Only when walking inside, you realize how tense prison life is like – welcome to San Quentin
oing in San Quentin prison was an experience I will never forget. This was supposed to be just one more SFSU nursing program school project, but the health fair at San Quentin had a special punch. To learn how it is to be inside a prison is something you might only experience ounce. For some is the bulk of their lives.
At the gate before going in I was nonchalant but that quickly faded as I approached the pent up energy of 5,256 + men. There were several security checks points we had to go through. Our supervisor kept repeating: “You cannot bring your cell phone, if you do you’ll get arrested at the gate”. I quickly triple checked my pockets one more time, and this was the first time I was glad I forgot my phone at home.
After two check points and a lot of waiting we found ourselves walking into the yard where inmates hang around – that was kind of scary. Some stared at us, other smiled, and others had no expression what so ever. Others just look lost or inside their head phones, escaping to another world. It felt initially like I was inside a prison movie only different because it wasn’t a movie; it was as real as the cold wind from the freezing water of the bay.
This health fair was one of these rare occasions when a regular person can be inside a place like this. To be there you are either an inmate or work in the prison. So to be simply walking there was a rare opportunity so I enjoyed this strange feeling like a bitter sweet treat. The prison guards looked huge and kind of surreal, I felt they were characters out of the Lord of the Rings; from Isengard?
We were taken to a couple of small buildings at the end of a long yard. They were simple and funky and reminded me of some galpão (werehouse) from a favela in Rio I’ve been to; maybe it was built by the inmates. It felt tight inside and we had to be escorted to the bathroom when we needed to go, and we had to move if they told us to. Everything was timed, calculated and planned. There is no freedom in this place. Not for the inmates, and not for anybody else.
We only had about five hours to do all the work; blood pressure, cholesterol and health advice. I took care of the BMI (body mass index) machine. It was crowded and it took me some time to get going and to feel at ease. After a couple of hours I was making contact with the inmates and that was the best part. Some were friendly, some tough and gang like, most just trapped inside their protective armor. It was great to share a few words with them and realize that this was also a rare opportunity for them too, there was also this community spirit that I know happens when people live together in close proximity. I noticed this funny thing when I asked their age in order to calculate the BMI; I felt this was somewhat hard for them to do. We also had great help from the guys from THE TRUST.
The National Trust program is a re-socialization program in which life-term inmates mentor, train and prepare short-term inmates to become positive citizens. Founded by Dr. Garry Mendez, Jr. more than 20 years ago in New York, the goal of The Trust is to transform the incarcerated from social liabilities into assets for themselves, their families and their communities.
It’s like a school for the recruiting of Milarepas. In San Quentin THE TRUST is a group of 31 incarcerated men and I don’t think we could have done it without their support. Rather than being the victims they are empowered to become mentors and community leaders. Certainly the only program I ever heard in terms of rehabilitation in prison system. You can also find out more about this project from an upcoming movie about THE TRUST.
We were in and out of there like a bubble lowered down to a deep ocean where you could only stay a little. You felt the pressure and being lowered and then pulled out. I felt wired when finally out of the compound, it took me hours for my adrenaline to settle down; I guess the stored energy of pent up man inside the prison is indeed pretty intense. I wonder if all this energy could somehow be put to good use… just wondering.