Published February 2, 2016 on

Recently I was lucky to be invited to TEDxSanQuentin, one of those “independently organized” gatherings done in the TED talks style, and under the aegis of the high-end conference. I jumped at the chance. San Quentin looms large in the public imagination, especially in the Bay Area, being an really old prison (established in 1852) with a dramatic setting on the very edge of the Bay. Perhaps more to the point, I’m an old liberal who routinely votes down new jail construction and am a long-time opposer of the death penalty. I wanted to see the place myself, and hear from the people there.

The invited guests were a mix of inmates and outsiders. Maybe there were 150 civilians and 75 inmates, plus speakers including former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin (why was he there? turns out excessive incarceration has immense economic consequences for us all). We all sat together for about six hours of talks, breaks and conversation. My friend Gary Bolles has written an extensive and thoughtful piece on the day, which I can’t recommend highly enough.

Seriously, go read it. I’ll wait!

Since Gary’s done such a great job of detailing the day, I’ll zero in with a few thoughts I took away in hopes that you too care about such things as our absurd incarceration rates and the deadly and counter-productive cycle of crime, poverty and lack of education.

  • Whether we live inside or out, we are all human, with the same basic desires: to be cared for, to love, to express ourselves, to share experiences.This understanding shaped the day for those of us visiting San Quentin, and I was grateful for the chance to spend time and chat with inmates, who were, to a man (or transgender woman) kind, helpful, and friendly. I felt that they wear their humanity close to the skin — closer, in fact, than most of us on the outside.
  • Eventually some 90% of inmates (everywhere) will be released. Wouldn’t it make sense to put more money towards training and reentry? We heard a story of being released with $200 cash and the address of a halfway house (in a sketchy neighborhood to boot) — but no job or prospects. Hey, even the RAND Corporation agrees: education reduces recidivism.
  • When the debt is paid, let’s consider it paid. One of the blockers to post-prison improvement is the often-asked question on employment applications: Have you ever been convicted of a crime? (An honest “yes” typically puts you in the rejection pile pronto.) That’s why there’s a movement afoot called Ban The Box, which more than 100 US cities and counties have adopted. If you have a chance to work for this where you live, do it.
  • Restorative justice programs like the Insight Prison Project tackle the long, slow work of addressing the underlying issues of crime and violence, including working with victims. Support them. Here’s a list of Bay Area organizations doing this work, including in schools.
  • Enlightened prison wardens, sheriffs and police officials who are interested in reducing crime and jail populations by providing educational and restorative justice programs make all the difference between more positive outcomes and expensive incarceration cycles (and little crime reduction). Whenever possible, support those whose philosophy is humane and informed.
  • Vote against new prison construction and the death penalty, and for measures to limit solitary confinement and long sentences — all are counter-productive to improving our society at large and individuals in particular. Around the country, there’s some progress in these areas.

I won’t forget my visit to San Quentin anytime soon. Doing some thinking and reading afterwards led me to this line from H.G. Wells:

“Crime and bad lives are the measure of a State’s failure, all crime in the end is the crime of the community.” (A Modern Utopia, 1905.)