Revisiting San Quentin Prison

I recently spent a day at San Quentin Prison being filmed for a documentary called “Unlikely Friends,” about victims and their relationship with their perpetrator, which will be released sometime in 2012 by Chance Films. 

Participating in the filming, I realized that I have opened my heart and mind a lot since my first visit in spring of 2004, when I visited San Quentin to share my story with prisoners in a group called Katargeo, a Greek word, meaning “freedom from that which binds you,” (I Corinthians 13).

My identification had been cleared in advance by providing my drivers license and social security number, then waiting for approval from the prison administration to visit.  Getting into a prison is intimidating, especially the first time.  When I received permission to visit, I was instructed not to wear jeans or the color blue, yellow, orange or army green, because the inmates wear these colors, and visitors need to be quickly identified  in case of a prison riot or unrest on the yard.  I settled on black suit with a pink shirt.

Accompanied byJacques Verduin, who had asked me to speak to the Katargeo group, I went to the first gate, presented my ID to a guard who carried a gun.  I signed in, was approved and walked on to the next gate to meet another armed guard and pass through a metal detector.  After that gate, I walked to yet another entrance, manned by a guard carrying a gun, signed in, was checked in and approved by the computer, was scanned with a hand-held metal detector, and stamped under the left wrist with the daily stamp.  Then I proceeded to a Sally port ‑ a large cell – where a huge door slammed shut with a resounding “clank,.” where  I was held until the opposite door opened with another loud “clank,” and I entered a second Sally port, which then unlocked and allowed me access to a large open quad.

The meeting room I was escorted to was a dilapidated cement tomb, with barely enough room for all of the prisoners (17) to sit with Jacques, me, and my friend and spiritual advisorBill Glenn.  The prisoners, dressed in dark blue jeans and light-blue denim shirts, started to fill the room.  I stood up to introduce myself and shake their hands as they settled, and was surprised to find the men all had kind faces.  I had an innate prejudice that murderers look mean and ugly.  Instead, I felt relaxed and comfortable among these men.  I felt that if my tire blew or I needed directions, I could approach any of them for help.

After we all were introduced to each other and settled in, I told my story of Christopher, sharing photos and personal tales, over the course of an hour.  As I spoke, I looked at each person’s face around the circle and could see real pain in their expressions.  I thought to myself, “I must remember that the story is harder for the first-time listener than for me.”

When I finished, I was in a roomful of men who were not just crying but openly sobbing.  I was moved by their reactions; in fact, I was overwhelmed, and realized that, despite what they had done, I shared a deep bond with these men.  They were grieving too.

My story is very tough and it hurts.  These men realized they had created this type of pain for a family and everyone connected to that family–and everyone connected to everyone connected to that family.  It is the “pebble in the pond” effect, and the ripple is far-reaching.  I understood, as I looked around the circle, that each of the men lives every day with the knowledge and pain of having taken a person’s life.  And now that they had heard my story, they could see the pain I live with every day without my son.

To be blunt and real with people who had something to learn was a healing experience.  I shared everything about my experience with the circle of men.  I wanted them to know how all our lives changed the day Christopher was murdered.  How my son would never call again to remind me to make his favorite orange Jell-o dish for Thanksgiving.  How I would never experience the joy of watching him get married and have children.  How I would never feel his hugs or hear him tell me he loved me.

It was a very powerful realization for these men to come face to face with me.  I could have been the mother of the person they killed.  It was very hard for them to see my pain and know they has caused this, for not just someone but many people.  I refer to this as “beautiful brutal truth at its best.”

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15 Responses to Revisiting San Quentin Prison

  1. Nancy says:

    Radha, you have such a knack not just by writing this, but by reading it I can actually picture the people around you and how they felt. If only more people went to visit youth groups or gangs maybe something like Christoper’s death could be prevented from happening to someone else’s son in the future.

  2. Radha,

    The compassion, civility, understanding, and generosity you have gathered through this journey is inspiring. Although the scar of losing Christopher will remain forever, the salve of time has helped to heal this tragic wound.

    Thank you for allowing all of us to share in your experience. It continues to be profound and rewarding.

    Love,

    David

  3. Bill Beckerman says:

    HI, Dear.

    We have met several times and each time I read your words or hear from you I am moved as if for the first time. Jacques and Glenn are wonderful people who have helped spice your words and make them so effective.
    Thanks,

  4. Mervyn Regan says:

    God bless you for your amazing heart and soul!

  5. Christina says:

    A beautifully composed portrait of your visit. I could see everything so vividly and just feel the emotion in the room as you spoke. Your openess and compassion are so healing for all of us, Radha. Thank you.

  6. Donna Loutsios says:

    Radha,
    You and Jacque were in our panel of parents of murdered children when my husband, my young son and myself visited San Quentin and sat in a Katargeo. I do not want to take away from your positives, that you took away from the Katargeos, but I had totally a different experience. My son, Jack, as you know was murdered at 17. I agree with your depiction of the process of entering San Quentin, buy what I saw were 17 (or so) murders walk in with Nike shoes, clean clothes, healthy looking and not a tear was shed during the entire Katargeo. I remember, my young son breaking down, sobbing and yelling at these murders. My heart still drip drip dripping pain from the lose of my eldest son and now watching my youngest son so angry and making no sense of the horrific acts these murders have committed.MURDER! I must disagree with your view of accepting help from them if my tire blew. Most of them looked frightening and just plain scary. Listening to them tell their story of the act of murder, they had committed, was absolutely chilling. I wish I could say that I was on the same page as you Radha, but I wasn’t then, and I sure as heck am not now. I saw, nor felt, that not one of those murders felt remorse for their act, but only felt trapped for being caught.
    I wonder if they even remember their victim(s)?

    • Radha says:

      Dear Donna,
      First – thank you for your comments.
      Second – just factual but you were not in the Katargeo group. It was the Victim Offender Education Group.
      I am not trying to change your thoughts on anything. We all have ours.
      I do remember your visit to SQ vividly. I know how upset you were by Nikes, Pepsi or Coke (can’t remember) and thinking inmates had to may privileges.
      I also remember a beautiful opening with an inmate who you went over to comfort when he was sobbing about losing his family because of his crime. You stood up and walked across the room to hold his hands.
      I appreciate the brutal truth of these men’s crimes because they are working on the reality of them too. We can help them come to a full realization of the consequence of their crime and hopefully both move a tiny bit forward.
      I too drip, drip with sadness of not having my son, Christopher to grow old with me. However, I don’t think anger helps me in any way. I think it hurts even more.
      In my opinion the men I have worked with REMEMBER their victims; even more after meeting us.
      I am happy to put your comment up on the website. I just wanted to make sure you knew that was a public space….first.
      I count you as a very special friend and think of you dearly.
      All my best with smiles and hugs,
      Radha

  7. Susan Kirsch says:

    You inspire with your simple words and profound story.

  8. Antje Steinhoff says:

    Dear Radha,

    you went forward and found a very unusual way to contact the prisoners on a human level facing them personally.
    It needs a lot of strength from your side to go to St. Quentin but I think you reached out to them and made them think about the consequences of what they`ve done. It´s a big step in the driection of peace which turns a switch in their thoughts and brains. You invested in them by giving them a chance to change their mind and not to be condemned all live long to the murderers they actually were.To find forgiveness it`s necessary to say “I am sorry.” and ” I do regret all the consequences I `ve caused to other people.”
    If I could only find out about a peaceful way out of our family tragedy where no communication seems to be possible any more.

    Shalom
    Antje

  9. Louise Franklin says:

    Radha, Thank you for sharing this very powerful and moving experience. I am awed by you, and your willingness to explore the edges and depth of your pain, grief journey, and simply who you are. Certainly, being able to sit in that room, share, and hold the deeply held emotion that it stirred in those men, is a testament to your “open heart and mind” as you describe above. I am so grateful to know you.

  10. Donna Loutsios says:

    I must correct my first statement. I did not attend a Katargeo it was a Victim Offender Education Group.

  11. John Devol says:

    Radha, you are a wonderfully effective teacher of the universal truth that “we are all one”. (Crimes are committed when we think we are separate.)

  12. Linda Montgomery says:

    You are an inspiration – proof of that adage about making lemonade out of lemons!

  13. Harvey Gould says:

    You continue to amaze me with your ability to do what all good writers do–show, not tell–that much more of an amazing feat when the subject matter is so heart wrenching as what you have to share with all of us. I read all you write to learn more about your journey, your strength, your ability to teach, and your gift for compassion. You remain my hero and I love you dearly.

  14. Elizabeth Marlow says:

    Hi Radha,
    Just reading this…it is beautiful. What you are doing for others by sharing your story is so powerful. You gave those men a chance to grieve and a chance for an awareness of themselves they most likely never thought possible. Continue this work. It is life changing and world changing.
    Elizabeth

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