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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.

Jesse Ayers is a writer, counselor, comedian and motivational speaker. He writes, produces, directs and acts in skits and plays. He is incarcerated in California.