Photo by Eddie Herena

On May 1st, 2020, I was released back out to society from San Quentin State Prison. I spent almost 16 years in the custody of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). While in prison, I was able to take self-help groups and find ways of understanding my core issues to which I made a horrible decision. The state of California found me suitable for parole on September 11, 2019. While I waited for the Governor to make his decision, I found myself in a peculiar situation. San Quentin was in its initial stages of quarantine for COVID-19, everyone knew that if COVID-19 came to San Quentin, it would not be safe for anyone both inside and out. I was of course worried about my own health given my asthma and health issues, but I was more concern about the people I would be eventually be leaving behind.

In prison, we have our own society, our own microcosm, our own rules, and our own family. I saw my brother and mother once in my entire incarceration and even though they are my blood, the people I have done time with, my cellmates, my coworkers, my friends who listened to my pain and trauma, that was my family. My friend, Tommy Wickerd, born in 1967, has been in CDCR since I was basically a kid, is positive for COVID. He is my friend, my brother, a father to three kids, a loving husband, a youth mentor, an ASL interpreter to the incarcerated deaf population and running partner who to this day has beat my in four San Quentin marathons. I was so joyous the day I left the gates of San Quentin and had imagined it for so long but I couldn’t be more sad that as I walked out those gates and smiled at my friends who came to pick me up risking their own health, knowing I left Tommy behind along with so many people I care about.

“I was of course worried about my own health given my asthma and health issues, but I was more concern about the people I would be eventually be leaving behind.”

I left my family behind and moved onto the next chapter of my life. I went to a transitional house and entered back out into society. In prison, we watch the news to see what the world is. But to experience it in real life was alarming. The disparity of homeless encampments and people who pass them in million dollar cars is ridiculous. The people who chooses to go outside without a mask potentially infecting other people making our way towards the second wave. Our society is not perfect, it was divided and problematic pre-COVID and will be post-COVID. I was lucky to miss the economic recession in the late 2000s and the ongoing violence in our country but now I am back and wondering, where did our society go? I left to rehabilitate myself for 16 years while the world got worse. People are more angry, bitter, and judgmental about people and things they have no vested interest or even having the right information.

I learned about empathy through the years understanding other people’s pain as well as my own. People in society has not and in a way understand where other people are coming from. I went in when America hated Middle Eastern people and then onto Hispanics and the Asians for COVID-19 and now back to the people who help create this country. In prison, majority of people are African Americans and while I believe in the criminal justice system to hold people accountable for their actions, can we say it’s been use fairly across the board? Do people care that majority of the homeless population is also Black? Who are we as a society when we let people die on the streets and in prison. Yes, there is a duty to protect our communities, but are we (including myself) actually protecting our community but letting people die?

Most if not many say criminals don’t matter and don’t change but it’s a blanket statement about people who they’d never met and judging on past choices. I was a bad person. I made the most horrendous choice anyone could make and accepted the consequences of my actions. I don’t at all defend myself or anyone who is guilty of their actions. At the end of the day, we made bad choices as humans and the question is aren’t incarcerated people still humans?

I walk by Lake Merritt and see people out and about and see how life is for them, going on with their day and not having the slightest thought of global warming and environmental destruction, the homeless encampments which at this point are part of the background and scenery for Oakland, to a place out of reach and out of mind where bad criminals are away from my family members and who cares what happens to them. I want to speak to everyone of them to show them the reality of life and what is happening to our society. I want to care as much as I do about what we are doing as a society and how we want the next generation to care about how we treat people. But for many many people, ignorance is bliss because the truth is miserable.

I was happy enjoying life again until San Quentin skyrocketed with COVID cases. I fell into a depression when I found out Tommy was infected. I felt helpless even more so than his wife, because I wanted to go back to those gates and tell the guards, let me in, so if my worse fears came true, I could have said goodbye to him one more time. Knowing my family is in danger, what can I do? What would you do? What would any of us do? I don’t have the answers, I also don’t envy the Governor on the life and death decisions he has to make every single day. This will pass and we will look back on our society and ask was this tragedy preventable on all accounts. Every life matters and every death matters. Where we go from here, it’s up to us.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Jonathan Chiu

Jonathan Chiu is a formerly incarcerated citizen who paroled from San Quentin State Prison on May 1, 2020. He has been part of the San Quentin News since 2015 as the layout designer and crossword designer for both the newspaper and its Wall City magazine publication. His work has also been published in the Marshall Project. He is a member of the San Quentin 1000 Mile running club and a stand up comedian in his spare time.