Messages from Within

Messages from Within

Hello readers. This is Alex Ross, Humans of San Quentin’s poetry director. Those of us in prison have all made mistakes that we cannot take back. We were prisoners to our ignorance. We cannot give you advice, but we can offer some food for thought from our own perspective. Before you pick up that gun, hit a person, or decide to use drugs, consider the outcome of our mistakes and ask yourself: do you really want prison to be your final destination?

“Food for Thought” by Alex, 54

Question
If I were four fingers,
A palm, and a thumb
Attached to a wrist
Who would I be attached to
Who would I work for
What would my mission be
Would I be just a limb
Or a boxer’s knockout hand
Would I be an audience’s clapping hand
Or a priest’s praying hand
Would I be a woman’s hand doing the job
Of a man’s hand
Or a woman’s hand rearing children
Again and again
Would I be a chief, a thief,
Police, or a creep?
A hand has no choice
You do.

“Falling Forward” by Dennis, 49

Look back at the cold air floating around the child
who decides the world is unnurturing

 Look back at the doors life drags us through
these gateways to beliefs that weren’t the truth

Look back at the sum of your choices
pretending everything happens for a reason

Look back at the prisons I built for myself
long before I even came to prison

Look back at that long night of tears
My conscience weeps over the faces I’ve harmed,
the faces I can’t remember

Look, back through the multiverse to the life I
could’ve built if those days never happened

Look back at the change the next minute offers on endorsement

LOOK. We can breathe again. We are perfectly
imperfect alchemists capable of turning our hard
things into gold

I’m much better for looking more repentant,
humble, wise,
knowing I have my own answer. 

“More than Enuff” and “Trickle, Trick, Treacle, Trauma” by Paul, 64

More Than Enuff?

Am I not a man?
If I am not,
Then what I am?
Can I not bend light
So as to be unseen,
Like a double-heliotroped,
Mirrored magazine?
Like condensation,
Slipping through walls?
Cannot I reconstitute
My nucleoid mass,
So that I may drift,
Like a vapored gas?
May I not twist time
Returning history,
Like a reimagined memory?
Cannot I bend reality
Travel through space,
Within Dark Void’s
Desperate face?
He has heard my plea
Beyond this place
Saying that I must yet flee
To truly be free
I dream through these walls,
Unseen, yet still me
Within memories’ halls,
My mind drifts away,
A macabre mystery
Life’s distorted play
Neglected history
Trying not to be annoyed
Still existing
Within this dark void
I am all powerful?
I am utterly helpless?
I am neither?
I am both?
Yes,
And No
Lord God
Thank you though
For Grace
Within this place 

Trickle, Trick, Treacle, Trauma

Lusted,
A beautiful angel I mistook
Thrusted,
A hearty pebble under her brook
Busted,
A flying fish she did hook
Trusted,
Misbegotten pole
Encrusted,
My beleaguered soul
Trickle, Trick, Treacle, Trauma

Stomped,
Into roiling soil
Abused,
Navajo mud toy toil
Disused sock puppet,
On grass
Her hand,
Hear my love-song,
So crass
Trickle, Trick, Treacle, Trauma

Blue,
Phosphorescent specter
Taste,
Of love’s sweet nectar
I could only
But concur
Did not deter
Trickle, Trick, Treacle, Trauma

This was not
His blessing
A flight from above
Of God’s most merciful dove
No, twas a soulless succubus
For me to love
Trickle, Trick, Treacle, Trauma

Hidden, black mass
Heart breaking like glass
Lustful Fool
Fell into the deep end of the pool
Trickle, Trick, Treacle, Trauma

I could not break free
Of this terrible responsibility
Please release me
Trickle, Trick, Treacle, Trauma

Itch,
In my teeth,
Fear,
My feet,
The Abyss beneath
Myself,
I do hereby bequeath
Myself a funerary wreath
Trickle, Trick, Treacle, Trauma

“To Know Your Strongest Power” by White Eagle, 63

A Sundance Woman
Like the Morning Star
Different, powerful
Equal partner

 Mother Earth
Father Sky
Heart and mind
As one

They give us knowledge
Our ceremonies bear the best

 Honor
Respect

Men
Women

 Song
Dance

 Family
Tribe

 Children
Generation 

Power and Beauty
Spirit and Heart

 Mother earth
The Indian Woman

Dennis, 49

Dennis, 49

Red Flag Journals #1

December 13, 2020

I’m currently incarcerated for murdering my wife, Jasmine, in our living room. Nothing I write here is intended to justify, condone, or absolve me of accountability for my choice to use violence against Jasmine. It was inexcusable, criminal, and I pleaded guilty because I was guilty. It is my fault. I didn’t know what I didn’t know – eighteen years ago or even threads that stretch back to the 1970s. I was imprisoned by my thoughts before I came to prison. Besides walking the paths of shame, regret, remorse, and guilt, I engaged in the folly of what I could’ve done differently to de-escalate a conversation that went from civil to homicide that afternoon. I am going to share with you the processes that would have kept me seated on the couch moments before I attacked Jasmine.

Here is what I’ve learned in the last eighteen years.

Empathy
That fateful afternoon I distortedly told myself that Jasmine was the enemy, my tormentor. I was the victim. She was an awesome mother, a good wife, and she deserves better. I didn’t tell myself the right story. I didn’t question if my thoughts were real. I recall the pain of my mother’s sudden passing when I was eighteen: the despair, the tailspin, the loss. But I didn’t recall that memory as I came off the couch and attacked Jasmine, essentially making my three daughters at daycare orphans. I never disrespected my mother or grandmother; I was on my best behavior around these women. So why not my wife?

Toxic Masculinity
I now understand that I was socialized into a warped ideal of masculinity that was toxic in its origin. Sitting on that couch, I not only denied being in pain, but I wouldn’t acknowledge or recognize my primary emotions: hurt, fear, and shame. It was more comforting to let anger bully those feelings and convert them into false pride, power, and confidence.

Seeking Help
I’ve learned about extreme individualism. I didn’t ask for help for my mental health issues because it wasn’t a sign of strength or seen as manly.

Mindfulness
A critical component to retaining dignity and composure. By tuning into my bodily sensations, what I’m physically sensing in the present moment, I’m able to be aware of my thoughts without attaching reactive labels to them. I’m aware of aggression and how it plays out in domestic violence. Being grounded by definition cultivates more choices. They include inner dialogues I’ve learned in AA: “First thought wrong;” “Do the next right thing;” “Will this decision affect the quality of my life?”

Domestic Abuse
I understand that even when violence isn’t physical, there are other acts that I used to impose my will on my partners. I didn’t know that belittling, betrayal, harassment, coercion, fear, lies, slamming doors, throwing keys, eye rolls, weaponizing the finances, and heavy breathing are all forms of domestic violence. I do now. I’ve learned that daily life stressors such as bills, unemployment, and medical issues can pressure cook and be catalysts for domestic abuse.

Childhood Trauma
I’ve learned I wasn’t responsible for my upbringing, my own abuse and trauma. Now, as an adult, I’m responsible for my choices. I’m responsible for not seeking a sponsor or mentor to help me reimagine the poor examples of manhood I saw as a child. I was a man-child, needy and dependent. I mentally never left home.
I continually burdened my partners with unrealistic expectations, seeking the parent I never had.

I’ve learned to hold my own hand.

I’ve learned about the shame and pain I’ve carried all my life. I’ve recycled it and I transfer it to others’ dehumanizing feelings. In the past, I never had a problem dehumanizing others. Now, I’ve learned I can’t use my past to justify hurting others. My past shouldn’t be another’s future.

Relationships
A relationship is not a win-lose zero sum game, as I’ve always approached them. I’ve been taught the concept of time-outs: where mindfulness meets intention in an escalating heated situation. I’ve learned about fair negotiating, effective communication, agreeing on how to disagree. The 48-hour rule where a couple can revisit a disagreement in two days to determine if it is still relevant. I had a family that loved me, the love I always perceived as elusive. My daughters would run outside to greet me when I arrived home. But my mind was shallow and self-absorbed. Now my daughters run from me, eighteen years later. Actions have consequences. In critical moments, it’s not just what is occurring. It’s how the story is being told about what is occurring. After my self evaluation, I realized I lacked the values of grace, humility, fairness, and gratitude.

Adulting
I’ve learned that starting my own family was a privilege, a responsibility, not a right or accessory. I had a family, yet I acted as if I was a bachelor. I now know to pick a lane and stay true to it. An unacknowledged belief system is how I internalized that women were weak and inferior objects. My narrow-minded sexism and sense of entitlement couldn’t tolerate Jasmine’s standing up for herself. Women existed to tell my fragile ego how great I was. My abusive dysfunction was dangerous. I’ve learned that there are always alternatives to violence. Real men maintain self-control and meet challenging moments with integrity. That the strategies I used to sustain control with women consistently undermined our trust, intimacy, love, and connection; in other words, an equally satisfying, mature relationship.

Today
In San Quentin, I facilitate groups on domestic violence and share these lessons with men who will return to their community and relationships, where I’m transparent in sharing my narrative. Everything I do is about amends, to honor Jasmine. Compassion, kindness, advocacy. I can’t pay it back, but I can pay it forward. Remorse and guilt aren’t silent spectator events. I’ve never rationalized or blamed anyone for my choices that day. That’s like looking in the mirror, seeing a dirty face, and wiping the mirror. San Quentin’s culture of transformation has allowed me access to education, resources, literature, workshops, and self-help groups where I gained insight and understanding into how my anti-social beliefs and actions became normalized; to see the unseen foundation of my attitudes to make the unconscious conscious.

I’m responsible for taking my daughters’ mother.
For Jasmine not reaching her future, her benefit to society.
I rightfully sit in this cell.
I’m a cautionary tale.
If someone reads this in the community…
before a family is annihilated by patriarchal recklessness
before someone is taken that isn’t yours to take
before an act is committed that can’t be undone
before the action that ends will never been unseen
before residency is taken up in these cold, lonely institutions
before tears stain the pillows every night
before the life sentence
before the children have to go to the cemetery to visit their parent
…choose responsibility before you leave the couch.

Michael Moore

Michael Moore

A Typical Morning

September 8, 2022

Waking up on the wrong side of the bed in prison can’t be helped. Since the beds are attached to the wall on one side, there is only one side to wake up to, and that’s in prison. But the quietest time in prison is from 11pm to 5am. Out of respect, all TVs, radios, and loud conversations cease after 10pm. I wake at 4:30am when the guard slams the locks open on our doors. Some guards put a little more snap into turning the key to ensure a bang loud enough to be heard 50 feet away. Occasionally, a guard will not be such a hater and will thoughtfully unlock it quietly. That kindness is always appreciated and welcomed. My celle rises and makes us both coffee. I often continue in lying in bed with my eyes closed. I hear him say, “Coffee’s on your shelf.” “Thank you,” I sleepily respond. Then I hear all the sounds of a person getting ready for the day. Going to the bathroom, washing his face, getting dressed, and when he’s finished, he lets me know by saying, “The floor’s all yours.” The cell is five and a half feet wide with only 22 inches of walkway, so there’s room for one of us on the floor at a time. At 5:30am the porter can be heard preparing a mop bucket that has one bad wheel to mop the tier before we are let out for chow. By that time, we are both fully dressed with spoons and forks in our pockets, ready for the walk and line to pick up our trays in the chow hall. That’s when the noise starts and doesn’t stop until 10 or 11pm.

 

Thanks, Steve

September 5, 2022

After eight years of ducking and dodging prison politics, I was finally in a Level Two prison–in San Quentin–and walking to my first for-credit college class. I was with another student named Steve. I explained how I had made a decision to abandon being a criminal in exchange for going to college. It was the first long-term plan I had ever made in my life. I told Steve that I thought I could earn a passing grade if I worked hard enough. He said that I should shoot for better than that. I argued that whether a doctor gets an A or a C, he’s still a doctor. He asked which doctor I would want working on me. For some time, Steve would not know how powerful that question would be. It haunted me. The fact was, I did not believe I was capable of earning an A. He motivated me to put my all into my new class and I earned an A- in intermediate algebra! Today, with only four credits to go, I’m holding a 3.51 GPA. Thank you, Steve.

 

What a Trip

August 28, 2022

What a trip. For over two decades I’ve listened to other prisoners describe their trips to ‘outside’ medical appointments. I often wished for a reason to be taken. Having to dress in an orange carrot suit, handcuffed to a waist chain, and shackled. This is enough for many to refuse the trip. When the opportunity finally came and I was asked if I wanted to refuse, “Hell no, let’s go!” was my response.

I came to prison at forty and am sixty-two now. I eagerly accepted the chains. Two guards were my armed escorts. The vans have cages constructed in the interior and there are two-by-four inch holes in a grate that covers the windows of a white van. It is enough to view the world from inside. As soon as we cleared the big gate, passing through the 25 foot walls, the visual world exploded. A panoramic of colors and distances not seen in so long, except on TV, captivated my whole being. I shifted my trussed up body so my face was flush to the grate, excitedly peering through one of the holes. Instead of seeing in yards, I could see for miles! The depth and dimensions of the real world are not captured on a TV screen. I could see the sunlight dancing off the water of the bay. The surface appeared to be covered in dazzling diamonds. Absolutely mesmerizing! All of the sudden a deep sense of sadness began to well up inside me. The realization of all the beauty I have been missing for so long threatened to overwhelm me. My eyes began to water. Everything blurred as I shook my head refusing to succumb. I’d waited a long time to take this trip and wanted to miss nothing.

I didn’t miss a thing. Besides all the vivid colors there were thousands of cars of every shade and shape. The same I noticed were the drivers. One lady looked over and saw me peering out of the van and smiled kindly. It felt good to be seen and warmly waved to. For years I’d been watching “Motorweek” to keep up on automotive technology. Now I was identifying all the different makes and models. Combustible, hybrid, and all electric. The freeway is like a huge moving car show. The award by far went to an Eddie Bauer Special Edition truck with everything a person would need to tackle and conquer the Badlands. Big knobby tires, lights everywhere, and protective armor along the bottom edges of the lifted body. The driver of the van made me feel like I was on a roller coaster ride. I laughed out loud from the giddiness of traveling so fast. Then I was shocked into silence by the surprising size of the windmills. I knew what Don Quixote must have felt like. Those machines are gigantuous! I’ve never seen anything that big moving.

Arriving at the hospital I walked, if that’s what it can be called in shackles, past people that either smiled warmly or kept their eyes averted nervously. I had my thumbs hooked into the waist chain like a cowboy and held my head high. Broken or not, I didn’t want to look like it. Shackles are difficult to master. I still have scabs on my achilles tendons from taking too big of a stride and the stainless steel digging into my skin.

The return trip was just as exciting with one significant difference. When I saw the prison in the distance, I was taken back by how small it is. The world I have created on the ‘inside’ has all the activity of the outside. I rise from my bed, commute to work five days a week, take night classes in college, engage in healthy activities on weekends, make new friends, and forget old ones. I do laundry, clean the house, read, watch TV, and go to sleep just to do it all again the next day. But, I do all of this within a walled area of five to ten acres. I was surprised at how big my world is in such a small space. I would eagerly go out into the outside world again. All I can say is: what a trip.

Miguel Sifuentes

Miguel Sifuentes

Picture Day on the Yard

July 23, 2022 

“You never know what is going to happen here,” the Lower Yard Correctional officer told us as we waited to take a picture. He tells people this when they ask when he’s going to take pictures again. I went to the yard to take a picture because you just never know when you’ll be out on the yard again. None of us knows what may happen in our life period, and so even the simple act of taking a picture is a blessing. I have gratitude for the opportunity to even be alive and to share a moment in time here with loved ones who are far away, living on the outside. All the twists and turns of the endless Covid lockdowns, the transfers, the terrible sickness, or perhaps even the good news of freedom will only leave the memories of the wounds and the healed scars from this place. In the first Covid lockdown, I didn’t get to go out to the Lower Yard for 15 months. Like most everyone else, I hadn’t gotten to see my loved ones for over a year until I had a video visit. I’m mindful of all those that never saw their loved ones again because of Covid, of those who never got to see their loved ones again because of acts and crimes like mine, too.

When I walked out on the yard, it was cold and windy, only a few people were out. Only one guy, Don, was waiting to take a picture. He was taking a picture for his daughter, who he missed. She wanted to see him even if it was just through a picture. We were actually standing there waiting for the officer when we learned he had taken an older gentleman to the hospital because he’d fallen down the stairs and scraped his hand. For his picture, he held up his bandaged hand, and told us the picture was for Humans of San Quentin. He took a tumble for us. As the wind blew, the five of us encouraged Don to smile big for his daughter, because we knew the importance. He did, not with that gloomy expression that can come across in prison pictures so much with strained smiles, but with a real eye-smile. I took mine with a basketball and my workout gear since these are the things that I most do outside. It’s as if I’d look on a normal day on the yard for my family to see, and even though my own smile looked a little strained, I was content with the pics.

The cameraman, Tony I learned, was amazed by his own work. He said, “Man, it looks like a magazine picture!” As we waited for the pictures to print out, Tony told me that he thought he’d never be here to do something like this. He never thought he would make it out of the Secured Housing Unit in Pelican Bay State Prison after a lifetime there. He said that he had never touched a digital camera before and was surprised that he was trusted with such a precious item when he volunteered for the job.

Today, I really saw the struggle from behind the lens.

 

Mt. Tamalpais College Graduation

June 24, 2022 
Edwin Chavez and Miguel Sifuentes

Mt. Tamalpais, San Quentin’s on-site college program, held their first graduation ceremony as an accredited institution. It is the only independently accredited college entirely within a prison in the US.

This was the very first graduation since 2019 at San Quentin State Prison due to Covid-19. The procession of the graduates was the highlight of the year for the residents and the administration.

In the past several months, San Quentin has been on modified program due to several recent outbreaks of Covid-19 from the Omicron and BA.2 variants. This has made it difficult for faculty and students to consistently be present.
On May 3, 2022 classes were temporarily canceled for some of the participants after several residents from one of the housing units, West Block, tested positive for Covid.

Shortly thereafter, the rest of the prison’s housing units also went on quarantine, temporarily canceling classes and the semester.
As a result, some students had to make up their final exams the evening before graduation, while others will complete their coursework in the summer and fall. There was uncertainty on whether the graduation ceremony would even be held due to the repeated outbreaks.

June 24, 2022 was a brighter day that brought together the inside and outside communities to commemorate the accomplishment of the MTC graduates, who earned an Associate of Arts Degree in Liberal Studies. This day was enjoyed not only by the faculty, but several members of the prison administration, family members and friends who were able to cheer on their loved ones’ accomplishments in person. This was the first time since 2015 that family members were allowed to be in attendance in the Chapel area on the prison grounds alongside their loved ones.

The ceremony began with the graduates entering the Protestant Chapel to loud applause. The event was hosted by Dr. Amy Jamgochian, Chief Academic Officer for MTC, followed by opening remarks by Warden Ron Broomfield. “This is such an important day for our graduates, and their families, and in light of the last couple years it is an important day for San Quentin as well,” said Warden Broomfield, “I am very proud of each and every one of you.” He gave a ‘Five cent history lesson’ about the inspirational and underrated life of George Washington Carver, referring to the importance of education especially as it relates to transforming the lives of those incarcerated. He encouraged the graduates with Carver’s words; “Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom to our people.” Given the historical context of these words, he challenged them to answer the question in their time, “Who are your people, who are you going to lift up?”

Chan, 56, a graduate said, “The lockdown does not matter to me, what matters is having the experience of finishing something I started 38 years ago, to finish anything is a great feeling of victory.” Chan was able to apply to UCSF and was accepted into Project Rebound, a college assistance organization with a full scholarship. However, he was denied parole by the Board of Prison Hearings and will need to reapply once he is found suitable. His greatest hope is to get out and to continue with his education. Dr. Theresa Roeder, Ph.D, Chair of the Board of Trustees, was also present and commended all the graduates for their determination and for not giving up under the circumstance they face. “We hope to continue doing what we are doing and to serve our students better.” This graduation was also part of a family reunification. Graduates, family members, and friends were allowed to take pictures in the chapel garden and socialize after the ceremony. For Robert it was a sweet moment as he was able to hug his sister, Donna for the first time since before the pandemic. “It makes me very proud to see him again,” said Donna, “I love to see them mingle and be able to have all this.” For Taylor this was not his first associates degree “This in person experience is different compared to having to do it through the mail, being that the students at MTC get to interact with their teachers and students. This makes the process more personal when there is a human connection,” said Taylor. There were others like Christopher, who was not sure if he was going to be able to graduate. He was concerned not only for himself, but for his fellow graduates not being able to make it due to Covid 19 protocols. “Now it is a relief and I will feel better when I get my diploma,” said Christopher, who is aiming towards a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) that he will work on upon his release. Formerly incarcerated Tommy “Shakur” Ross, class valedictorian of 2019, gave a speech. He joked about being the “longest reigning valedictorian in the history of Mt. Tam College.” Ross served 37 years before paroling 60 days ago. A commissioner at his 2016 Parole Board hearing told him, “We’re not letting you out of prison with a high rate to recidivate.” He talked about the critical thinking that he learned in college which helped him to make human connections with former and currently incarcerated people during an international prison radio conference in Norway. He encouraged the graduates, joking about still being a high risk, displaying a GPS ankle monitor and referring to how he was not even supposed to be at the graduation as a freed person.

“You and I may be here at San Quentin because of our worst decision, but we are here today because of our best decision,” said John the Valedictorian. John reflected on the challenging times he and his fellow graduates, and the MTC faculty have been faced with and yet how they continued to demonstrate their commitment, dedication and compassion. He noted how they refused to be deterred from MTC’s mission of the ultimate goal of life-changing educational opportunities. He told the graduates that they now understand the important role that a college education plays in making them successful citizens in this community and, by developing a knowledge base and critical thinking skills, decreases recidivism, and makes them more successful returned citizens in any community. John expressed his eternal gratitude to MTC for allowing him, “To feel that sense of safety and purpose once again in prison and for the privilege of surrounding myself with like-minded individuals, equally knowledge-thirsty and possessed of a shared desire for self-betterment.”

Pat Mims, formerly incarcerated San Quentin resident, alumnus and now MTC Board of Trustees member expressed his gratitude for being able to speak to “my family, my brothers.” Mims sang out the mantra he and his childhood friend created when they were in high school, “Belly full, but I’m still hungry!” His friend was tragically killed in a car accident on the fateful night he decided to not join his friend at a party. He could have been in that car. He had to go to work at a mortuary and that’s where he saw him. The first thing that came to his mind was their mantra. He was released in 2009. “I had 200 bucks…after 20 years. I didn’t know what I was doing at that point, I didn’t know where I was going to go… but I knew one thing, I had a degree, the clothes on my back and the idea that I could succeed.” In 2016, after he shook President Obama’s hand he told himself, “I can succeed, ” Mims added, “Do not worry about when I get released, worry about how I can be effective in the community that I’m in today.” He served 20 years on a life sentence.

“I was in the seat that you are in as a graduate…I worked so hard, that it became time to work for others,” Mims added. He is also the director of the reentry hub services for all of Western Contra Costa County, called the Reentry Success Center operated by Rubicon Programs. “I help people like us to reintegrate into society,” said Mims.