TNT Behind San Quentin’s Walls

Inmates Preach the Value of Freedom

Jasin at SQ
TNT youth leader Jasin Saunders at San Quentin

On a sun-splashed, blue-sky, spring-like winter day in February, some of our Teens on Target youth leaders went behind the walls at San Quentin. They spent an eye-opening day with a group of inmates called SQUIRES, men whose devastating crimes had earned them a life behind bars, and whose collective message to our young men was clear: it takes only a few seconds to end up here, just one bad decision that can ruin many lives, including your own. So be wise, stop and think, find someone you can talk to about life. Stay free.

The SQUIRES program at San Quentin represents a kind-of gentle evolution of Scared Straight, the program notorious for footage of aggressive prison inmates threatening petrified teenagers with the physical and emotional horrors of life behind bars, horrors that awaited them if they continued on your current path. The SQUIRES motto: We don’t scare straight, we communicate. In fact, while the day held many stark reminders of the misery and destitution of incarceration, the scariest thing about the SQUIRES inmates themselves was the insightful questions they put to the teens, their gentle but insistent digging for the young men’s true thoughts and feelings about growing up in violent neighborhoods in violent times.

TNT youth leader Jasin Saunders, a sophomore at Castlemont High in East Oakland, says the inmates impressed him. “They had relatable stories,” he says. “The lesson was that what some of us are doing now are the same things these guys were doing once, and now they’re here.”

Teens on Target Coordinator Hisham Ali Bob doesn’t expect any of his youth leaders to end up at San Quentin, but he also knows how slippery freedom can be for young men of color in Oakland; it’s not always their intentions or even their actions that land them in the justice system. He wanted them to know the stakes, to see just one more reminder of what might await them if they aren’t aware and careful.

“If there isn’t an organized system designed to round up as many young black men as possible and lock them away somewhere,” says Hisham, “there might as well be.” We need not only to teach our youth, but mentor them, show them as much of life and the world as we can.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation San Quentin

The day at San Quentin was arranged by OPD Officer Robert Smith, of the OK Program, which mentors young men of color. It is a long day and it feels in some ways comprehensive. There is time on the yard, inside the cramped, airless cells, along unadorned cell blocks, at Death Row (Its entry sign reads “Condemned Row” and is painted on the wall over the arched doorway in ominous Gothic lettering). At lunch in the dim, cavernous mess hall the visitors assemble their own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, like the inmates, without a knife.  Your hands get very sticky.

For some, the most bracing moment of the day comes when each SQUIRES inmate recites his sentence: 20 years to life; 40 years to life; 15 to life; four life sentences, 265 years. One inmate tells us he is 44 years old and has been at San Quentin for 23 years; another, who can’t be more than 40, has been here 21 years. It was a bleak glimpse into a circumscribed world, and it drove home the point that freedom is precious and worth preserving. In their honesty about what they themselves had done to end up here, Jason could see their commitment to reaching him and the other visitors. “I just found that real powerful.”

San Quentin group
Early morning before passing through the gates of San Quentin