Recently, I helped organize a forum that brought together currently and formerly incarcerated people, legislators, and reform advocates. The goal of the event was to assess the effects of recently enacted sentencing reforms, and show the good that has come from returning people to their communities once they’ve healed from the trauma in their lives.

On the day of the event, we followed a format that people at San Quentin have used for years. First, we gathered in small circles. Once in the circles, currently and formerly incarcerated people spoke about their childhoods, the crime they’d committed, and how the recent reforms had affected their lives. Some of our formerly incarcerated guests had been released decades early because of the sentencing reforms, and have done amazing work since their release.

Sitting across the circle from me was a person who I’ve known for years. Since his release from prison, he’s been an advocate for restorative practices as an alternative to our current criminal justice policies, and for teaching emotional intelligence in elementary schools. This was his first time back at San Quentin since his release almost 18 months ago.

In the circle, I invited him to speak about his childhood and the crime he’d committed. A few minutes into his story, he paused. “Excuse me,” he said, “this is hard. My first time back…talking about this again…”

As part of the healing process, we carefully sift through the charred remains of our childhood in much the same ways as criminologists reconstruct a crime scene, placing details into a narrative that can explain our past actions and give us insight into how to make better decisions in the future. Learning these insights may make the difference between getting out and staying out. And sharing these insights and narratives with others may make the difference between gaining release or dying in prison if we have to go before the parole board. Over the years we’ve also learned that it is valuable for building credibility with the outside world, and helping people understand how criminal acts occur.

At the same time, talking about childhood trauma we’ve experienced and the ways we’ve harmed and traumatized others, being vulnerable in a circle of strangers, is difficult. It’s a visible expression of the tension that lies between being accountable for the harm we’ve caused, and an acknowledgement that we accept the shame that comes with being stigmatized by society; branded with the scarlet letters CDCR PRISONER. It’s a public confession, “I was a bad person.”

And here I was, bringing my friend back into that mental space. Taking him back to a time when his life and freedom depended upon his accountability, his shame, and his change. Back to a time, two decades after the crime he committed, when he had to own his change, yet stay as present as if his crime had just happened the day before. Always prepared to speak about the path not taken, the lessons learned, the new man who understood the old man perfectly.

It makes me wonder, is this pathway to healing also traumatizing? Like constantly ripping the scab off? Can we ever fully let go of our pasts? Should we even want to? My one takeaway from the forum was this. I’ll never again ask a formerly incarcerated person to share their story. I believe people should be allowed to move on with their lives. At a certain point the debt has to be considered paid in full. And with currently incarcerated people, I want to acknowledge our agency to share our stories, but understand, at the end of the day, it’s our choice.

Written by James King

James recently had his sentence commuted by Governor Brown and will go before the parole board as early as this spring, to be considered for release. He is incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison.

You may write to him at the following address:

James King CDCR # V-69030 2–W–10 
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA 94974

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