Earnest, End of 2022

Earnest, End of 2022

Greetings from Earnest…

Incarcerated: 35 years
Housed: San Quentin State Prison

Humans of San Quentin began as light in the darkness of Covid-19. The effect of people caring for other people, especially a convicted murderer like me who lost my mother and three aunts in a very short time was therapy that I needed to keep me praying and balanced. Humans of San Quentin is important because it is an entity created to exhibit what empathy and love looks and feels like.

Sincerely, Earnest “Ben Shuah” Woods II

Henok, End of 2022

Henok, End of 2022

Greetings from Henok…

Incarcerated: 16 years
Housed: San Quentin State Prison

When I ask people if they would be interested in sharing a story with us their usual question is “Do I have to share or talk about my crime?” This moment oftentimes is the realization for them, that they are more than their crime, when I respond with “No we don’t want to hear about that, we’re interested in sharing whatever you feel comfortable sharing” In that moment our community members are reminded that they have a rich history prior to prison, and then they share whatever comes from their heart. For me it’s a blessing to see the light in their eyes grow slightly brighter. That is priceless, seeing someone regain & claim their humanity in a story and timed shared.

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.

Douglas, 54

Douglas, 54

Meet Douglas…

Laughter helps me remember the warmth of the sun when the chill of loneliness becomes almost too much to bear.

Incarcerated: 5 years
Housed: San Quentin State Prison, California
I am a single father of three. I must be honest, this journey has been a test of humility and patience. I have had an opportunity to be still and explore who I am, to know I am worthy of destiny and that I need not settle for consequence. I am an artist of pens, pencils and paint brushes, a Spoken Word Poet and writer. I am addicted to reading books. I am an animal lover and child of the beaches of northern California. I have rediscovered the infectious sense of humor that I got from my mom. Laughter helps me remember the warmth of the sun when the chill of loneliness becomes almost too much to bear. I find myself encouraging anyone who will listen (even myself) that genuine kindness is truly a super power. I have learned by being kind to our neighbors and strangers, it has allowed me to help heal some of the harm and ugly hurt my irresponsibility have created. By reclaiming my humanity and being committed to restoring my community it has allowed me to be healed.

Dearest Love
It is not fair that
I am lost in the cruel afterglow
Of your fleeting bliss,

I shiver in emotions I can’t control
Bound by tangible memories I cannot escape,

I find myself dreaming within
A fog of immeasurable yearning,

Wanting, craving…
And needing you,

Only to awaken in the warm euphoria of your touch,
Suffering the delicious pain of your absence,

I find myself loving deeper
And missing you more,
By, Truth N. Poetry
Aka Douglas

I HAD ISSUES?
It still hurts
When I look Back,
Thru the unnecessary pain
And the guidance I lacked,
The invisibility of love
The cruel and abusive acts,
Witnessing “Domestic Violence”
The punches and slaps,
The hopelessness I felt
In our dysfunctional trap,
Lost my Mama to drugs
No, I don’t mean crack,
Learned early not to dream
Because my skin was black,

In reality my skin is Brown

But it didn’t stop the systems
From holding me down,
When ever I displayed Brilliance
I always received a frown,
So I gave up and became
The inevitable class clown,
Born and raised in East Oakland
A city but called “The Town”’

For reason
I never understood fully,
At each school
I always fought the bully,

Maybe it was attitude
Perhaps it was my tone,
Or quite possibly I was rehearsing
The brutality I learned a home,

For my behavior
I had no explanations or excuses,
As I was too ashamed to talk about
The daily abuses,

Teachers always said I was smart
Good comprehension, could read and write,
Suffered repeated suspension
For getting into fights,
I started running away
I felt safer in the night,

Once I was almost
Beaten to death
Shortly thereafter
I turned to theft,
I use to get E’s
Soon all I got was F’s,

Emotionally malnourished
I still gave it my best,
As I was choked & slapped
Welts all over my flesh,
One teacher was curious
But wouldn’t hazard a guess
One asked “how come my wounds
Always seem fresh,”
But I was taught
To lie to C.P.S.,

Not adult dared
To be my savior,
Or at least make the connection
Between my scars & my behavior,

Not one family member
Came to court,
As I was described as a
Monster in the Probation Report,

They years of “Child Abuse”
Manifested into crime,
Anti-social delinquent
Was my state of mind,
Juvenile Hall to California Youth Authority
Sadly, I made it to the big time,
The judge was uninterested in why
He said I finally crossed the line,

The past abuses I suffered shattered
My dreams clouded my visions,
As a result of this corruption
I spent over 23 years in prison,
Denying my mental & emotional issues
Was a costly decision,

No one acknowledged that I
Was abused by a goblin,
But punished me
As if I was the problem,
Mental Health Issues
Make no mistake I got em’,

P.T.S.D., Depression
And Anxiety are real
My scars invisible to the naked eye
Familiar would no hand can feel,
A survivor of
A childhood which haunts me still,
By Truth N. Poetry
Aka Douglas

Kunta, 28

Kunta, 28

Meet Kunta…

At first, I didn’t even notice that I was easing the hurt from my soul. Even though I am not fully healed, I have come a long way and I am doing a whole lot better. So, I continue to write, healing my soul.

Incarcerated: 10 years

Housed: San Quentin State Prison

I’ve been locked up since I was sixteen. In the beginning, I really struggled because I didn’t know how to verbally express myself. I would be drowning on the inside because of all of the words and feelings that I wasn’t expressing. One night in my cell, I started writing poetry. The next day, I let my brother read it and he liked it, which inspired me to keep writing. This was ten years ago. At first, I didn’t even notice that I was easing the hurt from my soul. Even though I am not fully healed, I have come a long way and I am doing a whole lot better. So, I continue to write, healing my soul. Hopefully, in the process, I am able to help heal a little of the world’s pain through my words. Because of my poems, my words are my truest and sincerest feelings – my worries, my hurts, my depression. I share openly with you, all in hopes of letting you know that you are not alone in this world because I am out here with you in spirit.

 

“Depressed State of Mind”

Running from my reality

On the brink of losing my sanity

Carrying the world on my shoulders

An’ yet they are still mad at me

 

Quite often I’m neglected

Soul in a constant state of depression

In a head-on collision with rejection

 

I’m breaking mirrors

Can you speak louder so the message will be clearer

Voices yelling in my head

And I still can’t hear ya

 

Thoughts of suicide

So why should I fear ya

I’m drowning in despair

Agony filling my lungs

 

So there’s no air

No hope of breathin’

Got me afraid of sleeping

Because all I see is demons

 

Fighting to devour my soul

Feels like I’m losing control

My body holding on and my soul still letting go

My heart beatin’ hectic

 

I was born dead

So tell God my body

He can come collect it