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There are a lot of beautiful souls in here

Liz Sweet | The Philanthropy Workshop | 11 October 2016

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The Chief Information Officer at San Quentin welcomed the 11 participants of TPW's Cohort 2017, warning us that this is not the type of prison where inmates are on one side of the bars and you are on the other. No. As we entered California's oldest prison we walked straight through the prison yard. Replete with over 500 inmates in racially segregated groups, playing basketball, taking turns on a punching bag, and sitting on the bleachers. Those who did interact with us were respectful and friendly. I felt surprisingly safe, even with very minimal guard presence (budget constraints we were told).

We were here for our Living Case Study day on the U.S. Criminal Justice System as part of this year's Module 1 program. After touring the media center and learning about the impressive newspaper and podcasts published by inmates, we sat down in a circle with five incredible men, four of whom had committed or been accessory to murder as juveniles. Adnan, Emile, Phil, Rahsaan, and "Wall Street." We learned about their lives before and after their crimes. Their experience in the justice system. That growing up often amid poverty and violence they consider themselves traumatized but not evil. That their children make them want to be better people. That their transformation began with the self-reflective programs and college courses offered at San Quentin. That these programs are privately funded by philanthropy in the Bay Area but most inmates in state or federal penitentiaries don’t have access to hardly any rehabilitative services at all. That they prefer to be called men in blue rather than inmates. That they have a staunch desire for economic independence and to teach others financial literacy (Wall Street’s classes are famous, open to the public and regularly at capacity). And the difficulty of achieving financial stability for themselves and their families given that they owe restitution for their crimes, and earn only 3 – 19 cents/hour for their work in the prison.

When afterwards we meet with Human Rights Watch to discuss policy solutions, the men in blue asked some of the most thoughtful questions. They have deep knowledge of criminal justice policy and are powerful advocates. They are leaders. They have clearly changed. One of our members reflected that they were some of the most self-aware people she had ever met, and that she would hire any one of them. And yet they are all “lifers” – with limited opportunity for parole.

The United States has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of its prisoners. Minorities, particularly black men, are targeted disproportionately. Our goal for the Living Case Study was to examine a challenging issue to understand its root causes and the best opportunities for making lasting change - leveraging the market, public policy, and community-driven solutions. We explored a variety of approaches, including bail and sentencing reform; decriminalizing drugs and addressing them instead as a mental health and addiction issue; and financing rehabilitation and re-entry programs through social impact bonds, but it was ultimately the experience of getting close to the community, getting proximate as one participant called it, which humanized the men behind bars and provided the most salient information to understand this critical yet often overlooked injustice in our world. As the woman who facilitated our prison visit said, there are a lot of beautiful souls in there.

Note: A growing number of TPW members are becoming engaged in working on issues of criminal justice and prison reform. If you are interested and would like to connect or learn more about this issue, please email Liz Sweet at liz@tpw.org.

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