Robert, 60

Robert, 60

Meet Robert…

…Prison is like being in a time vacuum where life has ceased. Neither moving forward or backward, alive but deceased. Prison is like a sack into which each day, each hour, drops another stone. Bending the spine until the tell-tale crack.

Incarcerated: 24 years

I have discovered that there is no simple answer to the question “What is prison like?” or “Why I became addicted to drugs.” I used to feel haunted by such questions. I could not format a valid and truthful response. Yet, during this prison term I experienced two things which the California Department of Corrections had deprived me of during previous terms. The ability to learn about myself through self help groups, and the chance to learn through the on-sight college program.

What Is Prison Like?

Returning to the streets – faces, souls, and spirits I meet.
Curiosity beating down the like, what is prison like?
Prison is like being in a time vacuum where life has ceased.
Neither moving forward or backward, alive but deceased.
Prison is like a sack into which each day, each hour, drops another stone.
Bending the spine until the tell-tale crack.
Prison is like being at the bottom of a well, walking round and round.
Without physical or material existence – incorporeal.
Still, prison is not like hell, neither like heaven.
Not all gloom and depression.
See and you shall find the nadir of oppression.

 

 

Conversations from the cell introduction

Conversations from the cell introduction

Miguel

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

Why did you start interviewing people?

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

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

What have you learned through these interviews?

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

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

Do you prepare for your interviews?

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

Did you face any barriers?

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

Is there anything else you want to share?

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

 

Anthony, 24

Anthony, 24

“Where I’m from it’s hard to truly be yourself when you have so many voids to complete your self worth.”

Meet Anthony…

Anthony, 24
Incarcerated: 5 year

I am an artist. 

Being an artist is one of the many discoveries made in finding myself. 

Where I’m from it’s hard to truly be yourself when you have so many voids to complete your self-worth. You become someone that you’re not, you can lose yourself following the negativity and influences that restore what you feel has been missing. 

My artistry has always been within me. I continue to master it as I let myself be myself. Being in my element is how I can describe the state I’m in as I draw or paint. Having influences that share similar passions and interests has motivated me to be where I’m at. I’d also like to give credit to my older brother who’s always inspired me. He’s always been a great artist. Growing up looking up to him, the standard he’s set used to be very intimidating. It’s a really good feeling to receive gratification in making someone you look up to very proud. 

I will have photos of my art and of myself emailed to you. Via Bien Valdovinos 

Richard, 48

Richard, 48

Meet Richard…

“It is vital that we must build trust with the outside world, and that the only way to do so is by sharing our stories, and putting a Human face to those of us who reside in institutions.”

When I was younger I thought I knew about love. In some ways I did. My grandma gave me unconditional love. There was never a day that I didn’t feel it, even while running around like a knucklehead or battling my addictions.

I tried to use my grandmother’s example to guide me. I tried to be patient and understanding. I tried to see everyone as a unique human being. But I failed. Especially when it came to romantic love. The heartbreak that resulted from rejection eroded my confidence. Love was unattainable for me.

After another colossal disaster of a relationship, my life spiraled into pain. I knew what I wanted: someone to love me in the same way I loved – unconditionally. I needed to find out why I hadn’t found it yet. This required a lot of self-reflection. I was having trouble loving others because I didn’t love myself. It was a hard realization to face, but it was my truth.

I spent time refocusing on what I truly wanted and met an amazing woman, Angelina. When she first wrote to me it was about something we were both passionate about: helping others. I jumped at the chance to get involved with her project. I sent her information I thought would be helpful. Our correspondence turned from writing to talking. The nature of her heart was apparent to me. I felt I knew her all my life. And it was the same for her. When she came to visit me, we were both so nervous. I was trying my best to make her feel as comfortable as one can be visiting a prisoner on death row.

Our visit ended with a kiss. Since the first day she wrote, the first day that she accepted my call, the first day that she visited me, Angelina has changed my life for the better. She has been patient and kind. She has been understanding and caring. She has shown me I can be vulnerable and express love how I have always wanted to.

I am grateful for the day that Angelina came into my life. And though we have obstacles, we have done our best to face them together, lovingly, and unconditionally. I look forward to our journey together, everyday, and thank the Creator and the Universe for not letting me give up on love. 

Gerald’s Gallery

Gerald’s Gallery

 

 

Artist Gerald, 68

It all started in high school when I first started really noticing girls. We had a subscription to Jet Magazine. I started drawing the centerfold models, to the point that they appeared like photos. However, once I started having my own family, I didn’t have time any longer. Life demanded that I had to work and provide for them. In 1998 I made the biggest mistake in my life…murder. Upon being incarcerated, I didn’t want to be involved with the world of darkness I had been sentenced to be submerged among. So I went back to drawing. It was a skill I still had. I began drawing portraits of inmates’ families. The money came fast and I started to lose interest after a while. Why? Because it became a job. I had lost the enjoyment. It wasn’t until I arrived at San Quentin in 2011 and was introduced to the Arts in Corrections program, there the spark was re-lit. Painting was something new and challenging. I began to vision a more technical skilled level of expression of all aspects. I found that as long as I did art to please myself, and not place a price on it, I could get lost, to the point that I would escape a few hours in my creation. I have never limited myself to just one form. Watercolors are my least favorite. However, one which I am learning to use now. It’s quickly becoming my favorite. Acrylics are what I generally use as of right now. Yet my main inspiration has come from an inmate, Bruce Fowler. Watching his interpretations unfold on canvas, showed me that within these walls world class art is possible. Others have given me the tools within San Quentin’s Arts in Corrections, too many to name. Yet each canvas has no time limits, I paint until I am happy with the outcome. It’s just like a child, you have good and bad, yet they are yours, and you try to do your best when introducing them to the world. I’ve sent a few in order to show the variety of expressions I wish to project when I paint.
1) The Demure woman looking over her shoulder; I wanted to project her life.
2) A little prayer. I want people to feel that we are not alone, we each have bad days.
3) The South Carolina woman, by E. Hopper. It just caught my attention to a past rural life – style I lived in Texas.
4) Birds are my attachment to another species of intelligence most people never see.
5) Prison Profile, was my concept for how in-humane prison treatment is and has made man a caged beast.
6) Then there is History, such as my painting of Pompei (illegible), similar to inmates of today at each other’s throats just to survive, if they live, they go to the board.
7) However, I do have a playful side and when I do, I express it in the form of Betty Boop etc.
8) Society clown – this was based on how gangs utilize colors for separation. Yet the star behind the ear is how I see society in the background not being concerned…as long as they are killing each other.
9) Kaepernick and protesters all fall on the same issue of unfairness.
10) Lady Liberty dwells on the environment and how big business could care less as long as money is the bottom line between Russia and the United States eventually the environment will be completely destroyed. Anyway, Diane and Juan; these are some of the thoughts that come into focus when I am painting.

I will never be a one-dimensional painter. Why? Because this is not a one-dimensional world.
Enough said!
With Gratitude,
Gerald