I stood in front of my closet trying to decide what to wear. I was supposed to be at the prison in a half hour, and if I didn’t get dressed soon, I’d be late. Flashbacks of movies like Shawshank Redemption ran through my head as I flipped through the hangers for the third time. What does one wear to prison? I finally decided on a black top that was not too tight or low cut, plain black khakis and black shoes. I pulled my hair back in a severe bun, no jewelry, no makeup. “You look like an undertaker,” my husband said as he kissed me goodbye. “Just the effect I was going for!” I laughed as I walked out the door.
I live close to San Quentin and drive by it regularly, but somehow I missed the turnoff. I finally found the entrance and parked my car. When I got out of the car I dropped my keys, as I picked them up, I dropped my phone. I was shaking. I looked for Rochelle where we’d agreed to meet, half hoping she wouldn’t be there.
“You must be Laura,” said Rochelle Edwards, as she pushed back a lock of brown hair from her face. She looked relaxed and comfortable in a breezy white cotton blouse and a calf-length linen skirt. Now that would have been nice, I thought, admiring her outfit, as I stood there sweltering in the hot sun in my Johnny Cash -plays-Folsom-Prison getup.
Noticing my tension, she gently took my arm, “I’ve been coming to this prison for years,” she said. “I know it can be scary the first time.” She led me through the main gate, chatting comfortably with the guards, explaining her Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG) to help prisoners emotionally connect with the consequences of their actions. “Our goal is to create healing and forgiveness on both sides of a crime.”
The heavy metal door swung shut with a loud clang behind us as a uniformed guard in a bulletproof vest waved us through. I took a deep breath as I stepped into the bustling courtyard, officially entering San Quentin prison, home to some of the most violent offenders on the planet.
The prison itself is hot and crowded, an imposing three-story structure with cells stacked on top of each other. Originally built for 3,000 men, it holds over 5,000. Two men are housed in a cell built for one. San Quentin’s death row has been described as the largest in the Western Hemisphere. At one point as we were walking the yard, an alarm went off, blaring from the loudspeakers all around us. Every prisoner had to squat to the ground, holding still until an announcement released them. “Before, they had to lie face down on the ground,” said Rochelle. “This,” she added, indicating the men around us, “is a little more dignified.”
I’ve always had a fear of prison. When I go through customs I worry I’ll be arrested for bringing something into the country that I didn’t even know I had. Maybe it’s my Catholic school upbringing… never knowing when a wooden ruler would come flying through the air, landing on the back of your hand for some infraction you hadn’t realized you’d committed.
Rochelle guided me into a chapel on one side of the courtyard where 22 prisoners in their denim blue outfits gathered chairs in a circle for the meeting. I smiled nervously at the men as Rochelle introduced me. She shook their hands, hugged them, asking about their children, their families and recent parole hearings. She clearly had a strong bond with each of these men who were white, black, Latino, Asian and Native American.
The men looked at me expectantly.
“Thank you for including me in your group,” I said, sitting down in a plastic chair, shoving my hands under my legs. “I have to admit, I’m nervous to be here. I’ve never been in a prison before.”
A young-looking Asian man sitting across from me gave a knowing nod. “That’s exactly how I felt when I first came here 20 years ago. I was 19 and real nervous. But you get used to it.”
My heart stopped. Here I’d been worrying about spending 3 hours in San Quentin while most of these men had been there for over 20 years with little chance of leaving any time soon. My tension began to subside as they went around the circle and introduced themselves. The first man told me “I’ve been sentenced for 25 years to life for murder.” He named his victim and said, “I know what I did was wrong. I wish I could undo what happened that day, but I can’t, I’m paying for it by being in prison, but no amount of time in here can erase what I’ve done.”
Tears welled up in my eyes as I listened to their stories. They were raw, honest, vulnerable, and most of all, remorseful for what they had done and the pain they had caused to the families they had hurt. Most of these men had committed murder while on drugs or alcohol or in a passionate rage and they could not turn back the clock.
It made me think how many times I’d lashed out in anger at someone with a desire to hurt or get revenge, wanting to see them suffer for the suffering I felt they were inflicting on me. When the men were done sharing, I realized I was no longer afraid. I connected with each of them on a human level beyond their prison blues and murder convictions to see who they really were in their hearts. And, as I usually find when I drop my judgments and preconceived ideas of others, they were not dissimilar to me. It seems odd to say it now, but my visit to San Quentin prison was truly a transformational experience.