Gabriel, 49

Gabriel, 49

At six, I saw the gruesome details of what grown-ups saw. I knew what brains looked like after seeing gray matter dripping from walls from someone’s head being blown away.

Gabriel,  49
Incarcerated: 31 years
Housed: Northwest ICE Processing Center, Tacoma, Washington

I was born with six toes. Since we lived below the poverty line, the doctor said, “It’s better to cut it off or it will be too expensive to keep him shoed.” As I got old enough to walk, shoes bothered me. Barefooted, I was proud of my stub, showing it off in a city that had yet to be fully developed. I remember nothing of the incident, but I can somehow picture a child in pain, at least the healing part, as if a warning to all the pain that would come. It was my first introduction to raw self-awareness. When I got older, I felt angry and cheated by my sense of “uniqueness.” And angry for being so poor they removed my toe. 

One day I asked my mom why I had this scar on my right hand, “It’s a burn mark,” she told me. When I was two, my mother was a housekeeper and took me to work. I was a super active, inquisitive child. I was learning to walk, and when she left the room for a second I pulled on the extension cord of the iron she was using. I have no recollection of it- all I have is a scar from my thumb, index finger and middle finger. I don’t see scars of childhood neglect, I see a young mother doing her best. All the stories my mother told me of my childhood I keep with me to understand how I have become who I am and to learn who I wanted to be. She stopped taking me to work and started leaving me in my crib with my brother Marco who was a year older than me. I began to get out of my crib and make a mess everywhere. She couldn’t afford a babysitter – my dad worked and spent all the money on alcohol. She began to tie me to the crib. My mother said I would never quit. I always ventured into something. She said my older brother Marco managed to cut the rope with a kitchen knife because I would not stop crying. My worst of fears is being physically restrained in a harmful situation or perceived danger. I remember a lot of suffering as a child.

Life was not all bad. I remember being happy when I visited my mom’s mother, Toya, who had 24 siblings. She loved me the most and let me get away with being a child. She gave us money to go to the arcade, which we could not afford. I remember having joy and being appreciative. Everything I did was for her amusement. My grandma is physically strong, but my mother is physically and mentally strong. My grandma gave me hugs and kisses, something that as a child I can not remember getting from my mom. I did not hear “I love you” from her until I was 25, serving this life term. 

My mom and dad had an argument, he threw a knife, and she was stabbed. My grandma told her, “he won’t stop drinking and will end up killing you if you stay with him.” She knew her son. My dad never mistreated us, was actually very caring whether he was drunk or sober. He put alcohol before us. I used to attend A.A. meetings with him as I got older. He tried to sober up and took me to job interviews and then got drunk. I remember the candy they gave me at the A.A. meetings. My dad once killed a rooster that attacked me when I was three. I was probably taunting it. They had to pay for the rooster. I love my dad. He taught me my first English words. Before I came to the US, “Hello my friend, how are you?” He was an educated man with college degrees, yet overwhelmed by the sickness of alcoholism. My father died from falling on his head while drunk, hitting a rock, and was found.

My mother moved on with her life. She had a new boyfriend when I was around four, who worked for the police as a low ranking officer. He quit at the brewing of the civil war since authorities had begun to get killed. We lived in a one bedroom apartment with an outhouse. By this time, I had a younger brother and a sister. Don Francisco was a timid man, non confrontational. My mother used to fight other men because they would mess with her kids. Don Francisco would be in the background. Without hesitation my mother would always stand up for us. I used to watch her get her point across, regardless of the outcome. “Don’t take crap from nobody.” She used to fight a lot because of us. 

When I started kindergarten, I broke my arm trying to retrieve a Hot Wheels that went under the cabinet. I remember crying, thinking I was going to be punished for being careless. Punishment has been a part of my life. I was a very hyper child and always exploring. I am sure I lived through good memories, but I recall more negative than positive. 

My mom was a towering figure in my childhood. I’m sure she disciplined me as a quick solution to deal with misconduct; child abuse was the trend in a culturally built method. To solve disobedience, the worse the punishment, the better the parent you were considered to be. Growing up I was short, and according to folklore, there’s a particular day around Easter when kids of short stature are to be flogged with a branch from a particular tree so that they grow taller. I got flogged once and it wasn’t the pain that hurt but the concept of such nonsense. Yet it was encouraged. By age 4, I broke my arm again retrieving a paper airplane. I woke up in the hospital with a hand to my throat as a restraint while my arm was reset. I remember the overwhelming sense of restriction. With tears in my eyes, I passed out. 

I was five when my mother, younger brother Edwin, who’s also serving a life sentence in California, sister Ana, and brother Amilcar and I went to San Salvador. Edwin had to be seen by the doctor. While we were at the hospital, my mom had to go to the bathroom. I can’t remember why, but she gave me 10 colones (about $4.00 at that time). She didn’t know we were being watched by this glue-sniffing thug-predator. He came up to me and said, “ Your mom wants you to give me the money.” I refused, so he made a reference towards my brothers and sister. It was a lot of money to give up: our bus money back home. I knew I had bought myself a real beat down for doing wrong and not standing up to him. When she came back, I told her I had given the money to that dude. She blew up, but aimed it not towards me but towards a pursuit in search of this maliante, the thug. She began to ask around and found out this dude was a spider, always there weaving webs for flies like me. My mom found his dad, who sold newspapers. She confronted him, and he wouldn’t give the money or be held responsible for his son’s misdeeds. It was not the first time somebody complained about his son. We had no money to get back on the bus. My first lesson about payback came when my mom said, “Everyone grab the newspapers when the bus gets here.” I made sure I grabbed as many as I could, got on the bus and started selling the newspaper. It was exhilarating. In that event, I learned things can be taken care of swiftly and without authority. 

Growing up in El Salvador, situations still linger in my mind. I now understand why I was who I was. I can name my defects of character from many events. The biggest part has been dealing with the emotions. Fear was plenty and came in many forms: anger, selective happiness, stolen episodes, all overlooked by a roaring civil war. In the duration of punishment, my effort to convey truth can be perceived as manipulative and exaggerated, yet it serves no other purpose other than self-healing and willingness to change. The war made my fears comatose and sedated the pain with the natural endorphins of not caring. I quit the sense of being on edge, no longer awaiting for the next fast pace threat of death or danger. 

At six, I saw the gruesome details of what grown-ups saw. I knew what brains looked like after seeing gray matter dripping from walls from someone’s head being blown away. Charred bodies were left in the public park for everyone to go see. Left there to be an example of what happens when there are allegations of being a Guerrillero, subversive terrorists. People disappeared, gunfire would spark in the afternoon while I was in school. I remember my teacher, Miss Yolanda, would instruct us to duck under the desks as the tanks and grenades went off. I would come out to the drab silence of the streets which looked like sinister endless flashing teeth with braces as tanks left their mark on black tops. People emerged from small places used by kids as hiding spots. That day we did not make it home. We were stranded and rescued by the kindness of strangers who welcomed us into their homes to pass the night. Going to sleep to the sound of bullets was now a common theme. I often wonder if early childhood or war trauma caused me to become a bedwetter. This caused me shame and expectation of punishment. That day I got neither. In the morning, as expected, bodies were sprawled everywhere – not of soldiers, but of Guerilleros. In 1984, we emigrated to the US. I was 10. I felt like collateral damage wanting to exist.

I used to speak of my childhood experiences with pride, as if suffering were accomplishments. The injustice of being poor was always a challenge, nothing else. I feel pain and sadness, recalling and writing about it. With effort I can now express my emotions, control my behavior and not just act on impulsivity. In my younger days I often failed, and when I did accomplish something meaningful, I would not be able to build upon it, but rather become destructive, as if positivity was pulling me away from my comfort zone of negativity.

As I write this, a part of me tries to evade thinking about the past and writing it down. I believe this is because I feel ashamed, sad, and fearful of not being believed. I know it is necessary to shed these emotions and concerns in order to reach a new layer of maturity. I continue my recollection of the circumstances from my mother, Elizabeth. She’s an outgoing person with qualities I admire, not believing she is part of my truth, yet because of the scar from the iron on my right hand. I know she wouldn’t lie to me.

Brian, 52

Brian, 52

In addition, I have another grandson, who I talk to on the phone, so he knows me. He calls me Blue Grandpa because he says every time he sees me I have on blue.

Receiving the invitation from Humans of San Quentin makes me feel human. This is not to say that I didn’t feel human before, but it makes me feel good to know that we on the inside are thought of.

I work for San Quentin Television (SQTV), and I’m also the executive director of the San Quentin Prison Report, which is an award-winning video and radio program that highlights the transformative work of the men inside SQ. I went from doing short-form storytelling to more of a documentary style, and I have a few in the works currently One is Growing Up Behind Bars, a dive into the lives and rehabilitative journeys of juvenile offenders serving life (learn more at I’m also working on a story about Watson Allison, who spent 31 years on death row and in the middle of quarantine received a date and went home. I’m also a part of other San Quentin groups including Day of Peace, Mental Wellness, and the SQ Basketball Program. Mostly I am a filmmaker trying to change the prison narrative.

Language is important to me, and I am passionate about changing the language of incarcerated people. As vice president of our chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), I’m working to change how mainstream media labels incarcerated people and I ask that people not use words like inmate or prisoner. We believe it is more humanizing to call people by their names or just collectively refer to them as “people.” I’m not an inmate or a prisoner. I am a person who happens to be incarcerated. We’re incarcerated people and returning citizens. Changing the language could change our narrative.


Blue Grandpa

As I sit here in 2020, looking at the pictures of me seeing my grandson for the first time, I think about 2019 and the first time I saw my granddaughter Dakota. I see my family once a year through a program called Get on The Bus, a program that connects kids with their incarcerated parents. Since 2012, it’s been my only outlet for visitation with my family.

I was so nervous and excited while I waited to see my grandbabies. To pass the time, I tried to keep busy while I hung with the SQ Basketball Program. Finally, I heard my name being called, and I couldn’t get to the visiting room fast enough. My daughter gave me a huge hug, reached down to the baby seat and handed me my granddaughter. We took a few pictures and my daughter watched me the whole time while I ate and played with Dakota. For those two hours, I felt on top of the world, and when they concluded I was at a loss. I cried while I walked back to the yard, but I couldn’t wait to show off my pictures.

Earlier this year, I was finally graduating with an AA degree from Mt. Tamalpais College, the on-site college program here at SQ. I invited my family, my kids and grandkids; I had my heart set on seeing my loved ones. In addition, I have another grandson, who I talk to on the phone, so he knows me. He calls me Blue Grandpa because he says every time he sees me I have on blue. However, COVID-19 prevented me from celebrating my graduation in their joyful presence.

I worked so hard to finally be able to graduate and COVID-19 took that away, like it took so many things from other people. Receiving so many pictures from my family and not being able to see them this year really solidified that I am overly ready to go home after 22 years of missing out on their lives.

I’m thankful to have my kids and grandkids in my life. I’m also thankful to have my fiancée Lisa, who keeps me grounded and strong and tells me when I’m right or wrong. If there’s one piece of advice I could give people out there in society it would be that when you find yourself feeling like things are not going your way or life is too hard to deal with, just think about me. I would change places with you any day of the week. Try waking up in a cage as big as your closet everyday, yet still being able to keep your head up and stay positive through these unprecedented times.

Richard, 66

Richard, 66

At 12, my Ma had me incarcerated as a hopeless incorrigible, but really she was just mad because I wrecked her car joy-riding. I didn’t even know how to spell incorrigible, much less tell you what it meant.

My mother said I could say goodbye to him at the funeral home, but it wasn’t the same. She should have told me sooner, instead of letting me believe he was getting better. I believed that for a whole year while he underwent treatment for cancer. I was ten, he was my Dad. Maybe they did try to warn me, but I’m pretty sure I blocked it out. I’m good at that, blocking things out. Trouble is eventually there’s just too much of it…like Pa’s cancer.

In any case, I was mad at Ma for keeping the truth from me and depriving me of any meaningful last words with my old man, who was also my best friend. Catching her shortly thereafter with one of the marines from Daddy’s honor guard didn’t help either. I ran him off with a butcher knife from our kitchen sink and any other bozos she brought home. After that, I was old enough to enlist in the Marines myself, which was a welcome escape from that crazy ass world where long-haired freaks smoked themselves senseless on dope and disrespected our troops. I wasn’t into that. My old man had been a hero in the war. I wanted to be just like him – joining up as soon as I turned eighteen; which also kept me out of California’s Youth Authority.

The only branch that would have me though was the Marines, Pa had been in the Army, The recruiter looked suspiciously like the one I had caught with Ma. He did a number on my rap sheet with a bit of white-out, as a favor to Ma, he said, Two weeks later I found myself on a bus headed for San Diego, where a true-life miracle occurred, “a ninety-day wonder” they called it. When I graduated, fifth overall, my mother and oldest sister were present. I don’t know who was prouder, me or them. The transformation was stunning.

After completing helicopter school in Millington Naval Air Station, Tennessee, I was assigned to the Marine Corps Air Station in Tustin, California. A reserve detachment where I was the only squad member it seemed who had not yet earned his stripes in Vietnam. Nor was I likely to have the chance. President Mr. Tricky Dick Nixon had signed onto the Paris Peace Accords, which began the drawdown and eventually ended in 1975 to this very unpopular war.

To say this outfit was a little bit slimy would be an understatement, most of its members were short-timers, biding their time until their final orders were cut. Each morning after formation everyone went off in different directions, only to end up all together inside the furthest chopper. Quietly, we could sleep off all the partying we had done the night before. My part was to post up in the cockpit and keep lookout for our squad leader, a hard-nosed gunny, whose mission in life, it seemed, was to make everyone else miserable.

I had made a mistake one night of trying to keep up with the heavy drinkers and party animals in my unit. Smoking bowls of ganja laced with opium and whatever else they could get their hands on, until the wee hours of the morning. One by one they would drop off to their own racks and crash. Vietnam it seemed had been such a horrendous experience, no amount of drinking and smoking could ever extinguish it sufficiently from their psyche. A phenomenon not yet fully understood, PTSD. In the morning as they were gathering themselves for another day on the flight line, they were surprised to find me still wide awake, high as a kite from the night before! “Sleep it off” I was told, “We’ll cover for you.” But sleep was the furthest thing from my mind. I was still tripping, seeing tracers and colors whilst the walls melted. I was frying and by day’s end, when I was no better, then by week’s end, my squad leader determined I needed to be evaluated for a 51/50. On the psychiatric ward of the naval regional medical center in Long Beach, I traded my clothing for a hospital gown. The doctor started me off with 300 mgs of Thorazine, when this still didn’t get me to sleep, it was raised. By the end of the second week, I was taking up to 2800 mgs of Thorazine a day and still, I was not sleeping!? Much of this period is a foggy memory. One day, what happened in the shower area though, is too clear. I would go there for the quiet and to be alone. On this particular day, I was masturbating. One of the navy orderlies snuck up on me and instead of allowing me to leave, began to reach around and masturbate me from behind. I guess I didn’t mind, not at first, but when he suddenly tried to f*** me from behind, I said no – STOP, but it was too late. I couldn’t get him off me until his co-worker walked in. Then, being chastised, he let me go. I never said anything, I was too embarrassed and ashamed it had even happened. I just wanted to forget.

After another two months in the ward I was finally sent home. I continued to self-medicate as an escape, memories of that ward, that one particular ordeal, made me question everything about my whole rotten life. Including my manhood. I became depressed and suicidal. I swallowed the whole bottle of Thorazine they sent me home with. My many suicide attempts and self-destructive lifestyle with drugs landed me in prison. I never told anyone about my nightmares from the psych ward, not until recently when I received a copy of my service records and read the psych report. It infuriated me. They said everything that was wrong with me was my fault and not one word about the rape. Surely that wasn’t my fault! That shit shouldn’t have happened to a dog! I didn’t report it, so what could I expect?

Now, however, I can’t shut up about it. I had been a good Marine up until the day I flipped out, and even that was not entirely my fault. I had joined the Corp to escape the madness, the hippies, druggies and all the rest. The early demise of my father and years that followed going in and out of juvie. Only to find life in the Marines, my squadron in particular, there were more crazed addicts awaiting me than I had left behind! Now, decades later, I feel ripped off. It had not been my intention to sign up for that scene, if I had received the appropriate follow-up care after the “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” episode, I might have gotten better and avoided years of incarceration.

Rather than trying to escape our darkest past, we need to confront it and know there are people who care, who we can talk to and get the proper help. I found that recently with Humans of San Quentin, and trust me, this is far better than trying to drown everything in liquor and drugs. “You’re not alone,” they said, “We love you!”

Jeffery, 59

Jeffery, 59

The Word tells us that we are never alone, and through the current events of the day it surely could have felt like it.

Dear Family and Friends, 

It is my prayer that the Lord keep us and guide us as we enter into the dawn of another year. Let us shed the past as if an old coat and go strengthened and invigorated into a new day. Amen. 

Would you allow me a moment to say thank you all for your love and encouragement as the time served just keeps going? Many of you are saying that the time is winding down and in that hope we keep pressing on. October of The New Year would bring the 23rd year and you all have been a part of this journey and again, thank you so much for your sacrifice’s and the spirit that dwells within that you so unselfishly share this way inside the razor topped fences and prison walls. 

How do we move forward through the past few years? Time and events that remain lingering with no end in sight and the rhetoric changes daily while remaining the same. The line of division appears to grow at such an unprecedented rate and the world growingly left in turmoil. How do we smile when the clouds seem to just keep rolling along? “FINALLY, MY brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you, to me indeed is not grievous, but for you it is save” [Philippians 3:1] 

If we only look at what has happened in our lives, in the world over the previous year[s] we could just continue in that same cycle of loss and misery. Thank God for those who have stuck by; those who keep giving words of encouragement while even their situation is often fare more bleak than is for us sitting in prison. You give such strength that is holding me up and pushes me through those moments when I am down and hurting. So it is that I strive daily to be that better man, a more mature individual and take responsibility, hold myself accountable. 

“If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” [Philippians 3:11-14 KJV] 

The word informs us that there is not one of who is free from sin; we all have fallen and come short of the glory of God. Though I can think of several people I admire that I don’t thing would fit into that category, however, the Lord knows all of who we are no matter what we may reveal to others. For the Lord has spoken, Amen. 

The part of being in prison is the punishment for the crimes committed and it was intended that while here undergo a time of rehabilitation. To commit ourselves to change mentally in that we would not reoffend or commit another violation against society. In the current times of corrections or just the way of life is in the world today, we must attain that elusive “rehabilitation” ourselves utilizing the programs offered; developing a better social and work ethic where there may not have been one prior to the incarceration. 

Another way or a very integral part of rehabilitation is taking responsibility for the offenses charged against us. Often forgetting how we can be so quick to point fingers at others for some offense against us and yet think it not robbery to deprive another of that which we as men, as adults are supposed to do and be. Now we cry for the children left behind, those strong women who loved us even as the little boys we were. 

The scripture reads in part, if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. That means to me that I must do whatever it takes to rise from that which held me captive in my past. Thank God for his grace  and mercy, Amen. 

“But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness. Fight the good fight, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many witnesses.” [I Timothy 6:11-12 KJV] 

The Word tells us that we are never alone, and through the current events of the day it surely could have felt like it. The world quarantined and left isolated in the home, not much different than being confined in a jail cell and no one committed a crime, so to speak…but we made it, you all have made it out there to keep pressing forward in life. A good man has told me on several occasions, “you made it through the yesterday to wind up in the today you are grumbling about”. By the grace and mercy of Almighty God we have arrived in our today so let us not grumble and find the comfort, love and that joy of serving the Lord who has not left us and has brought us this far. Yes, we have lost family and friends, some are still here and battling various issues with health, finances. Let us remember, trouble don’t last always, Amen. I love you and thank you all for holding me accountable. To God be the glory, now and forever.  

“Now, we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, conform the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men. See that none render evil for evil unto any man. Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you”[Thessalonians 5:14-18] 

Let us pray: 

I surrender, Lord God, we come before You in this season of closing out the past and entering a New Year. A season of forgiveness and purpose. We thank You Father for being with us during the difficult times and for holding us through when we were not sure on what the next moment would bring. We hold Your love ever present as we see that You have not left us, nor forsake us as Your Word tells us. 

Thank You Father for those who have stayed by our side and we give love to those who have gone on ahead of us. We lift up those who have had it a lot rougher than we who sit within the confines of a prison; and for those who are in perhaps another type of prison mentally. 

Lord, we pray that the days that are yet to come be full of joy and love and happiness. We ask that You watch over the families of those in prison and for those who are sick and shut in. We pray for the church body and seek to help them in ways the world may not be able to do for them. Keep us O Lord. Give us the strength to do Your will in these difficult times and please forgive us of any thought word or deed that is not of Your will in our lives. We pray this and all unspoken utterances in Jesus’ Name, Amen. 

In His Love, 


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