Dispatches from the Inside: Searching for redemption without resources for self-improvement

Aug 14, 2012

Richard Gilliam is incarcerated at the California Men's Colony (CMC).

August 8, 2012

I am within a few months of completing a thirteen year term of imprisonment. You'd think I would be ecstatic, that I could do the rest of my time "standing on my head", as the saying goes. But each day I find myself becoming more and more frustrated, angry and disillusioned. I've experienced a steady decline of hope since arriving at CMC from San Quentin. It is because here I have no sense of purpose, of forward progress, and the disappointment is that no one in authority seems to care. 

From the first day I arrived at San Quentin, I was presented with opportunities. I immediately joined a creative writing group and signed up for on-site extracurricular educational courses; I got busy bettering myself. Every day I looked forward to participating in my improvement. Then, I was involuntarily transferred out of San Quentin.

There are no writing groups here, no accessible educational classes for someone that has a diploma or GED. A prisoner can pay for college correspondence courses, but the costs for classes and books prohibits all but a very few from participating. When I arrived, there was a weekly literacy class for those wishing to improve or keep current their scholastic aptitude. Instruction was peer-to-peer, given by unpaid prisoners and overseen by two or three volunteers from the community, but that program was terminated when correctional staff was reallocated due to budget cuts.

Here I, like many others, am simply marking time. There is no efflorescence to offset the day-to-day drudgery and pettiness. In San Quentin, I was shown possibility. I was offered a path to realize self-worth. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't a utopia. Believe me when I say it was still prison.  I was locked away with other societal outcasts, denied the affection of family and friends. Unable to participate in and enjoy one-in-a-lifetime events such as birthdays, weddings, graduations and all the little milestones that make living a joy. I forfeited that right by breaking the law. But at San Quentin, as in no other prison in the California system, I was offered redemption in the form of self-improvement. This opportunity should be available in every prison. 

The last thing you want is angry, disillusioned former offenders returning to your communities without a sense of hope and self-worth, without the ability to function and succeed. I think everyone should ask themselves this: If you're going to put people in prison, shouldn't you give them the educational, psychological and physical tools while there that will enable them to succeed after release? If you don't, really, what has society accomplished? How have we made it a better place?

Richard Gilliam