Whitney, 33

Whitney, 33

Meet Whitney…

I was on drugs and alcohol which led me to a fatal mistake. I started hearing voices and seeing things that weren’t there.

Whitney, 33
Incarcerated: 3 years
Housed: McPherson Unit, Newport, Arkansas

I was on drugs and alcohol which led me to a fatal mistake. I started hearing voices and seeing things that weren’t there. Some things seemed real, like the TV began to talk. I was going back and forth between men. All of my relationships were raunchy. I was so lost and caught up in sex and drugs, that I couldn’t see what was happening. I was so ashamed and hurt by my actions that I tried to commit suicide. One day my old case worker asked if I would like to try and talk to my kids. I said no, I was sure they didn’t want to speak to me. I have four kids and one is deceased. My oldest was upset with me for a while. The other two were not upset as much. I look back with regret everyday on the choices I made. I’m still talking to my kids. It’s been rough for all of us. I can’t sleep at night sometimes because I question myself. The guilt consumes me. After I came to prison I got my GED. I didn’t think I could do it. That’s the way I’ve felt all my life,  like I couldn’t accomplish anything. I love to write poetry about how I feel. God has changed my life and is still working on me. I look at these prison walls and think this is what I left my kids for. I miss being around them so much. They are so smart and funny.

Brittany, 28

Brittany, 28

Meet Brittany…

Love is kind, patient, love is with pure intention. Love never gives up, it is our only hope for peace and it should be our mission in life.

Brittany, 28
Incarcerated: 3 years
Housed: Wyoming Women’s Center, Lusk

How do I see love? 

It took my desire to love and to be loved to reach a point of explosion. I decided to stop being that door mat, the person everyone could use and abuse however they pleased. Love was as strange to me as a foreign language. Love meant my parents fed us so we could focus on something other than survival. The circumstances of my unfortunate beginnings instilled in me a sense of low self-worth and created an ideal space for us to beg for every ounce of affection. It wasn’t long before I was an adult by law, but a struggling and scared child at heart. Having spent my entire life focused on the well being of my siblings and myself, I was convinced love was just a fairytale. What stood between me and my dream of being loved was the idea that I wasn’t worthy of such things. I have seen examples of love and have formed my own opinion on how people should be loved. I learned it doesn’t hurt, it is something we can and should give freely. Love is kind, patient, love is with pure intention. Love never gives up, it is our only hope for peace and it should be our mission in life. When judged, scorned, forgotten and abandoned, choose love. Love because you can, not because it’s beneficial or expected. This is how I see love.

Terrell “Big T,” 49

Terrell “Big T,” 49

Meet Terrell “Big T”…

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

Terrell “Big T,” 49

Incarcerated: 31 years

Interviewed by Edwin, in the West block of San Quentin

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

Tell me about your experience here at San Quentin. 

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

Did SQ help you with your personal growth? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next for you?

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

What is your biggest fear going out? 

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

Marshawn, 37

Marshawn, 37

Meet Marshawn…

What gets me through each day is my family and hope. It’s hard but I constantly tell myself it could be worse.

Marshawn, 37
Incarcerated: 15 years
Housed: Stateville Correctional Center, IL

What gets me through each day is my family and hope. It’s hard but I constantly tell myself it could be worse. I haven’t always had hope. Prison is a very dark place and can suck the life out of you. For the majority of these 15 years, I’ve dwelled on my past, wishing I had listened to people. That I’d done things differently. Constantly thinking of my past has held me back from progressing  and has led me to make some poor decisions. Today, I try to take it one day at a time focusing more on the things that can make me better and have a more positive future! I now see light at the end of the tunnel. So many things are changing in the prison system. People are going home now, which I didn’t see as much in the beginning. It helps me visualize being freed, as well as my family, who have stuck by my side. They have given me the push when needed, this place is hard and distractions are everywhere. God is still giving me the opportunity to breathe, for that I put my best foot forward and continue to fight this fight to the end! 

Darnell, 26 years inside

Darnell, 26 years inside

Darnell, 26 years inside

Darnell Washington “Mo”

Released after 26 years

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

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

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

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

Diane: What happened next? 

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

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

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

Diane: Tell me about the reunion with your family.

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

Diane: What did you do next?

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

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

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

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

Diane: Where are you staying now?

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

Diane: How long do you stay there?

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

Diane: What are your days like?

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

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

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

Diane: Are you ready?

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

Diane: Where did you parole to?

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

Diane: What is your non-profit about?

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

Diane: Are you still doing yoga?

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

Diane: What are you looking forward to?

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

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