KALW has partnered with radio producers inside California's oldest prison to bring you the San Quentin Prison Report, a series of stories focusing on the experiences of these men, written and produced by those living inside the prison's walls.
Many veterans suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder -- a type of anxiety disorder that can occur after you have seen or experienced a traumatic event. About 30% of Iraq and Afghanistan vets treated by the VA are diagnosed with PTSD, but PTSD is not just a veterans’ issue. Today we’ll hear from a former marine who survived the trauma of military warfare and a man who survived the trauma and violence that came with growing up in San Francisco’s inner city. Both men are serving time at San Quentin State Prison. Even though they come from different backgrounds, their experiences with PTSD are similar.
Ron Self is a 47-year-old inmate and spent nearly a decade in the marines. He remembers a time during his military service when a US helicopter was shot down.
“Fifty-three people were killed, two survivors,” he says. “Yeah, even talking about that is kind of distressing, but that was my first experience. When I got to the scene there were men running out of the hole on fire. There were probably around eight or nine heads lying around--decapitated heads laying around. And what my initial thought was-- my feelings were, ‘Wow, this is just like TV’.”
A common misconception is that PTSD is a disorder that exclusively affects soldiers, but that's just not the case. Many of the men who are currently incarcerated come from urban communities where unusually high levels of violence and trauma take place on a frequent and consistent basis. In many cases these experiences are similar to those of soldiers and combat veterans.
Michael Hamilton is 41. He was born and raised in San Francisco’s Fillmore district, in public housing. He says, “I can recall a day in the summer of 1998 when it was just like a terrible summer, almost like a war zone, 12 of my friends closest were murdered and shot down in the streets...in that summer alone.”
Hamilton describes one friend he had known since grade school, who was shot five times in the chest and three times in the stomach, right there in the streets. “I was right there with him trying to put my hand over some of the holes to keep the blood from you know, just everywhere,” he says. “It was almost like I could smell it. It was like a metal taste almost in my mouth just from witnessing that much blood. Just to see him hit that many times and that much blood and me with no medical training, I’m trying to stop the flow of blood. I ended up putting him in my car and rushing him to the hospital where he died probably about two or three hours later.”
Michael Hamilton and Ron Self both describe extreme traumatic experiences that share many similarities, and as a result they both developed PTSD.
Self says the aftermath of his traumatic experiences felt unbearable at times. “I’m past it so I can say it now, but those feelings were suicidal. I just didn't want to deal with it. It was too much for me to deal with.”
Hamilton says the trauma of his friend’s death affected him on the subconscious level. “I didn't want to go to sleep. I didn't want to hang out. I wanted revenge. That's a different part of it, but just not being able to sleep, wanting to be high to just numb the pain and try to get the thoughts out of my mind of what happened to him ... I would have the nightmares of not only him being shot, but sometimes the roles would reverse. I would be the one shot and he would be trying to help me and I would never make it to the hospital.”
Self says his dreams have been similarly affected. “It just plays over and over in the dream and sometimes it is the reverse where I am the one who gets blown up and he lives. But how the dream plays out, it plays out differently... sometimes after everyone is dead at the end of the dream they will be alive, but then I wake up and they are not.”
It took a while before either man could stop and face the complex issues that came with surviving these traumatic experiences. Self says one way he dealt with the trauma was by staying in combat. “In the marine corps I just kept volunteering and I kept moving forward-- always staying fluid, never stagnant. So things didn’t have a chance to catch up to me 'cause I was always essentially running from them.”
Hamilton says because of how and where he grew up, he felt his condition was normal. “I mean just growing up in that environment that is what we did. I didn’t have a 9-to-5. My 9-to-5 was carrying my gun and living my life, making sure I come home at night.”
In Hamilton’s case failing to address his issue would lead him to develop a mentality that is unfortunately very common in the urban community. “I kind of took the stance: I would rather be the hunter instead of being the hunted. So that probably added to a lot more violence that just took place in my life.” He says he didn’t trust people, and any little thing would set him off.
Hamilton says he didn’t know any other way because he didn’t see any other way. Everyone he knew was doing the same thing, “and if you weren’t carrying a gun and inflicting violence then you were a victim. And you would end up losing your life.”
It wasn’t until both men came to prison that they began to address their trauma-related issues. For Hamilton this process started after a string of disciplinary infractions. That’s when he finally decided that he needed to talk to someone, and sought counseling.
“It was like a great big pressure release because I had never talked about it before or shared my emotions like that with anyone,” he says. “So when I started talking with the counselor it just released a lot of pressure, a lot of guilt came off.”
Self also began to take a closer look at his behavior once he got to prison, where he involved himself in a number of self-help groups.
“Ironically it wasn’t until I was convicted of attempted murder and spent 15 years in prison-- actually 17, the last two of which at this particular prison San Quentin.” He appreciated the number of programs available. “if you start going to them, whether you think you need them or not, at some point something seeps in, something penetrates that exterior that you have developed over the years, you know that armor -- and for me, many of the programs here did that."
Self says he learned that he had to face his past traumas in order to move on with his life. “It is not a question of if it is going to affect you, but when it’s going to affect you and that is with any trauma in life-- whether it’s related to combat, prison, or growing up in the hood. If you don’t face those traumas they are always going to be there on the peripheral of your life and they are always going to be influencing you.”
This understanding inspired Self to start his own self-help group inside San Quentin called “Veterans Healing Veterans from the Inside Out.” The primary focus of Veterans Healing Veterans is to provide former soldiers with a safe environment that allows them to deal with the past traumas they have experienced in their lives.
But after launching this program, Self discovered something unexpected. “After going through this process, this is what I realized: If I take the word ‘veteran’ or ‘marine’ out of the curriculum and put ‘gang member’ or ‘urban environment’, I come to find out they experience the same thing.”
Self has now expanded this program so that it is offered to anyone who suffers from trauma, especially individuals who come from urban communities -- individuals like Michael Hamilton.