Photo by Ged Lawson on Unsplash

A year ago today I sat in San Quentin State Prison awaiting a decision about my freedom from the parole board.

A year ago today, the Bahamas was recovering from a devastating hurricane.

A year ago today, I was still with my friends and San Quentin family.

A year ago today, we never heard of COVID-19.

A year ago today, my friend Eric Warner was alive.

How our lives have dramatically changed over the course of a year. Time inside prison really never has too much meaning for us prisoners. Another year, another 12 months down in our sentences. In the best sense, the year has flown by since I cried endlessly knowing I was given a second chance at life. At 8 a.m. on September 11, 2019, I walked into the waiting area, nervous and scared because every single word I’d say would be judged and dissected in front of the two people who’d decide my life. 

I was given a positive decision. But as I reflect back today about how my life would’ve turned out had I not been found suitable by the parole board, I know that I’d still be inside with my family, one of the thousands of people who couldn’t escape COVID-19. And as we have seen, COVID-19 does not discriminate, compared to our criminal justice system. COVID-19 is finally giving society a chance to see how our criminal justice system works and who exactly are the people inside the prison system. Would I have been one of the 26 people who passed away at San Quentin? Would I be in the dark about how the rest of my sentence and prison life would look like? I am privileged to say I don’t have to answer those questions. 

I wish I could say the same for Eric, my friend who lived in San Quentin’s West Block. Eric turned 57 earlier this year. While prison is a hodgepodge of society, many inside our system are elderly, like Eric was, riddled with health issues stemming from the metal bunks we sleep on to the diet of processed food we ingest daily. Combine that with the black mold and asbestos, it was never a surprise for those who were incarcerated to know COVID-19 would destroy many lives while leaving many others with permanent health issues.

It’s too late to lay blame and say this or that should’ve happened. That was for last year. We should reflect on the past but make better decisions for our future. A year from now, how do we look back on ourselves? Will we say the outbreaks that have now occurred at Folsom State Prison and Prison Fire Camps were contained like the wildfires that are happening right now? Or will we let it spread and destroy everything?

I came back out to a society with COVID, wildfires, reelection, Brexit and the continuing disparity of the wealth and homeless. This was not what I thought about a year ago. I thought about my family waiting for me outside the prison gates, the first meal at a Chinese restaurant, per my mother’s request, and breathing in the air of freedom. A year ago that was what I thought would be what I needed, but that’s not what I need now. What I need is my family — both inside and out — to be safe .

In these times we can see the true nature of people. I see the resilience of my family inside struggling to combat COVID-19, while people in society still walk around without their mask and go about their day believing COVID is a myth. Who will live to tell the tale of COVID a year from now?

A year ago today, my San Quentin family hugged me and congratulated me on earning my freedom.

A year ago today, we wondered if our President would ever be indicted for his past indiscretions.

A year ago today, I watched as my homeland, Hong Kong, fought the government for basic individual rights.

A year ago today, we honored those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001.

A year ago today, at 11 a.m., I hurried back to my cell after the decision and cried for an hour in sadness and in celebration. 

This year, I’ll be crying for the ones who weren’t as lucky as me and are still inside. A year from now, who will our society be crying for?

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.