When I wrote recently about the optimism flowing through San Quentin, I felt a little disturbed because I know there are still many people here who don’t feel the optimism I do. Though I try to craft an accurate depiction of life at San Quentin, I know I’ll always fall short. There are no simple narratives that define some homogenous prison experience. Over four thousand people live here, and each one has their own experience and perspective. Demographics wise, this prison is a microcosm of larger society, and it contains every gender, orientation and race. We are liberals, conservatives, spiritually devout, agnostic and atheist. I view this prison composed of the incarcerated people who live here, the people who work here and the hundreds of volunteers who enter this prison daily as a community, but I’m definitely in the minority when it comes to that. Still, just like any community (if that is what this is) some people are privileged and others are marginalized.
I fall in the privileged camp. Not as privileged as the staff or the volunteers, but privileged nonetheless. Of course, like any privileged person, I like to think I’ve paid my dues, and that my privilege is merit-based. And just like any other privileged person, that is probably not true. I grew up in a solidly middle-class neighborhood, with a decent school district and two parents that wouldn’t let me not graduate from high school. When you’re in prison, with a high school diploma, you’re eligible for G.E.D. tutoring positions and clerical positions. These positions typically situate you as a minor gatekeeper for the larger incarcerated population. I know many people will be skeptical of the concept of a privileged incarcerated person, but I hope they will be charitable with me and agree that all privilege is relative.
A couple of years after arriving at SQ, I became the college program clerk for the Prison University Project, a non-profit which operates inside of the prison and is well respected by staff and incarcerated people alike. Working for the College program is a privilege for several reasons, but chief among them is the opportunity to have a job that invests in the lives of the people living here, as opposed to the vast majority of jobs available to most incarcerated people, which perpetuate the prison. I also have the privilege of interacting with non-incarcerated people every day, which is instrumental in helping me maintain my humanity.
The reason understanding my privilege is important is because it helps to give the context for my perspective of life at San Quentin. It’s safe to say that my perspective on the goings on here are usually more positive than those of my peers. For instance, I see the recent integration of so-called SNY people here as a huge success. Many on the yard would probably say I’m looking at this situation through rose colored glasses. I had a cellie the whole time, so I didn’t have to deal with the new arrivals on an up-close basis. Also, I work in education, where people often come when they are trying to get involved in rehabilitative programming. I’m not in the housing units often, where the majority of new arrivals (and conflicts) are.
When I take my glasses off, I see that the new arrivals have arrived at this prison faster than our rehabilitative programming can accommodate them. Many are sitting on the yards of in the housing units with nothing but idle time. That’s a problem. They may see good things happening to others, but still they feel locked out. For me and others in my situation, this place often feels like a college campus, and if we look we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. For the majority of people here though, they see this as a prison. Nothing more, nothing less.
I believe that when you see a problem, it falls to you to work on correcting it. Therefore, my goal is to help create the optimism I feel in others, and I strive to do that by using my share of privilege for the benefit of my community. I encourage our readers to meditate on their own privileges and devise ways to extend it to others as well.
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.