Shahen, 32

Shahen, 32

Meet Shahen…

My wife and kids are my motivation to continue to move forward in a positive and healthy manner. Even in prison I want to be a positive role model and have a positive impact in their lives. I don’t want them to follow in my footsteps.

Incarcerated: 13 years
Interview by Edwin our inside Spanish Director

Who are you?
A man who has come a long way from where I started. I want to continue to head on the right path. I feel that it is never too late to continue learning and growing.

How old were you when you came to prison?
I was 19. Now I am 32.

Can you tell us about your journey inside prison?
I started off at a level four prison at a young age. It was the worst, with violence, gangs, politics and the Correctional Officers were mostly racists, others were abusive. It made me feel like prison was a war zone. I didn’t know that I had a choice on how I could act.

Why is that?
At such a young age I felt that I needed to prove myself to my older homies in the gang. At the time, that was what I believed in. I used it as a survival tool, in such a hostile environment.

What was your belief system?
Being part of the Southerners gang, I held up to their code of conduct. Even if it meant to put myself or others in harm ways to benefit the gang I was willing to do so.

How do you deal with this now?
By focusing my time and energy on positive and healthy things. This has helped me to adopt new belief systems by being around positive people. Now I understand why I felt the need to prove myself to everybody else as to how hard core of a gangster I was. I had low self-esteem, the need to be accepted by the negative peers around me. This made me feel some type of love from those around me.

How is San Quentin different in comparison to other prisons that you have been to?
The atmosphere and the culture here is based on how the majority of people are on the same page working towards rehabilitation. To better themselves in general. The places I’ve been through, people laugh at you, for attending groups or trying to do the right thing. Here they encourage you to take positive steps towards rehabilitation.

What motivates you to wake up in the mornings?
A few things actually. Really my kids and my wife. I feel like just trying to be the best version of myself for my kids and wife. Even though I am in prison I want to be a positive role model and have a positive impact in their lives. So that they won’t follow the same footsteps that I did along with the majority of people here.

How difficult has it been for you to adapt to prison life after 13 years of being incarcerated?
At first I never thought about it, maybe because I was afraid of facing the reality of how much time I have to do. I was sentenced to 25 with no life. Plus, as a result of my criminal past, later I was given an additional four year sentence. So I used to focus on negative things, and drown myself in drugs; blocking out my reality. Now that time has passed, I find myself trying to heal from my childhood traumas, for all the gang culture mentality. Which is what got me here in the first place. Unfortunately, I have to grow up here in the prison system. Now I can tell you that I feel like I have figured it out how I need to do the remainder of my time. I make sure to dig into my arsenal of coping mechanisms or tools for success; in order to be able to thrive in a positive and healthy manner.

How has the mental health program been helping you to deal with your stress, anxiety, and other issues?
Well I recently just went through a righteous mental breakdown. To the point where I didn’t care about anything.

Why?
I just came off two crisis bed, after my suicide observation for 24 days back to back in 30 days. Along the way I met some good psychiatrists, clinicians and even other prisoners. That really helped me get back on my feet.

What will you tell someone going through mental health issues or are on the verge of giving up?
From personal experiences, don’t be scared or too prideful to ask for help. You don’t have to take medications in order to receive help. Also, know yourself and your signs as far as doing things out of the ordinary that can lead to either harming yourself or others. Don’t give up. You have to find the positive in a negative situation. To me my wife and kids are my motivation to continue to move forward in a positive and healthy manner.

You are about to be transferred out of San Quentin. What are you taking from this experience of being in this prison?
When I get to my next prison I will surround myself with positive people only. To me rehabilitation through sports is a real thing. Most importantly to follow the rules and stay out of trouble so that I can go home to my wife and kids.

Henok, 44

Henok, 44

Meet Henok…

Playing the violin taught me perseverance and the art of playing different varieties of music.

Incarcerated: 16 years

Inside SQ live interview between RayRay and Henok

Ray Ray: How long have you been in prison?
Henok: I’ve been in prison for 16 years. I committed my crime when I was 24, but I wasn’t arrested until I was 28.
Ray Ray: What can you tell me about this picture?
Henok: I have waited a long time for the opportunity to take a picture with my violin. Playing the violin taught me perseverance and the art of playing different varieties of music. I had to put in three hours a day of hard work for two years.
Ray Ray: Does your violin have a name?
Henok: I’ve been going back and forth for years trying to figure out a name. I wanted to name her after my first love, but I didn’t want to hold on to that. So, I named my violin Nebsay, which means ‘my heart’ in African.
Ray Ray: Does playing your violin take you to another place?
Henok: Yes, it’s a place to tell other people stories in hopes that we don’t feel alone.
Ray Ray: I want to thank you for taking my position at Humans of San Quentin as an admin assistant. What can you bring to the Humans of San Quentin?
Henok: I can bring perspective to the ways the incarcerated are dehumanized in the workplace. Also, I am good at conflict resolution. Here’s a quote by a philosopher, “Conflict is the spirit of a relationship seeking to deepen.”

Dennis, 49

Dennis, 49

Red Flag Journals #1

December 13, 2020

I’m currently incarcerated for murdering my wife, Jasmine, in our living room. Nothing I write here is intended to justify, condone, or absolve me of accountability for my choice to use violence against Jasmine. It was inexcusable, criminal, and I pleaded guilty because I was guilty. It is my fault. I didn’t know what I didn’t know – eighteen years ago or even threads that stretch back to the 1970s. I was imprisoned by my thoughts before I came to prison. Besides walking the paths of shame, regret, remorse, and guilt, I engaged in the folly of what I could’ve done differently to de-escalate a conversation that went from civil to homicide that afternoon. I am going to share with you the processes that would have kept me seated on the couch moments before I attacked Jasmine.

Here is what I’ve learned in the last eighteen years.

Empathy
That fateful afternoon I distortedly told myself that Jasmine was the enemy, my tormentor. I was the victim. She was an awesome mother, a good wife, and she deserves better. I didn’t tell myself the right story. I didn’t question if my thoughts were real. I recall the pain of my mother’s sudden passing when I was eighteen: the despair, the tailspin, the loss. But I didn’t recall that memory as I came off the couch and attacked Jasmine, essentially making my three daughters at daycare orphans. I never disrespected my mother or grandmother; I was on my best behavior around these women. So why not my wife?

Toxic Masculinity
I now understand that I was socialized into a warped ideal of masculinity that was toxic in its origin. Sitting on that couch, I not only denied being in pain, but I wouldn’t acknowledge or recognize my primary emotions: hurt, fear, and shame. It was more comforting to let anger bully those feelings and convert them into false pride, power, and confidence.

Seeking Help
I’ve learned about extreme individualism. I didn’t ask for help for my mental health issues because it wasn’t a sign of strength or seen as manly.

Mindfulness
A critical component to retaining dignity and composure. By tuning into my bodily sensations, what I’m physically sensing in the present moment, I’m able to be aware of my thoughts without attaching reactive labels to them. I’m aware of aggression and how it plays out in domestic violence. Being grounded by definition cultivates more choices. They include inner dialogues I’ve learned in AA: “First thought wrong;” “Do the next right thing;” “Will this decision affect the quality of my life?”

Domestic Abuse
I understand that even when violence isn’t physical, there are other acts that I used to impose my will on my partners. I didn’t know that belittling, betrayal, harassment, coercion, fear, lies, slamming doors, throwing keys, eye rolls, weaponizing the finances, and heavy breathing are all forms of domestic violence. I do now. I’ve learned that daily life stressors such as bills, unemployment, and medical issues can pressure cook and be catalysts for domestic abuse.

Childhood Trauma
I’ve learned I wasn’t responsible for my upbringing, my own abuse and trauma. Now, as an adult, I’m responsible for my choices. I’m responsible for not seeking a sponsor or mentor to help me reimagine the poor examples of manhood I saw as a child. I was a man-child, needy and dependent. I mentally never left home.
I continually burdened my partners with unrealistic expectations, seeking the parent I never had.

I’ve learned to hold my own hand.

I’ve learned about the shame and pain I’ve carried all my life. I’ve recycled it and I transfer it to others’ dehumanizing feelings. In the past, I never had a problem dehumanizing others. Now, I’ve learned I can’t use my past to justify hurting others. My past shouldn’t be another’s future.

Relationships
A relationship is not a win-lose zero sum game, as I’ve always approached them. I’ve been taught the concept of time-outs: where mindfulness meets intention in an escalating heated situation. I’ve learned about fair negotiating, effective communication, agreeing on how to disagree. The 48-hour rule where a couple can revisit a disagreement in two days to determine if it is still relevant. I had a family that loved me, the love I always perceived as elusive. My daughters would run outside to greet me when I arrived home. But my mind was shallow and self-absorbed. Now my daughters run from me, eighteen years later. Actions have consequences. In critical moments, it’s not just what is occurring. It’s how the story is being told about what is occurring. After my self evaluation, I realized I lacked the values of grace, humility, fairness, and gratitude.

Adulting
I’ve learned that starting my own family was a privilege, a responsibility, not a right or accessory. I had a family, yet I acted as if I was a bachelor. I now know to pick a lane and stay true to it. An unacknowledged belief system is how I internalized that women were weak and inferior objects. My narrow-minded sexism and sense of entitlement couldn’t tolerate Jasmine’s standing up for herself. Women existed to tell my fragile ego how great I was. My abusive dysfunction was dangerous. I’ve learned that there are always alternatives to violence. Real men maintain self-control and meet challenging moments with integrity. That the strategies I used to sustain control with women consistently undermined our trust, intimacy, love, and connection; in other words, an equally satisfying, mature relationship.

Today
In San Quentin, I facilitate groups on domestic violence and share these lessons with men who will return to their community and relationships, where I’m transparent in sharing my narrative. Everything I do is about amends, to honor Jasmine. Compassion, kindness, advocacy. I can’t pay it back, but I can pay it forward. Remorse and guilt aren’t silent spectator events. I’ve never rationalized or blamed anyone for my choices that day. That’s like looking in the mirror, seeing a dirty face, and wiping the mirror. San Quentin’s culture of transformation has allowed me access to education, resources, literature, workshops, and self-help groups where I gained insight and understanding into how my anti-social beliefs and actions became normalized; to see the unseen foundation of my attitudes to make the unconscious conscious.

I’m responsible for taking my daughters’ mother.
For Jasmine not reaching her future, her benefit to society.
I rightfully sit in this cell.
I’m a cautionary tale.
If someone reads this in the community…
before a family is annihilated by patriarchal recklessness
before someone is taken that isn’t yours to take
before an act is committed that can’t be undone
before the action that ends will never been unseen
before residency is taken up in these cold, lonely institutions
before tears stain the pillows every night
before the life sentence
before the children have to go to the cemetery to visit their parent
…choose responsibility before you leave the couch.

Michael Moore

Michael Moore

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.

Delvon, 32

Delvon, 32

Meet Delvon…

I watched her grow up in pictures and now she’s raising me. A daughter raising a dad in prison.

Incarcerated: 9 years

I play for the San Quentin Warriors basketball team. We were in our Saturday morning basketball circle and I shared about my one year old cousin, Devyn. He was in the hospital, he had three seizures and three strokes. I was crying uncontrollably in front of my friends. I asked for a prayer, I thought he might die. His grandfather died from a seizure. I don’t know if it runs in the family, but it worries me. Don, from the Prison Sports Ministry, prayed right there on the spot. He’s the last boy that’s been born into our family. I felt it so deeply because of my uncle. My cousin, Devyn’s mother was actually watching him and when she went to the restroom, he had a seizure and died. She felt that she was the cause of his death. She feels guilty and now her son has seizures too. She worries.

I also think about how I haven’t seen my daughter since 2019. Raising a high school daughter from prison, who lives in Las Vegas, is something I have no idea how to do. She’s trying to find herself. The whole stereotype that is out there about Vegas, that is the scary thing. They say, “Try to think positive,” but the thought of a young woman in Vegas. I have no words for it. My daughter has a blank when she talks about her feelings about growing up without a father. We have a strong bond, but it’s a mystery bond, there is a blank space between us. I don’t know what she doesn’t like. I know she is the one that nips stuff in the bud. She says, “Why are you saying that?” It’s like she’s checking me and raising me. She asks me to come home and says, “Don’t get into trouble.” I watched her grow up in pictures and now she’s raising me. A daughter raising a dad in prison. It’s starting to become normal for me to share my feelings. I think it’s being around the caliber of people in San Quentin. Being in the middle of the court, which is my comfort zone. I feel safe and comfortable regardless of who’s on the court. When we say, “Bring it in the middle” it feels like home.