Soul Food for Feb 10th 2023: My Visit to San Quentin- Justice AND Mercy

Happy Soul Food Friday!

This week: My Visit to San Quentin- Justice AND Mercy

My Visit to San Quentin

Last Thursday I spent an extraordinary day up at San Quentin prison in the Bay Area.

Thanks to a dear friend Matt, who has visited and volunteered at San Quentin several times over the years- as well as, donated uniforms for their sports teams so in those moments of suiting up the inmates can feel human- four of us friends and tennis buddies were afforded the opportunity to get a 4.5 hour tour of the facility and then played tennis with the inmates for 2 hours.

We happened to be on the tour with the Mayor of Hercules California, Mayor Alexander Walker-Griffin a dynamic 25-year-old African American man whose civil service is squarely focused on social justice and equity, and whose presence really added to the experience as most of the men incarcerated were Black or Hispanic, and the mayor represented a level of leadership and hope that spoke to them and also really resonated for me!

If you don’t believe systematic racism exists, then a proximal visit to any institution of incarceration will reset your ill-informed belief system.

Judges need to visit, and some do, but often anonymously.

Politicians writing regs need to visit and see the impact of their decisions.

Anyone who believes equity is bottom-up healing could really benefit from a visit- it will cure your “othering” and open your head and heart to the 2 million people in America that are incarcerated.

At San Quentin two people are restricted to a room that you can reach across end to end with your fingertips. The SPCA guidelines for dogs requires larger more humane facilities!

A tour of the dungeon gives you a flavor for what pre 1943 solitary confinement looked like with up to men in a tiny room with no light or heat or toilet. Just 3 buckets. One with water in it.

Basic human dignity were by the wayside in the name of justice.

This is not just about incarceration. This is big business… (read the article on women prisoners moved to a labor camp below)

Hurt People Hurt People-

The proportion of incarcerated in no way resembles the demography of our country.

In many cases, the backstory of their lived experience created disadvantaged conditions, whether access to opportunity, poverty, pay equality, education, emotional intelligence etc. that lead to bad choices and decisions that ended them up in prison.

Growing up in abusive families, locked away in rooms for days with only a bucket and if the bucket overflows you get beaten harder…

Robbing to get food for your teenage family and the armed robbery going south.

Story after story of hardship where demography IS determining your destiny were shared, heard and felt…

Once arrested, the experience is not equitable either.

Many only meet their public defender for the first time in court, and often have no clue about how the legal system operates, what their rights are, and end up pleading out so as not to make bad even worse. Take 6 years rather than get sentenced to 25.

Many public defenders, that often make less than half the pay of their counterparts in the private sector, are quitting in droves so they won’t be guilty of malpractice due to untenable case load volumes, and the inability to represent their clients’ best interests.

I am not saying many of the men in San Quentin did not deserve to be there.

Some humans simply can’t be out in the real world and need to remain incarcerated to protect society.

Many however, deserve a second chance, particularly if they are actively working a program of reform and have demonstrated years of model citizenship, accountability, and sincere remorse for their crimes.

Healing people heal people-

Unfortunately, many prison systems don’t offer the programs and services like San Quentin to help facilitate reform, unlike the Scandinavian model with is all about restitution and reform, so we should not be surprised when reoffenders after being released repeat old patterns of behavior, having been given no tools or resources to reform their ways.

As one man we met said, “if you take a wild animal out of the wild and put it in a cage for years, then let it out years later, what do you think it is going to do?”

Ironically, San Quentin has both the only death row in CA and one of the most progressive reform programs as well.

I witnessed the best and worst of humanity all in one day.

Some people suck. Some systems suck.

Some people suck because of sucky systems.

It is a way more complex issue than “you do the crime, you do the time” or “lock ‘em up and throw away the key”

Don’t get me wrong. I am not soft on crime. But after this experience I am also hard on shitty and pervasive systems of inequality and injustice, where if you have enough money, you can buy ice cream in hell, and if you have no resources you are relegated to the bottom of the social heap and left to rot.

For the individual, the light bulb has to go off and they need to genuinely want to reform and change

At the same time the system has to evolve and create the conditions for change

Some can’t or won’t change

Some can’t change because of the system

We can do something about the latter…

Want a solution to gun violence in this country? Has anyone actually asked those doing the violence what they think the solutions are? Their responses will enlighten you.

Anyone studying the positive deviants that in spite of horrific circumstances, are doing the reform work and understand the relationship between healing and forgiveness, between self-awareness and accountability? Who is telling this story?

Who is the redeemer?

What is redemption?

What really needs to be reformed?

Some of the guys including Doc and Earl we played tennis with last week

The tennis court is right in the middle of the yard, with different groups engaged in different activities all around you, including playing basketball, lifting weights (including literally pressing a bench, sometimes with another inmate on it), jogging, etc.

You can see the baseball field in the background…

More on the subject-

California’s only death row for men is at San Quentin. The prison was constructed by incarcerated men on the Waban, a ship anchored in San Francisco Bay and is California’s first prison. It houses around 3,776 people and is at 122.5% of capacity.

Mass Incarceration Systems in the US hold almost 2 million people in 1,566 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,850 local jails, 1,510 juvenile correctional facilities, 186 immigration detention facilities, and 82 Indian country jails, as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories. 


Mass Incarceration- The Whole Pie:

Can it really be true that most people in jail are legally innocent? How much of mass incarceration is a result of the war on drugs, or the profit motives of private prisons? How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed decisions about how people are punished when they break the law? These essential questions are harder to answer than you might expect. The various government agencies involved in the criminal legal system collect a lot of data, but very little is designed to help policymakers or the public understand what’s going on. As public support for criminal justice reform continues to build — and as the pandemic raises the stakes higher — it’s more important than ever that we get the facts straight and understand the big picture.

Further complicating matters is the fact that the U.S. doesn’t have one “criminal justice system;” instead, we have thousands of federal, state, local, and tribal systems. Together, these systems hold almost 2 million people in 1,566 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,850 local jails, 1,510 juvenile correctional facilities, 186 immigration detention facilities, and 82 Indian country jails, as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories. 

This report offers some much-needed clarity by piecing together the data about this country’s disparate systems of confinement. It provides a detailed look at where and why people are locked up in the U.S., and dispels some modern myths to focus attention on the real drivers of mass incarceration and overlooked issues that call for reform.

Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2022 | Prison Policy Initiative

California State Prisons:

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation operates 34 adult prisons in CA with a design capacity of 85,000 people:

List of California state prisons – Wikipedia

Ear Hustle:

This is a pretty powerful podcast created entirely within San Quentin, if you want to get a sense for the people and their lived experience

Essential Episodes — Ear Hustle (

Listen to the episode called Looking Out -a man incarcerated at San Quentin who has figured out how to “look out” for dozens of critters around the place.

The System Preying on Women-

The dangerous experiment that moved women prisoners to a farm labor camp
News reports in recent years have exposed a litany of horrors endured by women sentenced to U.S. prisons. Now, in a special investigation, Cosmopolitan reports on another bombshell: During the pandemic, in an unheard-of experiment, incarcerated women were moved to a prison camp on a multimillion-dollar private farm, where dirty, dangerous, meagerly paid work changed their lives forever.

What Happened to the Women Prisoners at Hickman’s Farms (

When Things Fall Apart:

Climate change, political unrest, random violence – Western society can often feel like what the filmmaker Warner Herzog calls, “a thin layer of ice on top of an ocean of chaos and darkness.” In the United States, polls indicate that many people believe that law and order is the only thing protecting us from the savagery of our neighbors, that the fundamental nature of humanity is competition and struggle. This idea is often called “veneer theory.” But is this idea rooted in historical reality? Is this actually what happens when societies face disasters? Are we always on the cusp of brutality?

When Things Fall Apart: Throughline : NPR

A Global Issue-

World’s biggest prison built in murder capital of the world claims to be ‘inescapable’
El Salvador has a problem with gang violence and the prison population is on the rise, so they’ve built a ‘terrorist confinement centre’

‘World’s biggest’ prison built in murder capital claims to be ‘inescapable’ – Daily Star

What you can do about it-

Just Mercy- A Story of Justice and Redemption

Both the book and movie tell the powerful story of the Equal Justice Initiative and the importance for all of us of confronting injustice. You can learn more here:

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (

Thanks this week go to Matt L, Peter D and Greg C for being my fellow travelers on this heart-wrenching, eye-opening, soul-searching experience and to all the staff and inmates at San Quinn that shared their stories with us!

Please pay it forward with justice AND mercy for all.



Twitter: @NevilleB108

“Justice is what Love looks like in Public

4 thoughts on “Soul Food for Feb 10th 2023: My Visit to San Quentin- Justice AND Mercy

  1. Thank you for sharing your visit experience with us, Neville. Your Soul Food is educational and thought-provoking.

    Glad to be a subscriber.

    Staci Reidinger, APR US Marine Corps, Retired President, Reidinger Public Relations (303)875-0571 cell


  2. It sounds like you had a powerful experience, Sensei. The American criminal justice system is a travesty, and it has only gotten worse since the “war on crime” began during the Nixon administration. See “13th” on Netflix or “The House I Live In” (available on Redbox or Plex) for documentaries that capture a fraction of the deep-seated injustice that is the US “justice” system.

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