On my latest trip to the Bay Area, I did something a bit different from what I usually do when I visit the area in which I grew up: I went to prison.
I had the opportunity to meet with inmates at San Quentin State Prison, the California penitentiary that sits on the southeastern edge of San Rafael, the city I called home for my first 33 years.
I had driven past San Quentin thousands of times. As a boy at Marin Country Day School, I looked out across the bay to see the prison’s sand-colored walls just across the water. During my childhood, my dad, his sister and a cousin all had retail businesses in an outdoor shopping mall less than a quarter of a mile from the prison.
This, though, was the first time I was going inside. It was my first experience at a prison since being released from Evin in Iran, which was also eerily close to my home in Tehran.
Prison takes on many forms around the world, and many of the people behind bars, it can be argued, are there for good reason. Regardless of an inmate’s innocence or guilt, however, there are two things that can’t be denied.
First, those of us who have known freedom and then had it taken away have a different understanding of the world from those of you who haven’t.
Second, regardless of what a person being held in prison has done or is accused of doing, he or she deserves to be treated like a human being — not a caged animal.
“If you haven’t spent significant time in prison, you’ve missed one of the essential aspects of the human social experience,” I write in my book. “You’re lesser because of it.”
The dehumanizing of an inmate begins early. Freedom of movement is neutralized. Senses are deprived, possessions seized. Then the “processing” portion of incarceration begins. Fingerprints, mugshots. A new set of clothes — a uniform — is forced on you, designed to take away one more marker of your identity. And then you are given a number to replace your name.
These steps are common to penal systems around the world.
What imprisonment often lacks, though, is the promise of rehabilitation or “correction” that’s often officially implied in the process.
Prisoners have a choice about how they’ll do their time, and at some prisons — including San Quentin — there are increasing opportunities to use it more productively. There are incentives for participating, including reduced sentences, but studies also show that inmates who stay engaged are less likely to return, which is good for society as a whole.
I met with 20 or so male inmates who take part in a weekly discussion program about topics of shared interest. They were all — whether short-timers or lifers — looking to improve themselves.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that prison can make one worldlier. The men I encountered at San Quentin were knowledgeable and cared about current events.
I was reminded of a passage I came across in a copy of the 1960 edition of the Federal Bureau of Prisons booklet: “These men read more serious literature than does the ordinary person in the community.” Literate convicts, it estimated, read from 75 to 100 books each year.
I asked the San Quentin group who read books regularly. Every man raised his hand. We compared favorites. When I mentioned “Animal Farm” and “Catch-22,” many of them smiled and nodded, knowingly. You don’t fully comprehend such books if you’ve never been swallowed by an institution.
I told them my story of being detained and put on trial in Iran, and we laughed about the similarities in the arbitrary way lives were interrupted and upended — even when, as some of these men acknowledged, they had reason to be there. “At least there’s a process here,” one inmate told me. “I love America.”
Some of them told me why they were doing time. One man had been in for more than 20 years, he said, for attempting to steal less than $20 worth of instant coffee. (It was his “third strike” under the 1990s law which penalized those convicted for repeated offenses.)
Whether you’re guilty or not, the system will have its way with you. The resignation of the men I encountered, and their humble attitudes, are what will stick with me.
As I told my story, one of them recognized me from my appearance on “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.” Tearing up, he said he watched the show “religiously.” In the loneliness of his cell, he said, traveling the world vicariously through Bourdain was one of his only joys. Bourdain, he said, “was like family to me.”
Another explained the 1000 Mile Club, a group of inmates who run within the prison walls and hold an annual marathon. One of the members, recently released, will run in the Boston Marathon next month.
And one told me about an op-ed about prison reform penned — well, penciled, actually — from inside San Quentin for a major U.S. newspaper.
Prison promises to correct, and the men I met were active participants in their own betterment. Once they’ve paid their debts to society, should the stigmas of their time in prison follow them forever? I wonder.
All societies recognize and try to rationalize the cruelty inherent in incarceration. More must take steps to reimagine it.