Jerry Campbell’s Visit to San Quentin

Jerry Campbell’s Visit to San Quentin

I vividly remember attending class to receive my high school diploma equivalent (GED)  at the Genesee County Jail, Flint, Michigan. Before getting locked up, I had previously been running with the local gang and crew, gangbanging hard and living violently. I was throwing my life away, totally unconfident in potential for a bright future, and not even expecting to live past the age of 25. I was locked up for the first time in my life, locked up for fighting at the mall. I was fighting to impress my fellow gang members, the gang being my only friends. I was nineteen. My bail was $200. My friend Clarence (Big C) and I were locked up together, his bail and charge were the same as mine. We spent the night in jail, and the next morning, Big C’s mother came and bailed him out. My bail was $200. I stayed in jail for two months. Not to mention, I’d just spent probably close to $200 at the mall, on sneakers, some rap cassettes, Tupac’s album and a couple others, and a Starter coat. I signed up for the GED because I’d heard you could watch television all day, plus it was a lot safer. The floor I was currently on had about 100 guys. One group of about 10-15 guys were all facing the same murder charge, with one guy walking around saying if he was going down, he was taking all those guys with him. 

I met Big Ski, a Muslim brother who had big muscles and a big afro, and the respect of every man, as far as I could tell. He was about 25 at the time, he spoke with wisdom that made him seem a lot older. He began to take interest in me, speaking to me about many topics, encouraging me to change my life for the better. He never told me to stop hustling but did show me on paper how to properly flip a bag of dope or weed, to make it more profitable and stop ‘hustling backwards’.  We sat together every morning at breakfast and played dominoes and chess together. We went to class, and I applied myself. The teacher, a Caucasian gentleman probably in his thirties, began to encourage me, and I lived for his and Ski’s approval. The scores were posted on a computer printout the last week of the class. My score was second highest in the class, even higher than Ski’s. I was instructed to take the form with my test score on it to Mott Adult High School when I got out of jail. When I arrived with the test score to Mott Adult, a lady my grandmother’s age took the paper from me. She informed me she knew my grandmother. She asked me what high school I had previously attended. I informed her it was Northern High School. She stepped away from the information counter and disappeared in the back. When she came out, she had a leather cover engraved in gold with the words ‘Northern High School’ on the front. Inside was not that said GED on it, but the certificate said, ‘High School Diploma’, with my name printed nice and neat on that certificate. I pray you’ve comprehended well the words you’ve read up until this point.  

Fast forward from then until now- I get on a plane from Raleigh, NC, to San Francisco, CA. I went there to draw knowledge and to connect with the co-founder of Humans of San Quentin, Diane Kahn, as well as Jesse Vasquez, whom Diane introduced me to. I met Diane via Instagram in May 2020 on her page ‘Humans of San Quentin’. I was looking at similar sites for two reasons. One, Covid was just setting in, and the prison I’d served at for the past decade had shut their doors to volunteer programs indefinitely. Since I had begun a nonprofit serving the incarcerated and my donations hadn’t stopped, I figured I’d best find ways to keep working! I needed to find ways to serve prisons during the pandemic, as well as more experienced organizations willing to offer guidance to the smaller ones, like mine, Stars Behind Bars. I figured Instagram was as good a place to start as any, and I’d concluded that San Quentin State Prison was the nations’ frontrunner when it came to programs, as well as overall correctional programs. I concluded that if California was the birthplace of both the Bloods and the Crips, and San Quentin was once the State’s most notorious prison, then either I would see a prison system that knows how to run a prison, or gangsters that knew how to run a prison, or neither, or both. Simple.  

I found a gentleman on the Humans of San Quentin Instagram page my same age named Raheem Ballard. The page featured numerous men and their photos with stories of their life underneath; the page didn’t give me the aura of a dating page, but a page featuring determined men aimed to change the prison trajectory of doom and failure. These men were highlighted in such a way that would procure support and encourage redemption and future success for the men once they are released. The page has even helped some men GET a release date. Right away I sensed the orchestrator of this Instagram page had the proper discernment and insight to help an incarcerated individual experience true rehabilitation and success in a very major way. I reached out through direct message on how we here in Raleigh, NC, might be able to assist Mr. Ballard. It was Diane’s easy conversational tone that I most connected with, along with her willingness to listen to a stranger mention the similar work they were also involved with, trying to survive the pain of the pandemic. The pandemic of 2020 threw many of us into dark, unfamiliar places, just looking for shelter from the storm. COVID-19 took the lives of many others; and all this was happening as I was being awarded Volunteer of the Year by Wake Correctional Center in Raleigh, NC. Instead of using that notoriety and momentum to propel Stars Behind Bars into the next glorious phase, I suddenly found myself fighting to keep this small organization from drowning. I was using Instagram as a makeshift life raft; Diane Kahn and Humans of San Quentin appeared as a sort of lighthouse, way on the west coast, but ever so visible to us here in North Carolina. As my personal relationship with Bernard Ballard grew, so did my connection with Diane. She humbly and candidly shared her journey of expanding HoSQ. Over the next two years, she would share its journey while lifting me out of the dark place COVID had made for me.  When she shared that her team was let into San Quentin, I quietly counted it a victory for Stars Behind Bars as well, never losing hope that the day would soon come for us here, too (and it has!). I was careful never to reach out too often. I only wanted to share good news, but good news had become scarcer than any other period in my decade of service. I was reaching out more so to be encouraged, than to encourage. To me, Humans of San Quentin represented not only incarcerated men becoming free, but the organization also represented the next phase of my vision given to me by the man above.  

I’m no punk. I’m not scary; for the past decade I’ve implemented programs in prisons for some of the most feared men in our society. But I am very much at home here in North Carolina- I was never too terribly excited to travel to the west coast where I don’t truly know a single soul (that isn’t incarcerated) (lots of negatives in one sentence, but you get the picture). My wife encouraged me to go forward with my dream, and without her it wouldn’t have happened. I’d still be yapping my jaws about it. Also, it was Diane who introduced me to a true soldier in the field, Jesse Vasquez, a contact person who would aid me in many ways, as well as orchestrate the clearance I’d need to enter San Quentin State Prison. Jesse and I have even become great friends. Jesse is the Executive Director of Friends of San Quentin News, and founder of Media-in-a-Box. These programs have what I believe to be the blueprint for properly highlighting incarcerated leaders in ways conducive to their future success, as well as the programs that support these men. One of the best gifts a person can give is people.  

I got everything I went to get from San Quentin, and much more, despite the fact I didn’t get to spend very much time with Diane in person. I pray I gave everyone I met there something comparable, in return. When I returned home, I was reading the Humans of San Quentin ‘Meet The Team’ page, and I came across Diane’s bio on the back. When I learned that Diane has taught men inside to get their high school diplomas, it took me back almost thirty years to Genesee County Jail in Flint, Michigan, and that nameless teacher who believed in me, and what that experience did for me. You know, many people who fight for the incarcerated have never themselves been incarcerated. These are some of the most well equipped, valuable, and necessary people in the lives of incarcerated men striving for change. I look at it like this: if I’ve never been incarcerated, I probably cannot school an incarcerated man on how to be a prisoner. Maybe, I can show him much more, how to live FREE. That’s how I look at it. Much love and much respect to people like Diane Kahn who are using their brilliance to help those often forgotten about. Giving their time to help even the small organizations like Stars Behind Bars, that are also often forgotten about as we serve these men.  

As I looked around the office of Humans of San Quentin in San Rafael, California, many things stood out to me. I’ll speak on one in particular: the refrigerator is covered in photographs, headshots of many incarcerated men and women the organization has partnered with and sponsored. Raheem Ballard’s photo is up there. I was touched by this because I know firsthand how impactful the work is that this organization does. The photos only represent a small portion of who they’ve been able to serve. Once I was inside San Quentin State Prison, I learned very quickly just how grateful the men there are for Diane Kahn and Jesse Vasquez. I believe with all my heart in Diane and Humans of San Quentin. They are helping transform programs here in North Carolina and even around the world. I would like to thank Diane Kahn personally for her willingness to help organizations like Stars Behind Bars. I would also like to thank Diane Kahn for every individual that she has helped to obtain a high school diploma.

Poetry for Thought

Poetry for Thought

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

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?
And No
Lord God
Thank you though
For Grace
Within this place 

Trickle, Trick, Treacle, Trauma

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

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

Phosphorescent specter
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

In my teeth,
My feet,
The Abyss beneath
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






Power and Beauty
Spirit and Heart

 Mother earth
The Indian Woman

A Day in the Life

A Day in the Life

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.