Joe Garcia

San Quentin News veteran Joe Garcia helped us launch the Prison Journalism Project, serving in an advisory role as one of our two inside editorial associates. He’s also been contributing regular news dispatches and personal essays about San Quentin’s COVID outbreak, even while recovering from the illness himself.

Few writers on our site have rendered the texture of life in prison quite like Joe. He has an ear for dialogue, and his pieces come alive with voices, including his own. You can even hear him speak in his multimedia dispatch from San Quentin in collaboration with formerly incarcerated multimedia producer Christopher Etienne. Joe is a compelling narrator who offers unique, even sideways perspectives on the world around him. He has given outside readers advice on coping with the lockdown, explained why getting a negative COVID test is a bad thing and questioned the unwritten rules of prison playbook about sexuality.

“I recently was overheard describing our community as accepting of the influx of LGBTQIA+ individuals,” he wrote in his Pride in Prison story. “A fellow prisoner nearby quickly retorted, ‘We don’t accept them, we just tolerate them.’ I would argue the reality is that tolerance begets acceptance. More and more, I see everyone treating one another as they should and accepting the fact that we’re all fundamentally more alike than we are dissimilar.”

READ JOE GARCIA’S STORIES


Q&A with Joe Garcia

As journalists, we always seek answers to the five most important questions we want our readers to know: who, what, when, where, and why. We sometimes throw in a how. We asked Joe these questions so our readers get to know him better.

Who are you? Tell us a little about your background.

Me, I’m just an idiot cannabis lover whose freedom derailed when another marijuana dealer attempted to rob me at gunpoint. I chose to reach for a weapon and put up a fight, ultimately shooting and killing him. The Los Angeles Police arrested me moments later right there on the scene. My life of comfort and privilege instantly became a life behind bars.

When did you start expressing yourself through writing? What is your origin as a writer?

I grew up with two terrific parents who strived to give me every opportunity. Books filled our home, and my folks read to me all the time, fueling my imagination. Writing came naturally. I’ve always enjoyed self expression. Song lyrics, essays, short stories, poetry — I dabbled in many forms throughout my youth. A journalism class in high school motivated us to start publishing our own newspaper, and I served as a reporter, photographer and editor.

Some say, “Write what you know.” As an adolescent and teen, I began asking myself, “What the hell do I know?” And as college faded and adulthood blossomed, aspirations of writing took a backseat to the pleasures of experience. I lived out my own romanticized version of the Lost Generation. I figured there’d be time enough later to sit still and write. Then my illicit lifestyle caught up with me in one fell swoop.

What kinds of stories are you most interested in telling? Where do you find the inspiration or ideas for your writing?

Darkly flawed characters have always intrigued me. When I was younger, I wanted to understand them, to be a part of their world, not as some academic voyeur, but as one tortured soul among others. Antiheroes, rogues, devil-may-care protagonists. I looked for them amidst the seedy undercurrents of glitz and glamor Los Angeles. The warped dichotomy of the City of Angels beckoned me, metaphoric demons lurking on every corner. Bland collegiate living surrendered to the street culture of Hollywood and its smoke filled music venues, gritty drug havens and back alley gambling shacks.

In prison, I’m surrounded by all the crazy archetypes of incarceration. Crime. Violence. Tragedy.

Remorse. No matter where I’m at or who I’m locked up with, these elements color the landscape. I look for stories that might reveal the full spectrum. The human condition is far too intricate a thing to delineate into basic black and white. Infinite nuances appear and evanesce. I’ve met too many truly good people who’ve once committed terrible acts. Guys who now rebel against their hardcore criminal backgrounds and realize the inherent fallacies behind their old ways of thinking.

Am I one of them? I can never be too sure, but the overwhelming sense of community within these walls continues to inspire me to push toward actualizing my best self.

What genres interest you?

I regard brilliant writers as true artists who create and shape their vision through word play, craft and sheer will. I want to do that, to be that. One day I still hope to complete the Great American Novel or the perfect screenplay to write the unforgettable story.

Why do you think writing is important for incarcerated men and women?

Prison conditions force us to get loud. It’s the only way to be heard. But I’m not a loud person. I’d rather scream quietly in print, and broadcast my voice this way.

Why should people on the outside read your stories?

By writing about my experiences in here, I hope to provide a clear window into the incarcerated universe, so maybe the reader can catch a glimpse at some of what I see.

How would you like to be thought of and remembered as a person?

If anything, I’d like to be recognized and remembered for being a genuine individual who told it like it is, a writer who sought to capture and illuminate the ecstatic truth, whatever that may be.

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