About four years ago, I was working at Sonoma State University when a colleague invited me to come with her to be part of a class she was teaching at San Quentin State Prison.
After a lot of clanging doors and ID and body checks, we were led inside the upper yard, where there are chapels and classrooms. I nervously went into one of the classrooms and set up chairs. Soon, some of the inmates filed in dressed in blue denim with a large "D.O.C." stenciled on their clothes. The men were very friendly and really seemed to be grateful we were there. These prisoners were interested, engaged and eager to learn. I was impressed. I could feel my stereotypes about prisoners vaporizing and another reality based on common humanity forming in their place. I wanted to come back.
I eventually chose to volunteer with the restorative justice program run through the prison's Catholic chapel. The stories I have heard have given me the incredible opportunity to connect in a very human and personal way with people most would consider outcasts. These guys screwed up big-time, but have had 15, 20 or 30-plus years to consider what they have done and work out as best they can a path toward acceptance and redemption.
Given the circumstances that most have come from and the debt they have paid, I am not one to judge them. I have met some of the most spiritually advanced people I know in these groups, and I am constantly amazed how they can maintain their spirit and attitude after so many years behind bars. I have learned so much, and I'm humbled by their experiences.
Of this I am sure: many of the men I have met could be far more useful to their communities and society by doing their work and using their talents on the outside than on the inside. If Proposition 57 passes, perhaps some of them will get their chance and some juveniles will not have to be incarcerated in adult prisons.
Bruce Berkowitz is co-chair of the Congregation Shomrei Torah social action committee.
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