In his first piece for Prison Journalism Project, “The Hidden Heroes Forgotten Inside,” Steve Brooks, who is an early and frequent contributing writer, wrote on behalf of essential workers inside prisons:
“There are incarcerated people who risk their lives every day to make sure that people get fed. We make sure the prison hospitals, kitchens, day rooms and showers are cleaned and sanitized. We make sure custody staff get their offices cleaned and paperwork filed on time. We prune the flowers, water the grass and trim the trees. We make sure that incarcerated people who are older and physically handicapped or hearing impaired receive care. We help mitigate this pandemic.
“Many of us work for free or earn pennies on the dollar for our services. At the end of the day, we are still called animals and monsters. We are still considered people too unfit for society. We are seen as just perpetrators of our past crimes even though many of us have undergone rigorous vocational, psychological and educational training in an effort to rehabilitate.
“Many of us have been sentenced to life in prison and are now facing the possibility of death inside. But we continue trying to make amends for our past wrongs and reclaim our humanity. We haven’t given up on each other or our society. All we want is society not to give up on us.”
The forceful prose and moral clarity of his piece are hallmarks of Steve’s essays, whether he writes about education, criminal justice reform, or the broken relationship between communities and the police.
Q&A With Steve Brooks
As journalists, we seek answers to five essential questions: who, what, when, where, and why. We sometimes throw in a how. We asked Steve these questions so our readers could get to know him better.
Who are you? Tell us a little about your background.
My name is Steve Brooks. I am 48 and I was born in Riverside, California. I came to prison when I was 22. I am currently serving a life sentence in San Quentin State Prison, regretfully, for a series of violent home break-ins. I have been incarcerated almost 26 years. I anticipate attending my first board of parole hearing within the next six months.
Over the last couple of decades I have met a lot of people from different walks of life in prison. I have participated in a lot of self-help groups dealing with subjects like trauma, addiction and manhood. I have done a lot of self-reflection and have read lots of books that have helped me grow and develop as a man. I have studied law, politics, history, philosophy and religion. I have also obtained a liberal arts degree from the Prison University Project at San Quentin, also known as Mt. Tamalpais College, and a Social & Behavioral Science degree from Coastline College.
I am a contributing writer for the San Quentin News. I have run in three marathons as a member of San Quentin’s Thousand Mile Running Club. My favorite subject is sociology — the study of society. I am interested in obtaining an applied sociology degree and working in the field of trauma and addiction counseling. I am also interested in doing social justice work toward helping rebuild communities and changing public policies that fuel mass incarceration in America.
When did you start expressing yourself through writing? Tell us about your origins as a writer.
I started writing a lot of my thoughts down on paper as a teenager. It helped me understand things better. I wrote poetry and rap lyrics in the beginning and evolved into book reports, essays and autobiographical writings. When I came to prison, I started doing a lot of legal writing. I have written a ton of complaints about prison conditions and unprofessional employee conduct. I have also written hundreds of pages of legal briefs to courts throughout the years and I’ve written college essays and self-help material.
What kind of stories are you most interested in telling?
I’m more of a nonfiction type. Stories about injustices taking place in our society interest me most. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” so I am focused on shining the light on injustices, inhumane treatment of human beings, poverty, homelessness, prison abuses, sexual abuse, child abuse, domestic violence, black lives matter movements, mass incarceration, etc.
What genres do you prefer?
I love philosophy books. I enjoy autobiographical work. But I also like a lot of different genres, from horror stories to romance. You can get something from it all if you’re willing to invest the time to read it.
Where do you find the inspiration or the idea for your writing?
Real-life events happening all around me. We are all shaping history right now. As we shape it I believe it’s important to talk about it so future generations can view it through a variety of different lenses. There have also been countless times I wish I would have written something down because I like going down memory lane but memories fade. So in these unprecedented historical times I am inspired to keep my pencil in hand.
Why do you think writing is important for incarcerated men and women?
Everybody has a story. Most incarcerated people I’ve been around felt they didn’t have a story that mattered when they were in the outside world. We often feel we have no voice. Writing helps people find their voice and tell their story and discover who they are as human beings. Once this happens a transformation process begins. People start to see their value. Every one of us shapes the world. We all shape society and history. Writing is the perfect vehicle for sharing our experiences to help others do better and thereby create a better society.
Why should people on the outside read your stories?
I have life experience in many different areas other people don’t have. I experienced drugs, gangs, poverty and homelessness. I experienced growing up without parents and being on my own at a young age. I experienced physical, mental and sexual abuse growing up as a child. I have experienced crime and jails and prisons. Most people go to school to learn about what I experienced first-hand. I think that adds value to the message my writing intends to convey. I also share similar experiences with a lot of other people. I believe connection through shared traumas can aid the healing process.
How would you like to be remembered and thought of as a person?
I want people to say Steve Brooks was a good person. He had a terrible childhood, and struggled through early development stages and made some terrible mistakes as a young man. But he ultimately fought back against the odds and became a great humanitarian.