Prior to this pandemic, I was at an all-time high in my life, with creativity and success bursting from the seams.
After two years of performing stand-up comedy for banquets and events around San Quentin, working with the award-winning podcast Ear Hustle, acting with the Marin Shakespeare Company, and commentating basketball games between the Golden State Warriors and the San Quentin team alongside star voice Aaron “Showtime” Taylor, I was beginning to get even bigger offers.
And then COVID-19 and the pandemic happened.
In the face of so much disruption, I didn’t know what to do. I felt lost. I felt frustrated. I felt like I was going to explode. I had no outlet for my creativity. My stand-up crowds were gone. Constant lockdown was eating me alive. I had to do something.
And then one day in March 2020, I saw Sean Penn on TV at a COVID-19 test site he was sponsoring, and it clicked. I’m no different than he is. I can be of service too.
It was different when I was a kid. Back then when I saw people on TV, they seemed like they were from another planet, just like Robin Williams on “Mork & Mindy.” I never thought I’d be an actor. Before coming to San Quentin, I didn’t know I could act, sing, do comedy, write skits and screenplays. I knew I was funny but damn! I didn’t know I could put in work and make it in the real world!
The San Quentin community — the men in blue, volunteers, corrections officers, administrative staff — gave me so much confidence in my abilities. I performed so many times, in front of so many audiences. I got to do stand-up at a Quentin Cooks culinary class graduation, in front of former Warden Ron Davis and his wife! She laughed so hard I thought she was gonna fall out of her chair. The warden even shook my hand after the dinner party was over. Because of this I believe in them like they believe in me. They made me feel like I could do anything.
The men inside may laugh at my jokes, but when the pandemic started I realized what they needed most was something else entirely. I kept hearing people saying, “Help me.” So I did.
The first guy who came to me had been down for 16 years and only had 16 months left. He was suffering from cancer and didn’t want to catch COVID-19 and die. He asked me to file a medical appeal for an early release, which I did.
Every time someone asked for help, I would listen and either direct them to where they could get help or I would do it myself. Many guys inside can’t read, write or file legal paperwork. I read and wrote letters for people, to and from the parole board. I helped fill out forms. I made phone calls to their friends or family members to explain how to advocate for their early release. I have a typewriter, so instead of typing skits I typed writs for the court, appeals on sentences or custody battles. I typed so many motions to the court, I can quote Title 15 and the penal code to you.
I saw dozens of people go home early. I watched guys get their stimulus checks after I filed their 1040, even before I got mine. There was definitely a time when I felt like Kevin Costner’s character in “Field of Dreams,” wondering what was in it for me. I had a few moments of bitterness.
In July 2020, I became an Inmate Advisory Committee member and my acts of service stepped up big time. It was like putting a supercharger on a V8 motor. Now I answer to everybody. I talk to the warden, associate warden, captains and everyone up and down the ladder.
There was a day when life was too much; I felt I couldn’t take all the complaints. A thought came to me in my bitterness: “I gotta deal with all these people.” And then I had another thought, a quiet one, very calm: “They gotta deal with me.”
People always comment on how I smile a lot. It’s not everyday you see a guy in here smiling, who asks you how you are and really means it. Having a kind word, or a soft ear, is priceless in here.
I have found that by serving others, I can’t even measure all the good. When I was young, I was bitter all the time, always wondering what I could get from people. Today, I think of what I can offer those around me. During the Super Bowl, I saw the awards going out for the “Walter Payton” Award, named after a hero of mine. And I realised that people like Payton — the gifted and blessed — give back.
What motivates me is the high from the rewards of doing a good job. I really want to hear people say “good job.” It is not often in prison that someone looks you in the eye, says “thank you” or appreciates a favor. And that in turn, helps me, when someone “higher up” has mercy on me. Through the pandemic, I saw a moment when people didn’t need jokes, they needed love. And love is what they got, unconditionally.
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.