San Quentin State Prison sits on the edge of San Francisco Bay. To the north west is Mount Tamalpais and to the south west is the skyline of San Francisco. Each day, passing right in front of San Quentin, the water way is filled with wind surfers, rowers and commuter ferry boats taking people to and from work or a to San Francisco Giants game.
On the inside of the prison, the view is very different.
I noticed the age of the prison, having been built in 1852, as I approached the first gate, holding up my identification card to the armed guard. Once in, we walked through the staff parking lot where we appreciated the calm bay with the sun sparkling on its surface and the spectacular homes immediately across the water.
We arrived at the second gate where we signed in with another armed guard, showed our identification and got our wrists stamped so we can prove that we are not trying to escape when we leave. We then entered a holding area and waited for the next guard in a glass sealed box to release the next gate with a heavy metal clank. We entered the caged area and shut the gate behind us. Once in, we held up our identification one more time before we were let through.
Once across the prison yard we entered the education building, a modular building added to the collection of prison structures. We have reached our destination where we were providing a workshop on values, philanthropy and fundraising. We entered the classroom where a group of men, wearing their prison blues were waiting at tables set up in a big square. This group of men were sentenced as juvenile offenders and given life sentences. They bonded together to learn, support each other and give back to the outside community.
After introductions, we asked the men what the word philanthropist meant to them. They responded that they were people who were generous and gave lots of money. We spent time broadening the definition of philanthropy to time, talent and social ties.
We talked about the annual walk-a-thon they hold on the prison yard to raise money for an organization that provides a 10-year mentorship program and summer camp for kids whose parents are in prison. This program helps stop the cycle of generational incarceration which is meaningful to these men who either have children or feel that if they had this program when they were young, they might not be in prison today.
We talked about the time they spent putting on the walk-a-thon and going cell to cell asking their peers for donations. We also mentioned their creation of a public service announcement that will play on the institutional channel, so prisoners could learn about the walk-a-thon.
“You know what that makes you, right?” I say to them.
“You are philanthropists. We are philanthropic peers.”
Jaws dropped, and they looked at each other wondering if this possibly could be true. They are referred to as inmate, prisoner, offender, predator, incarcerated but not as a philanthropist.
Then one of the men blurted out, “I am going to go back to my cell and put that up on my wall, I am a philanthropist!”
They had been philanthropists before they walked into the classroom that day. They just had not known it.
Watching this truth sink in and resonate, I realized the beauty within these ugly, prison walls topped with barbed wire and guard towers.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.