tv KQED Newsroom PBS July 31, 2016 5:00pm-5:31pm PDT
when a judge said, punishable by death, i lost it. >> they're moving. funny. and surprising. inmates perform their own stories. >> when you're in prison for so long, you get used to one costume and it's blue. >> for one of the toughest audiences anywhere. >> we all look like smurfs in here. >> hello, and welcome. i'm swee vu. a kqed special. many inmates are doing time for crimes like murder and assault. most will be released back into our communities. once known for its violence today, san quentin has some of the most rehabilitative in the california prison system. we'll talk to a victims right
advocate and what she learned through volunteering in prison. but first, let's go inside san quentin to hear from inmates who have been participating in a unique program. one that's helping them tell their stories in their own words. ♪ ♪ ♪ >> when a person decides to change, they want everyone to know they've changed. so it's important for them to get that out. television portrays prison as this negative place where people just are running around being violence, but san quentin is actually totally the opposite from that. these guys are going to college. every day, they go to self-help groups, religious services. everyone here is trying to get
out of prison, not stay in prison. i got to san quentin in 1984 via l.a. county jail. >> since 2012, we've been working on a story telling project and really, the overarching idea is to tell the hidden stories of life inside told from the perspective of those who live it. >> as soon as i got out the bus, i got a chilly cold because no underwear. that's how they transport us back in the day. buck naked. but with the jumpsuit, you'd be running around naked. with the production team. >> i'm nervous. that's what this is. >> we all kind of see ideas and help the men with the stories and present them. >> i covered myself in tattoos hate and violence. >> guys who may sit back and not really want to be out on the spotlight, it gives them a little more courage to say, well, i might be able to do that
one day. and more than anything, that really scared me. >> i think it also makes vulnerability look okay. because if you can be vulnerable in front of the group and tell your story, it's another way of breaking down the barrier. >> people were bullying me in school. because i didn't want to disappoint my pops and get kicked out, i took it and at that moment, i turned around and i walked away. and a tear came to my eye. because i thought, like, what have i got myself into? >> i hate mornings. there's nothing worse than waking up from your dreams to a cell 6 by 9 confined stretching to the horizons of your future. it's like waking up in a tomb. it's a reminder that to society, your family, your friends, to your high school sweetheart, you're dead. >> people have their own preconceptions about what people in prison are about. and i think these pieces break
down those walls. it's more complex than what your prejudices are. >> we do a skit where i portray someone living an alternative lifestyle and surprisingly enough, i really had the time of my life. i mean, i was on stage talking about. hole up. now, i am all woman, honey. and still more than a man than you will ever be. okay? >> people in prison are people. there's some very bad people and there are some people who have made some mistakes but ultimately, they're people. and they're as complex as you and i and the rest of society is. >> one thing i am not is some goody goody who thinks he's good
now because of some groups at san quentin. because when i look at what i've done, commit two murders, i could not call myself a great guy. i've taken lives. i've hurt two families in ways i can never fix. i've hurt my family, my community, so calling myself a great guy just isn't possible. >> people, we work hard to change our lives. we want to be different. we don't want to be that same person that we used to be. >> tell me to connect the pain in my mom's cries to the cry of my victim's families. >> now 21 years later, my incarceration, i'm here to help everyone tell their story. it's a path to see the painful truths about myself. but it also showed me that being able to change my life isn't just a mandatory part of my sentence. it's a blessing. which does not make me a great guy. it's just the best that i can
be. thank you. ♪ ♪ ♪ >> and joining me now is someone whose family was shattered by violent crime. the value of rehabilitation with californians for safety and justice. a policy advocacy group. dionne, welcome. >> thank you. >> i was watching you while you were watching the piece and you were so visibly deeply moved. you, yourself, are a passionate advocate for rehabilitation. how have you got there though? it's been such an unexpected journey. your husband, danimi, was a police officer in san leandro and then got a knock on the door. can you tell us about that night? >> yeah, so dan was answering a routine call. some guys were out in front of
an apartment complex. one of them, irving ramirez, had a searchable probation because he had been cycling in and out of the system for some time. and he had two guns and drugs on him. so instead of running or going back to jail, he decided to shoot my husband. >> and he shot him seven times. >> mm-hmm. >> you made a powerful statement to the jury. what did you say about irving ramirez? >> i said he was a monster and that he deserved to die. i wanted him to burn in hell. i was so angry. i was full of rage and vengeance and i didn't know what to do other than just, i just wanted him to suffer as much as i was suffering. >> and yet you became involved in working with prisoners. why? >> well, after about four and a half years of feeling that way,
i became so exhausted, i couldn't do it anymore. it takes a lot of energy to hate like that. and i wore myself out. i just couldn't do it anymore. and i needed a different path. and i was, a lot of things happened in between, but i was introduced to insight prison project and they invited me to go to a prison and share my story with people who committed murder and i thought, this is my chance. i'm going to tell them that all of the consequences of their actions and when i sat there with people who had caused this level of harm and then told them my story and they cried with me, they were, i could tell that there was something going on there that was so far beyond what i thought was possible.
and i was looking at transform people and their stories help heal me. >> so what is the single biggest life lesson which you think you've learned through your work with inmates? >> well, i think the biggest lesson is that people are redeemable. that we're not the worst thing we've ever done. that unresolved trauma, trauma that isn't acknowledged in people's lives from when they were very young have a profound effect on people and cause them to do things they wouldn't otherwise do. i just believe that, barring extreme mental illness, that we're all redeemable. and we all deserve that chance to transform our lives and do
something better. >> there is definitely positive value in hearing their stories. what would you say to those reluctant to hear the stories? say these are men who did terrible things. >> i know how you feel is one of the things ill say. i was there. i didn't want to hear it. i didn't want to hear all the things irving had gone through in his childhood and how that affected his life. how his mother struggled to do the best he could for her. i didn't care. i didn't want to hear it. and then at some point, it broke through and i would just say, think back on your own life and how negative experiences have impacted you and maybe made you do something that you weren't, that you didn't really think you were capable of doing and how that impacts others and just open up a little bit. >> well, dionne wilson, we certainly are thankful that you took the time to come in here and be with us today and share
with us your story. dionne wilson. >> i really appreciate it. thank you. >> let's go now to a few of the stories these inmates have written and performed from inside san quentin. >> hello, ladies and gentlemen. my name is azrael and this is my life of lost speech. i grew in a community in southern california where drugs and crime ruled. by the time i was 21, i could say every one of my friends had been to prison already. it wasn't a place to be a good man. i covered myself in tattoos of hate and violence. it was my suit of armor. 29 years for assault of a firearm. when i entered the state prison system, i felt like i had found a world where i was validated. it was a place i was allowed to hate. i was embraced for hating and being violent. so i walked in this world like a
dark knight. i let people know, hey, if you mess with me, i'm going to mess you up. because that's how life is in here or that's what we tell ourselves but then i hear about the shakespeare group. and i'll check it out. and i go in there. and they're like, okay. we're going to pretend to be nature. i pretend to be a bee. okay, i'm 280 pounds. how am i going to be a bee? just pretend. i'm like, all right. i'll pretend. well, no, i'll just be a butterfly. who, me? i'm not a butterfly. but you know what? i tried it. so i flapped my wings and people are being rabbits and rocks. here, i'm this butterfly around and i start to laugh and it's like, okay. this is pretty cool because when you laugh, you experience something, it takes you beyond, you know. and then they give us the play
they want to do and it's julius caesar and they say, you're going to be a great julius caesar. okay, i guess, but i don't think so because i've never acted before. i mean, yeah. here's my resume. i've been a bee and a butterfly. now you want me to be julius caesar. okay. i get cast as julius caesacaesa. and there was guys, name's lee. they call him maverick and played marc anthony like caes caesar's brother. maverick, he's black. i'm white. that usually doesn't happen in prison. so now we're acting. we have to be best friends. we're comrades. you know, we're like brothers. so they bring in the costumes and the tunic they got for me, it's really tight. it's like everything was for small people and it's riding up. i'm like, all right, cool. but we do the play and kills
caesar. i lay there on the stage dead and maverick comes up, heaves me on the shoulder and i'm playing dead. that tunic, off the stage, it pulled up. and now my butt's hanging out. and i can't do anything because i'm supposed to be dead and that's, you know, acting is an art. you have to be dead when you're dead. so i'm over maverick's shoulder and you hear this laughter and it's like, they're not laughing at me but they're laughing at what we're giving them. what we're sharing with them. we're making these people feel good which is something people don't expect prisoners to do and it was that moment i realized, hey, you know what? the goodness is back. i found it. i found it in myself but also in the community at san quentin with the men who, they inspire that in each other. they're bent on reaching that
goal. they want to be good people. they want to give back. and it was just like, i looked at the people that had acted into shakespeare with me and i saw their beauty. i saw those roses. so if we all just took time to nurture the rose within us, we could all just be beautiful flowers. thank you. [ applause ] >> my name is eric. i got to san quentin in 1984. i was told that san quentin was one of the most violent prisons in california and i needed to know, safety first, head on the swivel and as soon as i get situated, get a knife. a lot of guys tougher than me didn't make it. a lot of guys weaker than me didn't make it. a lot of guards didn't make it. after running with the fellas for so long, my bad behavior and actions, my non-humanitarian thoughts. i got lucky. i got transferred.
made my way around all the different prisons. now i'm back to the 2016. more rehabilitated san quentin with volunteers teaching non-violent conflict resoluti s resolutions. taught me the words stop. s-t-o-p. situations that could be non-violent and already violent, how not to overreact. i love you white people coming in here teaching this stuff. i love it. and now in here, we live in a closet. a one-man closet with two men in it. a sink, a toilet, no window. we all get the guys sometimes that don't want to go nowhere. they're moving in the cell and want to stay there 24 hours out of the day. just want to be there. they move me in with this cat and said, let me tell you something about myself. i said, go ahead. he said, i don't do self-help. i don't go to the yard. i don't work. when i go eat, i come back.
when i go to the doctor, i come back. when i go shower, i come back. i said, what about me? don't i get some me time? he said, get it any way you can. now the old me at that moment, i would have just slapped him. initiated contact, no matter who he was or knew, i just initiated. but the new me, the soft eric, looked at him and said, do you like football? he said, yeah. i said, i like football too on sundays. i said, but when i watch football, i watch football naked. and when i watch football, i eat nachos, naked. i call it naked nachos sunday. you should have seen his face. he looked at me like, uh-oh. at that precise moment, said, chow time. that mean go eat. so i went to go eat and coming
back, one of my boys is coming down and said hey, you moving with that cat that don't go nowhere? he said, i just looked in there and nothing in there but your stuff. there you have it. i guess he moved somewhere. non-violent communication. now, i'm so dedicated to non-violence, the new eric lamonder, got the web sites out there. i'm going to get me one. www.who kn www.whoknowscrimebetter.com. thank you. >> i'll never forget my first morning at san quentin. so it's breakfast time and i step into this chow hall, noisy chow hall and wondering to myself, what the hell do these people have to talk about at 5:00 in the morning? correctional officer said to me, how you doing this morning?
at first, i give him a double take because i think he's messing with me. i just don't have the precedent to process this kind act. high desert, a maximum security prison where i did most of my time, an officer would just never ask me how i was doing. it just didn't happen in that environment. but i'm looking at this guy as i'm moving through the chow line and nodding, kind of encouraging and i realize, this guy's serious. he really wants to know how i'm doing. so i tell him. i'm like, i'm good. you good? he's nodding his head. thumbs up. he's smiling. i'm smiling. i move ahead in the line and move to the next section of the chow hall and counter ends but the smile continues. probably didn't know it, but because he took the time to connect with my humanity, when he didn't have to, i suddenly
felt inspired to connect with everyone around me. i asked more people that day how they were doing than i had asked since i've been incarcerated an i learned something. the power an individual has to change the world with something as small as, how are you doing this morning? because his words, they lifted my mood. and because i was happier throughout the day, i was kinder. and so i envisioned this cycle where my kindness makes someone else kind that makes someone else kinder which lifts someone else up until we're all smiling on top of the world. now, i don't want to represent that all correctional officers are humanitarians because they're just not. but i also think it's important to note this wasn't just like a fluke. see, i live in west lock on the fourth tier and every night, i hear this officer as he's walking down the tier at last
count time. and the reason i hear him because he's stopping asking about their day and doing the things that human beings do when they want each other to know that you matter. and so every night when he comes by my cell, i stop what i'm doing whether watching tv or reading a book, and i'm like, good night, brother. and he continues with the count. getting ready to go home to his family before he leaves. he says, good night, brothers. gentlemen. lady. good night. [ applause ] ♪ >> indubitably, man. >> i'm joined now by the founder of the san quentin prison reports that helps inmates tell their own stories like the ones we just saw. troy williams was an inmate and
was paroled in 2014. troy williams, so nice to have you here. >> nice to be here. >> you know every one of those men. we just saw you were there. yourself at san quentin. what is it like to watch them tell their stories? >> my heart goes out. i see a bunch of men who deserve a second chance. who need another second chance and seeing so much that they could contribute out here. >> and you spent nearly 20 years of your life in prison. >> yes. >> and you're getting a second chance now. have you participated in many rehabilitation programs while there, a single turning point while you were on the inside? >> i wouldn't say a single point. i think it was a slow turning for me. and then able to watch other men be examples to see people come in and offer me a new set and watch people who walk with integrity in the administration, i think, they were all moments that allowed me to reflect on my life a lot. >> what were some of the tools
that the rehab programs gave you? >> one is really just the ability to look back. the ability to reflect on moments of my life when i didn't make the right decision and having the courage to sit in that moment and just look at it. we call it sitting in the fire. i can sit in this moment and take a look at how i behaved and what i wanted to do different and knowing that i could right that. >> you were paroled about two years ago. what has the transition been like to life outside of prison? >> it's beautiful to be home. i'm so happy to be here. it's been a roller coaster ride, right? not every day is, you know, a great day. but my worst day out here beats my best day inside. so i'm having the ability to change. that's what drives me. that's what pulls me every day. >> what are some of the challenges that you face every
day? >> i think just dealing with my own. like overcoming the triggers. overcoming things that used to get in the way in the past. >> what were some of the things? >> i'm the kind of guy who, it was very difficult to ask for help. to ask for support. right? so just having the strength to know that when something is going on with me, not to be the guy who sits up and says, oh, i'm good. it's all good. but i can actually ask for help and know that i have a very strong support system out here. >> what motivates you to do this work? to tell these stories and to do outreach and to really be in a situation where there's some reconciliation and redemption? >> i look at all the people that i hurt. not only just the victims of my crime or the wrongs that i've done but i look at how i even hurt my own children and my own mother and the things i put them through and how i wasted my own
life and never wanting to see another kid who, at the age of 13, just because he is looking for somebody to love him, he decided to join a gang. that motivates me. like, that pulls me every day. i know i can't go back and rewind the clock for me. but i can certainly try to influence the clock for somebody else. >> what are you up to these days? what do you do now? >> i am in juvenile facilities working with young people. developed a program that i utilize there. i am also doing media work. i continue to produce film and radio out here. and the hope is to stay connected to san quentin and the men inside who want to tell their stories and help the formerly incarcerated continue to theirs. >> what's the biggest value to make sure their stories are public? >> the public gets to see me for who i am. they get to see a side of life they don't get to see. you know, certain media likes to just exploit fear.
and that's not who we are. like, we're people. we're human. we go through things for reasons. >> troy williams. thank you for your insight. thank you for being here today. >> thank you. >> for all of kqed's news coverage, go to kqednews.org. to end the program, we hear an original song. "dream of trefreedom" by david josi. currently serving 15 years to life. i'm zwi. thank you so much for wactching. ♪ this song is dedicated to everybody incarcerated, now ♪ ♪ they got pressed and papered ♪ looking at the window ♪ wishing i could cut these chains loose ♪
♪ make the jury hate you ♪ don't believe the hype ♪ they just commit you ♪ they're going to get you ♪ murder was the case they gave me ♪ ♪ no johnny cochran could save me ♪ ♪ asking god for forgiveness ♪ praying for the man who lost his life in this tragedy ♪ ♪ a son without a daddy ♪ try to figure out what it means ♪ ♪ freedom, i had a dream i could buy my way to freedom ♪ ♪ i had a dream i could buy my way to freedom ♪ ♪ i said freedom ♪ i had a dream i could buy my way to freedom ♪ i had a dream i could
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