I was barely 22 when I first started teaching at San Quentin. I had a fellowship, so I was pretty much there full time, and taught classes in various units. When November came around, little elementary-school-esque paper cutouts of Thanksgiving paraphernalia started popping up around the Education building. For some reason, that broke my heart.
Maybe it was because it was my first Thanksgiving away from my family, maybe it was just the cumulative effect of having spent all my days inside a prison for the past 3+ months, but the realization that Education would be closed on Thanksgiving made me cry. My students and I had all grown pretty attached to our Poetry classes, and the fact that they'd all be alone on Thanksgiving with these depressing paper cornucopias and canned gravy slopped onto their trays in the chow hall--and I couldn't even come in to teach our class--suddenly it was just too much to bear.
The Artist Facilitator at San Quentin, with whom I worked closely, said to me: "Claire, there are 6,000 sad stories in this prison. You can't carry them all around." His advice worked--it sort of snapped me out of it--and over the past 8 years, I've kept his advice in mind and been much better about detachment. It's true: everyone has a sad story. Especially prisoners. I wouldn't be able to teach there if every one of their stories lodged into my heart.
And yet, occasionally one does.
I'm pretty tough. I don't ask my students why they're incarcerated at San Quentin, and frankly, I don't really care. I'm there to be a teacher. Of course, given that I'm teaching poetry, their stories often come out. Still, I take my red pen and mark up their poems just as I would if they were privileged university students. They're there to learn.
But for the past two years, I've had this one student, O. He's 23 now, which means he was just 21 when he joined my class. He's tiny, and he has those you-can-spot-em-anywhere prison tats blotched on his arms, behind his right ear. And he's a phenomenal poet. He's especially into the female confessional poets, and his own writing has come so far that he's ready to send his poems off to journals.
O was arrested at 16 for robbery and taken to California's notorious Youth Authority (juvenile prison). He was incarcerated there until he was 20. When he was released, he went back to his mom and stepdad's house in Fresno. His stepdad had recently been laid off from his job at a cattle farm, and was scrambling for jobs to pay the bills. It wasn't working, so he and O headed up to Napa County to work in the fields during the marijuana harvest season.
Federal agents caught them in the fields and shot his stepfather, who was standing beside O. His stepfather died immediately, and the agents arrested 21-year-old O for cultivating marijuana and possession of a firearm.
He came to San Quentin. And he's set to be released later this week. And I'm nervous as hell.
In California, state prisoners have to parole to the county of their last legal address. O will go back to Fresno, where his family lives. His mother has struggled since her husband was killed by federal agents and her son was taken to prison in one fell swoop. All the kids he got in trouble with in his teens--they still live in that same neighborhood. And let's not forget how institutionalized O is by this point; he's hardly seen the outside of a prison since he was 16.
Who's going to give him a job? Rent him an apartment?
There's a part of me that strongly believes that we're all accountable for every decision we make. Actually, all of me believes that. But when you grow up with family members in the Mexican cartel, as O did, and you experience the drug trade as a normalcy--how are you supposed to learn otherwise? At what age do you become responsible for teaching yourself better?
I imagine that it's easy for most people to think of prisoners as sociopathic, manipulative monsters. And some of them are. But all of them have stories, and crime doesn't occur in a vacuum. My hope is that people--citizens, voters--are thinking, deeply and critically, about the problem of prisons in our country. It seems to me that we'd get a lot further as a society if we focused on healing rather than punishment.
Send some positive thoughts toward San Quentin on Friday as O walks out those big iron gates, if you will. He's got a tough journey ahead.
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