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John Brown on Stage at San Quentin

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You never completely know what’s in a man’s soul, or what he is capable of. That said, before retiring from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), I met a number of men serving life sentences who I would trust back in their communities.

I repeated  this in psychological reports I wrote for the Board of Prison Hearings, but my recommendations were never followed. I wasn’t alone. Most recommendations for parole are turned down by ultraconservative  parole boards distrustful of psychologists. This might be changing.

A changing political climate and prison overcrowding

There’s now talk in California of making it easier for lifers to be granted parole, especially for those convicted in their teens. The specific bill, SB9, would only apply to inmates sentenced to life without the possibility of parole when they were minors. It would allow them to ask for reconsideration. With luck, some of these inmates would be eligible for parole after 25 years in prison. I say with luck because I know how capricious the California prison system can be. (This is part or what’s helped the United states gain the distinction of having the highest incarceration rate and some of the longest sentences in the world. Even Norway’s infamous Andres Behring Breivik, who admitted killing 77 people, might be released from prison in 21 years.)

I worked closely with a number of lifers who had languished for years in a dysfunctional prison system even after turning their lives around — mostly by their own efforts. I saw very little official effort to “rehabilitate” the prisoners I came to know at San Quentin, Salinas Valley, and Soledad prisons. The psychologists and psychiatrists I worked with did what they could, but mostly worked in isolation, not part of any system wide effort to prepare inmates for a successful return to their communities.

Some bright spots

There were exceptions to the generally pathetic attempts of CDCR at inmate rehabilitation. I witnessed one of these at San Quentin in 2002, under the leadership of Warden Jeanne S. Woodford. She allowed an outsider, John De Francesco, to produce and direct an interracial cast of mostly lifers (killers and career felons) in a stage production of John Brown’s Body, a play based on the epic poem written by Stephen Vincent Benet. The play is about slavery and liberation in the Civil War era.

John Brown’s Body is rife with extremely sensitive issues, and forced the actors to examine their most deeply held feelings about race and their place in society as white men and men of color. Almost three years in the making, this was, I believe,  a transformative experience for all who took part.

John Brown's Body on stage at San Quentin

John Brown was a Civil War era abolitionist.

John Brown's Body, San Quentin Prison

John Brown's Body at San Quentin state prison

Women were not allowed on stage, so this female role was projected.

John Brown at San Quentin

The sheets were meant to represent female dancers who weren’t allowed on stage according to prison rules.

John Brown's Body

Actors wore their prison blues to make it harder to escape into the crowd.

John Brown's Body, Warden Jeanne S. Woodford

Warden Jeanne S. Wordford, sitting in the first seat in the front row, made it all happen.

(added August 25, 2012)

Friend Susan Kirsch has directed me to a mother’s parole board experience very much worth reading.

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One Response

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  1. I loved the “reserved seating”. Idiots in power first always chose the best for themselves… as in “Dean’s Parking ” sign fight next to the building.

    The Beechers

    August 24, 2012 at 2:46 pm


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