On any given prison yard, when the powers that be transfer one segment of incarcerated people out, and bring a new group in, we say the yard flipped. And in the last six months, San Quentin has flipped in a way that none of us have ever seen before.
For decades now, San Quentin has housed a general population, medium security population. When one says general population, it is primarily in contrast to other categories, like reception, condemned section, or SNY where the people in those categories have less privileges. Reception is a category for people who have just entered prison and have not been fully vetted yet. Condemned section is where people who have been sentenced to death are kept. SNY stands for sensitive needs yard; it is here people are kept who are transgender, or have dropped out of prison gangs, or ran up debts they couldn’t pay, or committed crimes like rape or child molestation, that the general population scorns.
Earlier this year, the CDCR decided to end the SNY classification and return people housed on those yards back to general population yards. And San Quentin was their first destination.
As the yard has flipped, it’s been tense. Many people here have carefully cultivated a belief that they were somehow superior to SNY inmates, because of our general population status. These beliefs have been couched subtly; what people say they are actually concerned about are that these new people will mess up our program. That instead of taking advantage of the self-help groups offered here, and the sense of community we’re developing here, these new inmates will…well I don’t quite know what it is they are expected to do.
What I can tell you is this, everyday dozens of formerly SNY people come to this prison and rush to sign up for all that SQ has to offer. They want to work for the newspaper, get into coding, take college classes, learn to manage their anger, take victim awareness groups, restorative justice groups, and everything else that’s available here.
It turns out, the new people are just like us. What is being proven is that rehabilitative programming works. SQ shows that when desire meets opportunity, growth is possible, and community is inevitable. Slowly but surely, the people who have been here for a while are overcoming their prejudices and are reaching out to mentor and encourage the new arrivals.
The resiliency that we are building up here is being tested, and SQ is passing the test.
James King is a writer. Some of his influences are James Baldwin, Angela Davis, his hometown of Ferguson, Mo, and that all oppression must be eradicated. He writes to introduce marginalized perspectives, and he writes to feel whole. Read more about James.