces and nephews, talking to them about their struggles and what culture is like for them. Lots of exclamation points behind the shock.

Diane: What do you look forward to doing? 

Thanh: The thing that I enjoy the most is doing absolutely nothing. I like it when I’m not busy because usually I’m super swamped, taking calls, meetings, etc. I commute at least once or twice a week between the Bay and Sacramento, so I like just being at home and watching TV, being with my little sister and talking crap!

Diane: How has the process of rejoining society been?

Thanh: I feel that I’m blessed and have had a lot of support in a lot of ways. Reentering has been fairly seamless. As for discrimination, when I opened a bank account, they were like, “Why don’t you have credit? All I had was my driver’s license and my prison I.D. Why this, that and the other?” I was like, “Alright, I was imprisoned.” There was no way to get around it. Immediately, the treatment was different. Immediately, I could tell that the bank teller was not feeling me. He was curious. He asked a lot of prying questions. He was like, “Man, what were you in prison for?  “Well, what do you need a bank account for? Can you tell me what you’re going to be spending money for? You’re not selling drugs, are you? Is this account going to be used for drugs?” I was like, “No, dude! What the fuck?” Everything was cool until I said I was imprisoned. I switched banks immediately.  The word “important” doesn’t highlight how pivotal having credit is in our society. I feel like that’s another struggle I’ve been going through, just trying to figure out how to get my credit right. I’d like to think I’m a fairly intelligent guy, and I’ve been really struggling making a bunch of calls. The average incarcerated person has a very low education level. A person who is illiterate or something – how are they supposed to reenter society, get their credit and be able to navigate all this bureaucracy without assistance?

Diane: What other parts of society surprised you?

Thanh: A good thing I’ve noticed is  people are a lot more conscious and thoughtful, especially in the language around the LGBTQ community and people of color. There’s still a lot of bigotry of course, but it’s refreshing to see people care, they are trying. I don’t always get the pronoun stuff right; I’m still figuring it out. A thing that surprised me negatively is the amount of homelessness. In Sacramento, all the way up and down the freeway ramps are a bunch of tents. My family, my mom and my oldest brother are both homeless and addicted to drugs, so homelessness is something that hits me close to home. It’s wild, Sacramento is our state’s capital. This is supposed to be a place we’re proud of, yet it’s like toe up. That was shocking.

Diane: I saw you in Norway when you were recently released. How did that happen?

Thanh: I got invited to Norway when I was still in prison with Uncuffed, the podcast broadcasted from inside San Quentin. I needed to get a passport. My parole to approve it. We needed funding. There were all these moving pieces. Honestly, I didn’t have that much faith that it would work out. But it all came together. I was on a flight to Norway, it was my first time ever on a plane. I’d never been anywhere before my incarceration. I was a gang member. I never really left my block, this small-ass radius in South Sacramento. It was the first time I’d been on a plane, and it was a wild experience, to see a whole new culture and people.

Diane: How was traveling? 

Thanh: I think the best way to describe it, there are no expectations on you in any way. You can be your truest self. Nobody knows you and nobody expects you to be a certain way. I don’t have to be anybody the world expects me to be. I can just be Thanh Tran. I can be my goofiest self. I can do whatever. It was a blessing. It was an absolute blessing.

Diane: Did any prisons stand out to you in Norway?

Thanh: Yeah, absolutely. I didn’t know what I was expecting, but I didn’t expect to see so many people suffering. I was kind of Pollyanna in my belief that Norway was the way to go. These are humane prisons and people are happy there. I stepped into the prisons and the first thing the first incarcerated person said to me was, “Brother, help me. They have us on a 22 hour lockdown right now. They’re going to show you a pretty prison, but we’re all slammed all day.” I thought, maybe this dude is trippin, but more people kept coming up like, “Bro, please tell the world that we’re here suffering.” I came to find out that Norwegian prisons are violating Geneva conventions right now. They’ve actually been cited for it and have a bunch of lawsuits against the prison system right now. Ironically enough, they’re still selling themselves as one of the best prison systems to the world. I think that my biggest take away from the Norwegian prisons is that prisons are still prisons no matter how pretty you make them. Suffering is still suffering. We have to create new systems if we want to see a better society, and more humane treatment. It doesn’t matter how pretty you make it, whether you put it on an island, a brewery or a mountain.

Diane: I’m laughing at the brewery. That wouldn’t really suck if you were in a brewery.

Thanh: Right? They turned a brewery into a prison and took all the brew with them, so it was a complete loss.

Diane:  What prisons did you visit in Norway?

Thanh: I went to the Oslo prison and Bastøy Prison- that was the island prison.

Diane: Did you have a better experience at the island?

Thanh: There were horses, people riding bikes, a ferry operated by incarcerated people, jellyfish and goats, and it was just bananas. There were officers barbecuing with incarcerated people, officers running a marathon with incarcerated people, they live in little cottages. They live like Little House on the Prairie but in prison. However, the first thing people said when we finally talked to the incarcerated people, “Brother, this is a prison. We’re not happy here. It may look beautiful all around us, but we can’t talk to our families. We can’t leave this island. We’re still being punished. I think another thing that was highlighted when I was at Bastøy Prison: they said there were about 50 incarcerated residents there, and there’s 3000 people in their entire system. That means that only a small percentage of incarcerated people get to experience this nice island resort prison. No matter how nice and plush this looks, this is not accessible to your entire incarcerated population. There’s a rare, small lucky 50 out of 3,000. I kept that perspective in mind.

Diane: Is it true they spend their last nine months of incarceration there? 

Thanh: No, there are some people who have been serving a couple of years, but generally it’s for short-termers. It’s the equivalent of a fire camp in California, but it’s on an island with horses, goats and jellyfish. 

Diane: Is there anything you want to share?

Thanh: I want to highlight the suffering of the brothers who are still incarcerated right now. I want to highlight what learning to live with COVID in prison means – solitary confinement, shutdowns left and right, being infected multiple times. I was infected with COVID three times, and again when I was released. Even though the world found a way to live with COVID, in prisons it means more and more suffering and more and more human dignity stripped away from you.