Friends and new acquaintances often ask me, "why do you volunteer at SQ prison?" Being part of the T.R.U.ST. and working with men, many who are lifers, and seeing their commitment to bettering themselves, understanding themselves, and taking responsibility for their crimes has been a truly eye-opening experience. Although my career as a psychologist was grounded in the belief that change was possible, what I know now is that people, even those who have committed terrible crimes and suffered the effects of the most damaging childhoods, can and do change. I have seen it with my own eyes.
I first came to T.R.U.S.T. in 2011. I had retired from my job as a psychologist at Children’s Hospital Oakland three years earlier and had been volunteering at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, American Red Cross, literacy coaching, and teaching mindfulness in an elementary school.
I came to T.R.U.S.T. because I was interested in learning more about children of incarcerated parents and Kathleen Jackson, the executive adviser at that time, invited me to the program. The first time I came to T.R.U.S.T., a very talented man, a T.R.U.S.T. Fellow, was facilitating the workshop on self- exploration. His skill, his authenticity, and the way he engaged the men in the workshop was remarkable. I was moved and amazed. This was not at all what I had expected to find inside a prison. Needless to say, I kept coming back. I feel so fortunate to be part of this rehabilitation program in which men are working with such commitment to better themselves and support the other men in their SQ community.
San Quentin, as compared to most prisons, has a huge array of programs for men to learn, grow, develop insight, and prepare for life after prison. Men want to be in this prison in order to avail themselves of these opportunities. The men of T.R.U.S.T. are motivated and work hard. I am grateful to be working in collaboration with these men and our wonderful team of volunteers. The criminal justice system needs repair, and here at San Quentin, we are in the vanguard of this effort.
I came to the T.R.U.S.T. in the fall of 2012. When I first came to San Quentin as a volunteer, my only participation was to observe the weekly T.R.U.S.T. workshops. Each week my husband would ask me what I was doing in this new volunteer position, and each week I would answer "I don't think I’m doing much, but the men seem to like me being there." Of course, that uncertainty did not last long. I quickly found my niche.
Today, besides dedicating myself to ensure the continuity of the T.R.U.S.T. and its various committees, I also partner with the T.R.U.S.T. Fellows to help them achieve their creative projects and attempt to encourage their community spirited ideas.
Another large group operating under the T.R.U.S.T. umbrella is Project L.A. which attracts the population of men at SQ who will parole to the Los Angeles area and offers them nine months of informational workshops. I have taken on the position of Chief Advisor for this group and work closely with Joseph Paul, Jr., who is the Vocational Services Administrator of Jericho Training Center in L.A. I volunteered to sponsor this program perhaps because L.A. is my own hometown or just because it was an exciting challenge to find the most pertinent and informative facilitators to address the men’s practical needs.
A couple of years ago, upon leaving SQ for the day, I recognized that the “R” (Rehabilitation) of the “CDCR” was remarkably unproductive, so I began to formulate a vocational program, which could offer skills and employment. This was the origin of "Quentin Cooks," a program currently operating in the prison.
My commitment to the men is paramount in all the decisions I’m asked to weigh in on. Still, I find myself going back to the beginning, and I now understand that even without active involvement, just the consistent presence of a volunteer is, in itself, a position the men hold in high esteem. We present the outside world to them, and we are members of a society they are eager to re-enter. They have understood that in seeking to educate and provide services to their prison community, whether through their annual Health Fair, their yearly workshops, or other events they sponsor, they are the ultimate recipients. They are the ones that in seeking to help others by looking outward to the changing needs of San Quentin men, their own focus turns inward to deepen their commitment to the principles of T.R.U.S.T.
I began volunteering with T.R.U.S.T. in July, 2016. I have been helping with the Social Media Committee. San Quentin is a shining star of rehabilitation efforts in the prison world. I hope that other institutions will recognize the power of programs with men helping men. Without educational support and personal growth, the patterns of criminal behavior will not change.
T.R.U.S.T. provides a warm welcome from a group of men striving to improve their lives and the lives of others at San Quentin. It is both challenging and gratifying to me. I participate in the small groups and find that I, too, have a lot to learn in developing mindfulness, living in the moment, and understanding others with different backgrounds and experiences.
I am deeply concerned about the racial climate in our country as well as the rate of incarceration in our society. I am excited to be a part of creating a bridge between the gentlemen who are working so hard to improve their lives and relationships and the rest of the world. I hope that their voices will be heard.
In 2018, I was persuaded by a friend to join the T.R.U.S.T. program as a volunteer. I had recently retired from a teaching career, and I wanted to continue doing work I felt was meaningful. Never having been in a prison before, I didn’t know what to expect, and I wasn’t sure helping criminals was a good use of my time. After all, did these men even deserve help? To my surprise, the answer was (and still is) a resounding YES! Here is why.
First, I met the Fellows, and I discovered men who are motivated, insightful, and articulate. Their very real commitment to change, depth of self-knowledge, and strong desire to give back to both their San Quentin community as well as the community outside the concrete walls is inspiring.
Then, when the new cycle of the T.R.U.S.T. workshop began, I met the program participants, men who are taking these workshops for the first time. These are men who recognize that who they are and how they behaved prior to coming to prison needs to change. If not, they will most likely end up in prison again. This kind of change takes a lot of hard work, time, and commitment. They start by accepting responsibility for their past actions and the harm they caused to their victims and their victims’ families, as well as their own families. To successfully make such a deep and profound change requires a degree of vulnerability and truthfulness that is essential to their becoming responsible and productive members of society. And, remarkably, they do it!
I used to think that rehabilitation for inmates meant embracing sobriety and learning a trade. Since coming to San Quentin, I have learned that rehabilitation is much, much more. Volunteering in T.R,U.S.T. is not only meaningful, but it has also opened my eyes to how much people can and do change. I am profoundly grateful for what these men have taught me.