Photo: Jeff Archer


Because of the fog, no one can enter San Quentin. Inmates must remain in their cells to be counted. We must remain on the outside. Nearly 100 people stand around, chatting, waiting to enter in order to watch prisoners perform a series of drama sketches, or “the play,” as the friendly correctional officer will call it on my way out (as in: “Oh, you came for the play.”).

The fog breaks, and we stand in brilliant sunlight. I move to what meager shade the buildings provide; others don floppy sunhats and dark sunglasses. They remove scarves and unzip jackets. There’s little natural shade around San Quentin: no trees, in other words. I suppose this is intentional. Prisons should perhaps look barren, and trees provide cover for someone trying to escape.

When I tell people I teach writing in San Quentin, I often get a surprised look, as if I were putting myself in physical danger. Once I was advised to carry a whistle, “just in case.” In fact, I feel quite safe there. My students are industrious and scrupulously polite, thanking me after each class. I hear about sorrow and loss, separation from family, and periodic violence, but I don’t really see it when I’m there.

San Quentin is one of the oldest prisons in the area, and it represents a particular brand of outlaw mythology, something between the old West and episodes of Locked Up. It houses California’s male death row population and the “Adjustment Center,” an enclosed unit with the most dangerous prisoners.

After 2005, San Quentin underwent a court-ordered overhaul to improve medical conditions. Workers found, among other things, a hole in the ground that constituted the original prison. This dungeon once housed over 150 men, who slept on vermin-infested padding and were tortured and deprived of food and light. Later, the dungeon was used for solitary confinement – a practice that descends from the Quaker notion that only in isolation could a person truly engage in penitence. Inmates were not permitted to speak; they dined and worked in complete silence. They could read only The Bible. Solitary confinement is still a popular punishment today, one that deprives inmates of human contact and results in immeasurable, irrevocable psychological damage.

It’s easy to forget the dreary history from where I’m standing. San Quentin sits on a beautiful piece of land: the “most expensive property around,” as I’ve heard some Bay Area residents call it ruefully. Today, San Francisco boasts some of the highest rents in the country. The Marin Country Mart, which is only a ten-minute drive away, contains a SoulCycle, where people pay over $20 to ride a bicycle bolted to the ground, and shops like Calypso, which sells patterned tunics and cashmere wraps for an upscale clientele. The prison sprawls for 432 acres on a peninsula that curls finger-like into the bay. Beyond the visitor’s parking lot, I can see the Richmond Bridge. It’s not uncommon to see deer around the prison. From the Larkspur Ferry, which goes from Marin Country to downtown San Francisco, you can sometimes see the inmates in the yard if the day is clear. They will wave.

As we wait for the fog to clear, a woman pushes a blonde toddler girl in a pink plastic truck with a long handle past the small post office. On my way out that evening, people take their dogs down to a stretch of rocky beach not 30 yards away.

The people outside the front gate are getting restless; this is one of a series of many delays. The performance has already been rescheduled because San Quentin was on lockdown for a week. A lockdown means that no one can enter or exit the prison. Programs are cancelled. Cells and inmates are thoroughly searched. Reading and writing materials might be destroyed. The cause of the lockdown was the death of two inmates; no other information is released.

There’s a popular image that prisons are places of highly restricted movement: shackled inmates, chairs bolted to the ground, bars and barbed wire. But, in fact, prisons are a hive of activity; people are always streaming in and out. There are the volunteers, including Buddhists, Christians, art teachers, drama therapists, math tutors, anger-management counselors, and people who help the inmates produce a monthly newspaper, the San Quentin News. Vehicles drive in and out of the gate. (The trunks are checked each time for stowaways.) Correctional officers change shifts. Flocks of geese settle on the grass. And most of the inmates themselves have a surprising amount of unrestricted movement – they play ball in the yard, hang out on benches, and wander in and out of the chapels and education buildings carrying their belongings in mesh tote bags that remind me of the ones they sell at Whole Foods.

Volunteers’ movements are fairly circumscribed, however. Everyone has been preapproved ahead of time. We have to wait for the guard to clear us through the main gate, after which we will wait again to traverse the outside courtyard. Within prison limits, visitors must be escorted in groups of ten or fewer by a “brown card” holder, someone who has attended a certain number of training hours. The card holders ferry us across the outside courtyard to another checkpoint where we will sign in, again, and be wanded as if at an airport. Our hands are stamped “PASS” with ink that can only be read under a special light. Then, we are led to the chapel where the performance is held. We cannot detach from our escorted group or wander about the yard or enter other buildings. It’s as if the prison wants to keep us out more than keep inmates in.

Outside the main gate is a not-too-dirty restroom, a vending machine that dispenses drinks, and the prison gift shop, filled with large paintings visible from the window. One looks like a life-size painting of a dog, done as if a cartoon.

“Are those made by the prisoners?” someone asks me, and I say that I think they are. The gift shop always seems closed. You can also buy art online made by death-row inmates at San Quentin. One death-row inmate, William Noguera, created paintings that he sold for extremely large sums to benefit breast cancer research. I heard that the store is too full for any more art – more art is produced than the prison can keep and store, so much of it is destroyed. This strikes me as infinitely sad, that people are making art with good intentions, high hopes, only to have it destroyed. Perhaps this is a problem with art as rehabilitation – art is for someone else, for an audience, a way to express or communicate something both personal and general. Without an audience, what’s the point?

The CO on duty, an African-American woman, has collected everyone’s IDs and is slowly calling groups of people to enter. IDs get checked against a pre-approved list in a computer. A large portion of the people waiting will be delayed yet another hour because their names aren’t on the list or because the list hasn’t been transferred properly from one computer to another (which is done via a jump drive that is walked over from another office) or because of some other reason that will never be explained. Things move very slowly in the prison; the inmates have nowhere to go, and regular rules don’t apply.

I can’t help but notice that the group of visitors is predominately white and appears to be mostly retirement-age and from a certain Marin standard stock: vegan-recycled clogs, reasonable close-cropped haircuts (except for one woman with streaks of purple in flowing dark hair), and an air of general sensible mysticism. Some people are dressed as if going to a church in flowered skirts, tailored jackets, and blouses, while others are dressed as if going on a hike: quilted vests, boots, khakis.

In theory, the prison has a strict dress code: no denim, no blue. Pink, purple and brown are okay. You also aren’t supposed to show any skin although I see one young woman wearing a shirt that visibly bears her belly-button. She is allowed inside anyways. Clothes should be loose-fitting; heels should be sensible. A large number of people will be asked to remove their hats, which will be the cause of much grumbling.

Technically, visitors aren’t allowed to bring anything into the prison except for ID and keys. You must have your ID on your person at all times. As a volunteer, I know that I can usually bring a pen and a notebook. Others’ pockets bulge with snacks. Some people have their belongings in a clear ziplock baggies as if going through an airport checkpoint: lipgloss, wallet, keys, granola bars. Material stuff, the sort of things that people on the outside take for granted, is a big deal in prison. It’s not that inmates don’t have stuff; they do – bags of potato chips, plastic bottles of water, paper and pens, wallets with photographs in them, headphones, and bead necklaces. But there’s to be no unauthorized transfer of stuff from us to inmates. Inmates and visitors can shake hands, but they can’t share a granola bar. The fear, as I understand it, is the creation of relationships. We can’t leave the prison tied to anyone there.

As I wait for my ID, I see a group of teenagers from one of those programs where they invite at-risk youth to come and see the prison, presumably for the purpose of preventing them from entering there as a prisoner. They stand in a group and goof off, drinking Cokes from the vending machines.

My brown card-holder is a woman who appears to be an active 60; she wears sensible clogs which she proclaims to be her “working shoes.” It turns out that she is a volunteer with another arts program inside the prison; she tells me that the arts programs here are in danger of losing their funding. In 2003, all state funding for arts programs was suspended due to California state budget cuts. The program today is funded by outside investors and grants, not by any taxpayer dollars.

“I forgot my butt pillow,” Alma, head of the California Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, says mournfully. She is petite, middle-aged, and has a halo of dark, frizzy hair with a smattering of grey. “Will they let me go back for my pillow?”

They don’t. “These performances can take a long time,” she confides in me. “A lot of sitting.”

The outside of the second checkpoint looks rather fortress-like. A man in my group whispers that it looks medieval. Inside the checkpoint, we have our hands stamped and pass through a set of metal doors that have to be slammed in what strikes me as a traditional prison-like way. We hold our IDs aloft, like lost refugees waiting for asylum, then we enter the prison courtyard where there is a pretty fountain and several buildings that house the places of worship for various religions. The plays are held in the chapel.

Inside the chapel, we mingle in the seats with other inmates who have come to see the plays. Around the stage, the cast mills about like any group of actors before a show. Some are moving wires and A/V equipment around, one is looking for a pen, a few work the crowd. All inmates wear regulation clothing; many wear blue pants that look like scrubs and are emblazoned with “CDOC” along the leg. A few wear white or grey t-shirts, like they came from the gym. I sit next to the art restorer who pulls out his almonds but doesn’t offer me any.

Above the stage is a large cross, atop which hangs a banner reading “Jesus King of the Jews.” My dominant feeling is embarrassment. I feel ashamed of both my freedom and of the fact that I am one of the people there to see the spectacle, to gawk at caged men performing for my amusement. Will I feel something, too, I wonder?


Marin Shakespeare Company’s San Quentin Shakespeare program runs one full-length Shakespeare play each year at San Quentin in additional to the “parallel plays” performance I am attending today. These plays are short pieces written by the inmates inspired by the themes from the Shakespeare play of the year, which is currently The Merchant of Venice. According to Suraya Keating, the director of the inmate program, the themes are different perspectives, forgiveness, healing hatred, and love. With berry-stained lips, she slightly misquotes Maya Angelou: “There’s no greater agony than carrying an untold story.”

The play opens with a brief, hand-clapping song. The lyrics are written on a wipe-board:

Brothers, sisters can you hear me?
I’ve started a new life, I’ve started a new life.
I choose love as the river running through me.
Release hate that’s been known to consume me.
You may have done me wrong, so I forgive you.
I may have done you wrong, so please forgive me.
We are all human, darkness and light.
But we’re choosing compassion each and every night.

We are all invited to sing along, and we all do. We, the audience, are asked to share our stories, too. At the end, Suraya will exhort us to turn to our neighbor and share one of our secrets.

The first performer is LéMar “Maverick,” who sings about parental abuse with humor and pathos. He is good-looking, wearing stylish glasses, a blue sweater and a white hat. He has a small goatee. I picture him at an open-mike night at a bar. “I wouldn’t wish no one to walk in my shoes,” he sings. Afterwards, a popular hip-hop song about “hood life” plays as an interlude.


The Merchant of Venice is essentially about a debt. Bassanio, the romantic hero who wants to woo Portia but lacks the funding, has bad credit and cannot get a loan without the help of Antonio. Antonio, in exchange, can only obtain a loan for Bassanio from Shylock by promising a pound of flesh. Antonio’s ships are lost at sea, and he is stuck. Shylock loses his case in court on a technicality, but a potential for animosity remains between Bassanio and Antonio. After all, Bassanio’s lack of credit-worthiness – and his desire for something that perhaps he couldn’t afford – led his friend to make a bad deal. Had Antonio not loved his so much, Bassanio would never have married the wealthy Portia.

Like Bassanio, I am not credit-worthy. In 2008, after getting fired from my job as an attorney at a law firm, I filed for bankruptcy in the Southern District of New York. I hoped that this act would end years of deceit and self-destruction. My story was told in numbers, an unfamiliar and strange language for me. $160,170.36: the total amount of my debts. $162,629: the amount I grossed from January to September 2007, at which point I lost my job. $125: the amount I paid my therapist hourly. $721.47: the amount I owed to Banana Republic. $36,664.71: the amount I owed Citibank for a personal loan.

After I filed, I walked out clean, discharged – a release of dirty fluid like the draining of an ugly cyst. That’s what extreme debt feels like, something that must be drained to make you whole even as it eats away at the outer edges of your consciousness.


I find it hard to compare myself to many of the inmates, but I am there, too, watching them. In a prison, I feel marked by my body: white, privileged, subject to search. Are my clothes too tight? Are my pockets deep enough so that my car keys don’t fall out? You can’t place your ID or car keys anywhere – on a table, on a chair. They must remain on your person. As you enter, you must exit.

I also like to think that I am able to make choices for myself, which means that I can make the choice to move on. 1.1 million people filed for nonbusiness-related bankruptcy the year I did, 2008. But I think I’m unique. Other people have blamed the availability of easy credit, the slowing economy, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder. I blame myself.

How often have I wished that I could repent for the debts, commit myself to penance, spend my days atoning? I was raised Catholic and was told by a priest once that only actions counted, not thoughts. But there would never be enough money to pay. My ships were lost at sea, and I only had flesh as collateral.


The judicial system perhaps reflects the opposite of the Quaker belief in silent reflection. At trial, people speak the truth: the facts about what happened. But, so often, the truth has nothing to do with the outcomes. I’m not just talking about falsified or lost evidence or coerced confessions; justice has little to do with why any of these men are here. Justice is less important than filing the right motions on time with the right margins, getting the right judge, the good lawyer, being convicted in the right year.

In The Merchant of Venice, Portia masquerades as a lawyer and argues Antonio’s case in court. She makes a persuasive case for mercy: “Though Justice be thy plea, consider this:/ That in the course of justice none of us/ Should see salvation.” Shylock is unmoved. In a feat of cunning, Portia successfully interprets the contract as allowing for a pound of flesh – no more, no less – but no blood. You can’t cut flesh without shedding blood. She wins, and Shylock capitulates, accepting financial remuneration. The only testimony that counts is the written contract.

Here, we the audience willingly accept the testimony in favor of mercy. There are too many stories of missing parents, abandoned children, dead brothers, and revenge. Kimani, his black dreadlocks hanging wild, gives a spoken-word testimony as to his life: a youth spent in juvie, a homeless mother addicted to drugs.
His is a solo performance, so he plays all the roles: child, parent, runaway. The most powerful moment occurs when Kimani reenacts meeting his homeless mother on the street. He has run away from juvie and looks for her. She doesn’t recognize him. He mimes his mother pushing a shopping cart and turning the other way.

The spoken song-poem is punctuated with Biblical verses. Kimani’s performance is animated – he stands on the chair and waves his arms. His eyes grow wide. His voice booms across the chapel. He has forged a personal relationship with God, and it has made all the difference. Only God will judge him, even though he has already been tried and convicted in our courts. He’s been in prison since he was seventeen; he’s now thirty-three.

This is, I think, what we want to hear. We want so badly for these men to change, to have power over the incalculable odds against them. I feel everyone lean forward in anticipation of healing. Kimani’s only family has rejected him. We will be his family now.


From an academic point of view, incarceration is a structural problem. The American justice system is bitterly torn between the notion of retribution and the belief in rehabilitation. We incarcerate children and execute the incapacitated. Meanwhile, we have programs that teach inmates how to paint. We release ex-prisoners into the world without support, job training, or homes. We force women to give birth while shackled. Meanwhile, we preach forgiveness and responsibility and self-control.

The U.S. is turning into a prison state. We now imprison more people than any other country in the world, about 1% of the U.S. population. Half of them are African-American or Hispanic. If you are an African-American man, you have a one in three chance of being put in prison. The prison culture is quickly becoming the dominant culture for a certain segment of our society; it’s the phenomena of mass incarceration.

Once you are in prison, you are likely to stay there. California’s recidivism rate is over 66% — this means that two out of every three released felons returns to prison within three years. Before changes to the “Three Strikes” law in 2012, you could be sentenced to a life behind bars for non-violent offenses if you had two prior convictions for “serious” or “violent” crimes.

And it’s not just inmates who suffer under the prison system. There are families who are missing parents, spouses, and siblings. There are food stamps and minimum-wage jobs and homelessness and children who must become adults too soon. After five, ten, twenty years, inmates leave the prison, scarred by time. One inmate shows me a picture of his daughter, now twenty-three. He went to prison twenty years ago. His long fingers trace her face – I see glasses, brown hair, a shy smile. He tells me that he isn’t sure that he can forgive himself for leaving her.


But a structural view doesn’t help the individual who must endure day after never-ending day in prison. While statistics are important for academics and decision-makers, they don’t matter much inside. No one wants to imagine that he is a statistic; we want to believe that we can change.

John Neblett, 50 years old and Caucasian, has been in prison for 28 years for second-degree murder. His face is kind and gentle; he wears owlish glasses. He tells us that he has unfinished business with his father and sings a song about him. “He never taught me to hate,” he says, even though he reveals that his father abused his mother. John cites another John, Donne, as a major influence. Like Donne, he is a poet. He is still working on forgiveness.


The emphasis on personal responsibility and a human’s ability to change is very American and something that neo-hippies, the very religious, and inmates have in common. From the opening segment, it is clear that the afternoon will focus on both providing a general outlet for these inmates to tell us, the audience, about their pre-incarceration lives and to persuade us of their individual value. This presupposes that we, the white audience, have an idea of prisoners – that they are somehow evil, that there’s something wrong with them.

Of course, the assumption here is that our – anyone’s – true identities aren’t somehow derelict or evil. Humankind is fundamentally good. This notion was replicated by everyone present – every participant, every supporter, every audience member.

This idea neatly evades the notion of a structural problem. As someone sitting near me put it, “You have to wonder if all of these men really need to be here.” All of the stories focused on lives pre-San Quentin, as if, once you were inside the walls, time stopped. Or, perhaps, no one in the room wanted to talk about the complexities of the prison system: hunger strikes, overcrowding, concerns about medical care. Or, the glaring fact that most prisoners are black, and most people watching prisoners perform today are white.


It’s easy to argue that this spectacle is simply a way for white middle-class liberals to exorcise their guilt. Shakespeare in prison is a veritable industry nowadays. There’s a film, a memoir, an episode of This American Life, and even a conference on teaching Shakespeare in prison. Everyone craves stories about the prisoner who was saved through the power of poetry.

The people in attendance are clearly from a do-gooder, hippie persuasion. I meet a retired public defender, a working public defender, someone who runs a business that works with artists, and a wide variety of volunteers who work within San Quentin assisting the various programs there. The prison has thousands of volunteers; it is somewhat unique in that way. There’s a lot of back-slapping; I am also a volunteer at San Quentin, and I was frequently complimented on my “commitment.” I found myself reiterating the same admiration for others, sputtering inadequate words for an idealized notion of helping others and commitment to a cause.

I asked an inmate why he thought people were interested in watching inmates perform Shakespeare. He didn’t know, but he did understand why inmates wanted to perform Shakespeare. Prison had no room for feelings, he told me. “Any way you can get them out,” he said, “is good.” He described an overwhelming sense of emotional need; his hands moved inarticulately. In his silence, I could insert ideas I have about the American penal system, but he was trying to get me to feel.

There’s something undeniably moving today, at least in the earnest, good-looking faces of the inmates who are the performers. I want to believe. A couple tells the audience and the cast that they have a son in prison; these performances help them feel connected with him. They feel that they are learning how to be his parents again. There’s a gulf between them and him; they need all of us to bridge it. At the end of the performance, when I get up to go to the bathroom, I see two women in tears.


The closing skit shows an African tribal ceremony whereby one who commits a crime sits in the center of a circle and is complemented for the work he has done for the village. Rather than, say, banish wrongdoers to prison, he is instead embraced by the tribe and told of all the good things he has done. “You planted good crops.” “You helped my son.”

People around me nod. “What a good idea,” I hear an elderly white lady murmur. They want to think that bolstering self-confidence, shrouding sorrow and pain in positivity, will somehow make those things go away. But the rift is much deeper than that. The audience can’t say for sure what the prison experience is like.

The only reliable sources here, really, are from the inmates themselves. During the Q&A that follows the production, an actor says that he hopes, upon release, to attend Berkeley to study acting, followed by Yale drama school. The audience burst into mad applause. This man is in San Quentin for 31 years to life for murder, arson, and theft. I couldn’t help but wonder what the difference was between telling young black men to aspire to the NBA and his sweetly child-like dream.


One of the more powerful skits is about a soldier with PTSD. Julian Glenn Padgett, the actor playing the solider, is remarkably vivid: his long dreadlocks are tied back with a white string and his eyes show the white all around the iris. The actors blame military training for teaching humans to kill rather than to value life. It’s no wonder, they imply, that a soldier may have committed murder. I wonder how we quantify the difference between the crimes committed by the actors here and acts committed by the military. Are we all victims of larger circumstance?

It’s also the only segment that addresses any structural inequities (except for the implied fact that most of these inmates seem to have suffered from poor parenting). No one here is really questioning whether prison is necessary at all. It’s hard to imagine a society without it. Dostoevsky famously said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Prisons are part of the economy and the landscape. They give people jobs; the government pays about $70 million to keep its prison population away from us. Rather than demand money as compensation, we take away liberty because we value it so much. It’s an economy of human flesh.

I’m a tad disappointed when I find out during the Q&A session that the skit wasn’t based on Julian’s personal story, but rather on the story of another inmate who’s in the crowd. The man with the wild eyes was never a soldier; he just plays one onstage. I suppose this testifies to the fact that all of us in the audience want to believe that the skits are, in some sense, true. As a writer, I’m pretty accustomed to the fact that writing isn’t reality; I’m not the same person on the page as I am in real life. Yet, here, I really want to correlate the inmates’ actual experiences with the ones that they are articulating onstage. To find that someone has, in fact, been “playing a part,” even a part based on reality, feels disingenuous. In exchange for viewing these plays, we the audience offer up our emotions. We’re trading our feelings for something that we want to believe is the truth.


Prison is intentionally dehumanizing – it strips the individual of identity, replaces names with numbers, life with time served, and hunger with food rations. People say that modern existence does the same to all of us – we are our likes and dislikes on Facebook, our jobs, our residences, our credit histories. It’s easy from the audience’s perspective, though, to argue that we are all same, as though all of our suffering can somehow be equated. Maybe punishment serves to make us on the outside, the perpetually penitent, feel better – we can admit that we, too, have faced up to our mistakes, done our time, paid our debt to society. These pat phrases encapsulate the idea that the individual spirit doesn’t spend too much money or sell drugs or kill people. The essence of the human spirit is love. Those of us on the outside want so badly to rehabilitate those on the inside so that we can believe ourselves to be pure too.

Donald Lowrie, who spent ten years incarcerated in San Quentin, wrote: “And despite a long term in prison, I am not yet a criminal. Every atom of my body, each vibration of my mind, revolts at the thought of crime. Yet I committed burglary.” We are contradictory, and here, we are all forced to confront the paradoxes of rehabilitation without identity, of retribution without justice.

When I reflect on my own secrets, I mentally add up the times I have not loved enough, that I have let people down.


I think that despite my own skepticism, I want to think that people are fundamentally good, but often I get tired thinking about it. I’m not always so sure how to divide the difference between good and evil. And I have a lot of excuses – people depend on me, I have a lot to do. I find that being busy tends to quell a lot of my worst impulses. The Quakers also believed that hard work helped to forge a new self. Through toil and labor, the wrong-doers become just doers.

The man sitting behind me is an inmate who spontaneously begins talking to me about his life. He grew up on a farm far from the city, he says; his sister still lives there. He was sentenced to a long prison term at San Quentin because he dressed up as a lawyer and shot a judge for advocating a pro-choice stance. His parole hearing is coming up soon, but he doesn’t think he’ll be out anytime soon.

“I can’t bring myself to be sorry,” he says with a perfectly impenitent face.


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