Coming to America

Sep 15, 2014

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.

Sam Wuji is a 41 year old man from Nairobi Kenya who came to America to further his education. But the lesson he would learn regarding race relations and survival in the California prison system was far more educational than he imagined. He did not come from a broken home that’s typically associated with most criminals; His parents are successful people, and with Wuji being the only child, he has always had issue with finding community amongst his peers. “I grew up in a good home, my dad and mom, are good hard working folks, loving folks. My dad is an engineer, architect and my mom is self-employed. My family was very deep into education and pushed me to excel in education, and work hard in that direction.” he says.

It was the slums of Nairobi where Wuji was exposed to crime at a young age, learning how lucrative stolen electronics can be. He says, “I started to hang out with older guys who were already in that risky lifestyle of crime and everything, so I got a little exposure to negativity."

Wuji was attracted to the people of the slums of Nairobi because “they were just surviving, trying to hustle. While I had a home, a roof, and food to eat, they didn't, and for some reason, I just felt comfortable with them.”

After arriving in America, Wuji started to feel a sense of loneliness and finding a sense of community amongst his peers was difficult. He says, “Coming to America to go to college, things got a little bit rough for me, financially, emotionally, socially, everything. It was a big change. I had completely isolated myself. I didn’t have any connection really with back home, I was pretty much detached from family.”

Wuji dropped out of school and began associating with those involved in crime. “I chose the same kind of guys that I had from back home in Nairobi, in the fast life, the street life. I wasn’t a gangster or anything, but somehow I looked up to the American guys here. It looked attractive to me, that kind of life, the fast life." he says

After being sentenced to 20 years to life, Wuji began to reflect on the decisions he made that ultimately sent him to prison. He admits, “I’m guilty of kidnapping, and hijacking, and I can’t even begin to tell you how, what seems so minute, initially, in the thoughts of accepting this criminal life and thinking you're just going to do this for a little while and stop and do something different, but, slowly, you end up getting deeper and deeper.”

Prison life was a culture shock for Wuji. It was even more violent than he imagined. He says,  “Life for me, when I first came in, it was very hard. It’s just by the grace of God that I’m well because, it was very, very traumatic, because there’s so much violence that you see and it numbs you, and I think it took a toll on my life, just being almost like an animal, barely surviving.”

There are four categories of race that are recognized by California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) :  Black, White, Mexican and Other. The Others category consist of those who are born outside of the U.S. regardless of one's skin color.  Wuji says, "Being black and classified as other, it just goes to show you the politics of prison right there. Because I'm not from this country, so I don't want to get involved with the politics of being African American and with what is going in with the race wars but yet I'm not really exempt because of the color of my skin. If there's a racial war, another race who doesn't know that I'm from a different country, they already assume that I am African American."

Wuji has encountered discrimination from the very same group of people that he has been classified as, however, Wuji has maintained a positive attitude regardless of the ignorance of others. "I'm a man who identifies with any other man who has the love inside, no matter the race they are, no matter who they are. We all have been through a lot of pain in our lives, we can identify with that, so it's not so much about the differences but more about what brings us together that I identify with now. " he says

The late Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for over 2 decades for his efforts to obtain human rights. Wuji feels a sense of connection with Mandela through their shared incarceration. However, Wuji also feels a sense of shame for having chosen a dishonorable path that he feels tarnishes the hard work his fellow countryman has strived to accomplish. "The effect of what he meant and what he still means to us is really inspiring, but shaming also, because for me being in prison, and to see that people like Mandela who have fought for the freedom of us and humanity everywhere and me being in prison just abusing the opportunities that I've had."

Having been incarcerated 14 years, Wuji has had time to reflect upon  his life and he would like to offer his advice for those that are on a similar path as he once was. " Stay in school, work hard,  and all the things you want, they're gonna come the right way. I'd beg you to hold on. It's not easy, things get  rough, the bills come in , college tuition and everything but hang in there. You will persevere and the dividends will pay off in the end."

Finding community and acceptance in society can be difficult,  finding it in a prison environment can be even more challenging especially for those who are not from this country. Wuji didn't really know what community he belonged to, but now that he has an African American cellmate he is finding entree and acceptance where he once felt like an outsider.