I’m part of a panel that speaks to tours that come in to San Quentin. People from all over the world come to take a “tour” of this historic prison. We get high schools, colleges, organizations, companies, district attorneys, judges, lawyers, athletes, people from our local communities to people from every continent. I mean just about anyone and everyone and I feel very blessed and fortunate to have the opportunity to meet all these wonderful people.
As they approach us, I see and feel the apprehension, fear, and uncertainty in their faces and body language. I purposefully open with an icebreaker joke then proceed the panel discussion with a brief monologue about my personal experience in what I call a punitive prison (with no programming) and contrast it with my personal experience in a rehabilitative prison. I then moderate a Q&A with the rest of the incarcerated men on the panel. We get asked all sorts of questions, from “what’s your day like” and “how’s the food” to “what are you guys in here for” to deeper questions about the criminal justice system. By the end of the Q&A, people are not only comfortable and open but they’re often “blown away” and “amazed” by us. I mean, they’re “shocked” at what they just experienced. I see it in their faces as they shake our hands, eyes wide full of sincerity, shock and awe. Then, almost every time, someone utters the infamous phrase “You’re so articulate!"
At first, we were inspired and encouraged by the response. I personally felt good, I felt seen and it increased my self-esteem. But as I heard it more and more, I began to wonder, “Why are they so amazed and shocked? Why is it mind blowing that we can speak English? Is it overwhelming for them that an incarcerated person can formulate his/her thoughts and opinions then express them clearly to “normal people?”
I started to think about where that thinking came from. What did they expect and where did they learn those expectations? What was the source of their information about incarcerated people? It became obvious to me that they got most of their information from the news, media, movies and society’s shared stories of terror and monstrosity about deranged, unintelligible, and incompetent people.
Which brings me to FIRST WATCH. I feel very fortunate to have an opportunity to be the media from inside these walls. The video pieces are shot, cut, and told by us, the directly impacted people. We are able to control our own narrative and share who we truly are.
Don’t get me wrong, the sensationalized stuff that is shown on tv does happen in prison. However, that is not the norm that I see. Through FIRST WATCH, we are able to show that the norm is a competent, intelligent, thoughtful, and hilarious person.
Last week, at the end of another tour, a well intending lady struck again. She said, “You guys are so amazing! And you all speak in complete sentences!” followed by her friend’s “and you’re so articulate, too!” As she shook my hand with both of hers, with that same sincerity in her eyes that I see frequently, I thought to myself, “She is going to have a hard time articulating to her friends and family about us and her experience here today.”