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Photo by Phoeun You, courtesy of San Quentin News

This article was first published by San Quentin News, a newspaper that reports on rehabilitative efforts to increase public safety and achieve social justice from inside San Quentin State Prison. Visit SQN’s website or follow them on Twitter. The article has been lightly edited to add clarity and conform with PJP style rules.

Vincent Schiraldi, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Corrections flew to California for one day with one specific goal — to step inside San Quentin State Prison (SQ) and learn about its transformative culture directly from the incarcerated community.

“Everyone knows San Quentin is the great success story,” said Schiraldi. “I’m here to take a good look at the type of programming you guys do in here.”

Appointed as commissioner just weeks before his May 24 visit, Schiraldi immediately looked to San Quentin as the model for flipping the narrative from negative to positive on Rikers Island, his city’s notorious main jail complex.

Hollywood film producer and longtime social justice activist Scott Budnick helped Schiraldi connect with SQ administration to make the special visit happen.

“I’ve worked with Vinny many times to reform the juvenile system in California and DC,” Budnick said. “He reached out and said, ‘I’m taking over Rikers. Can you help?’”

As society begins to fully realize the harmful and counterproductive impact of mass incarceration, progressive thinkers like Budnick and Schiraldi hope to reshape punitive penal institutions by focusing attention on restorative justice and rehabilitation.

Schiraldi’s team included first deputy commissioner Lynelle Maginley-Liddie, deputy director of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice Eric Cumberbatch, and National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform’s  David Muhammad.

“Rikers Island currently suffers from enormous violence and low staff morale,” Muhammad explained. “The jail complex has not had programming for more than a year.

“We want to bring programming back, expand it, support the staff and provide high quality programs and opportunities to the residents of Rikers.”

Accompanied by SQ’s Acting Warden Ron Broomfield, the group entered the prison and gathered in the chapel garden area to listen to incarcerated residents share stories of personal growth.

“‘Programming’ means everything — literally everything — to me,” said Vincent Turner, one of the SQ incarcerated. “Coming into the system at a young age, a lot of guys don’t get access to the programs we have here… Being at San Quentin changed my life and gave me the chance to become a much better man for myself and for my family.” 

Yancey Andress spoke along the same lines. “Programming taught me what freedom means,” he said. “Coming up in L.A. and Inglewood, I was too free — in a negative way.

“I didn’t grab the actual reality of what real freedom is until San Quentin. Here, we learn to talk and communicate. That’s how people get help.”

Broomfield led the group to check out Code. 7370, SQ’s nationally acclaimed computer coding training program, as well as the machinist trade school and the vocational computer literacy class.

Afterwards, they walked the yard on their way to one of the only prison media centers in the world.

Because so much of what goes on at SQ doesn’t exist in other prisons, Schiraldi wanted to know how corrections staff have adapted to the innovative mindset.

Photo by Phoeun You, courtesy of San Quentin News

“How do things change?” Schiraldi asked. “How do I get my staff to buy in?” Lt. Sam Robinson recalled his days as a Death Row officer in 2002-03 when volunteers first became part of SQ’s new era of positive development.

“Seeing civilians come in — I didn’t understand it,” said Robinson. “It took time for me to see the relevance of programming.”

He pointed out Lonnie Morris, who would soon be released after 40 years of incarceration. “I watched Lonnie go from convict to changed guy.

“I understand the mentality that your staff will have to overcome, but attrition happens. I’ve seen the change amongst our workforce. Now, it’s just the norm.”

Lonnie Morris tried to sum up 40 years of prison life in less than 10 minutes.

“On the mainline back then, it was kill or be killed. ‘Cops don’t run San Quentin. We run San Quentin,’” said Morris. “But eventually, we had to stop the war before too many people died.

“We had to start making a change. We began seeing the benefit of doing the right thing.”

Particularly because Rikers is a jail and not a prison, Schiraldi asked about ways to help youth offenders embrace rehabilitation before they get caught up in prison politics and violence.

Rafael Bravo answered the question by emphasizing the value of mentorship.

“Having someone who’s been there makes a big difference. I was able to turn to guys who’d gotten off that negative path.

“These are guys who’ve been incarcerated for 20, 30 years, but they’re smiling. They’re positive. And I could look to them for guidance.”

Anthony Gomez made sure Schiraldi’s team understood the impact of a positive attitude from staff, too.

“Kind words, taking the time to invest in me and say, ‘Stay out of trouble’ — they saw my potential. “That human connection helps break the barrier between staff and inmate.”

Cumberbatch thanked the guys for being so open and willing to share. “I stand in solidarity with you to dismantle these systems that all of us — our families, our communities — are wrapped up in.

“I look at you all as the practitioner, as the real genius to undo all of this.” Schiraldi told the SQ residents his first action as commissioner will be to move his office inside the Rikers facility.

Previous commissioners ran the jail from an outside office. First deputy Maginley-Liddie, who also serves as chief diversity officer, said she walks through Rikers every day to stay visibly approachable for one-on-one interaction.

“Definitely, it’s clear how the concept of treating people like people has gotten San Quentin where it is today,” said Maginley-Liddie. “I go in [to Rikers] all the time. That’s what I told Vinny. You have to go in and actually do it.”

As the team walked up the hill to leave, Schiraldi spoke about his main takeaway from the day’s visit. “We can do it at Rikers. San Quentin was once a horrible and dangerous place — just like Rikers. But not anymore. We can do it!”

Broomfield enjoyed the moment and reflected on what it all meant — despite his subpoena to testify the next day as the respondent in a class action lawsuit filed against him by over 300 prisoners.

“I love being at San Quentin,” said Broomfield. “It’s like no other prison, so I experience a great sense of pride and hopefulness.

“I’m well aware that I didn’t create this — I inherited it. My job is to ensure that what happens here continues and grows.”

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.

Joe Garcia is a journalist and PJP correspondent incarcerated in California. Garcia was previously a staff writer and the chair of the Journalism Guild for San Quentin News. In addition to prison publications, his work has appeared in The New Yorker, the Washington Post and the Sacramento Bee.