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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