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When I was a kid, I saw people on TV like Robin Williams in “Mork & Mindy” and thought they were from another planet. I never thought I could be an actor. When I saw Eddy Murphy in “Delirious” and “Raw,” I never imagined I’d be on stage, telling my life story through jokes and skits like I have done at San Quentin.

Before I came to prison, I knew I was funny but damn! I didn’t know I could act, sing, do comedy, and write skits and screenplays. I didn’t know I could put in the work and make it in the real world. 

I gained confidence in prison. Volunteers, guards, the administration and inmates have given me that confidence. I have performed so many times in front of so many audiences. When I did stand up comedy at a San Quentin cooks’ graduation in front of the prison warden and his wife, she laughed so hard I thought she was going to fall out of her chair. The warden even shook my hand after the dinner party was over. 

Prior to this pandemic, I was at an all time high in my life. My creativity and success were bursting from the seams. Everything I wrote was comedic gold. I was requested to host important events and I was asked to be an associate producer for the award-winning Ear Hustle podcast. 

People made me feel like I could do anything. 

And then the pandemic hit San Quentin State Prison. 

I had a choice. I could’ve chosen to ignore the incarcerated population. I could’ve continued to write my jokes and skits, but I did not. I wanted to help. 

I saw Sean Penn at a COVID-19 testing site he was sponsoring on TV. It clicked, I was no different than him. I could do that. 

I realized that what the people around me needed more at this moment was a friend. Those who couldn’t read well needed someone to help them read. 

So I listened, and I read and wrote letters to or from the parole board, I filled out forms, made phone calls, talked to friends or family members and explained how they could advocate for their loved ones’ early release. I had a typewriter, so instead of typing skits, I typed writs for the court. I have typed so many motions to the court, I can quote sections of the California Code of Regulations Title 15 about crime prevention and corrections. 

I watched dozens of men go home early and get their stimulus checks after I filed their 1040 even though I still haven’t received mine. There were times when I felt like Kevin Costner’s character in “Field of Dreams,” wondering what was in it for me. I had moments of bitterness, but I also became an Inmate Advisory Committee member to represent the people in my community. 

I stepped up my service and put a supercharger on my V8 motor and now I answer to everybody — the warden, associate warden, captains, and everyone else up and down the chain of command. 

There was one day when I felt I couldn’t take it. I was tired of all the complaints. Life was too much. But a thought came to me, “I gotta deal with all these people.” 

And then another thought came, “They gotta deal with me.”

People tell me I shine. I’m happy all the time. I smile. Not all guys here smile, ask you how you are and really mean it. A kind word or a soft ear is priceless in here. 

When I was young, I was bitter. Today, I’m a changed man. I think of what I can offer and try to do for others. 

I’m inspired by Barack Obama’s memoir, “The Audacity of Hope.” The former president inspires me by his courage to serve. I’m also motivated by Walter Payton, one of my heroes who was a super gifted person who gave back. During the Super Bowl, I watch the awards going out for the Walter Payton Award. 

I want to hear, “Good job” and “Thank you.” I use my sixth sense to figure out what people need regardless of who they are. 

I guess I saw a moment when people didn’t need jokes. They needed love. And that’s what motivates me. 

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.

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Jesse Ayers

Jesse Ayers is a writer incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison. He is also a counselor, comedian and motivational speaker. He writes, produces, directs and acts in skits and plays. He plans to live in Los Angeles when he is released.