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.
Marcus Williams went to prison when he was just 17 years old. It was 1984, and “Miami Vice” and “The Cosby Show” were the hottest things on television. Run DMC, Houdini and Kurtis Blow were the kings of hip hop.
29 years later, Marcus is about to be released on parole. He’s matured and learned a lot since he first entered prison -- but even after all this time he says there are a few things he is still working on.
When Marcus thinks about who he was as a young man, he’s quick to reflect on what got him into trouble in the first place.
“I was very self-centered -- it was 'all about me' type of mentality,” he says. “My childhood was so rough, so therefore the world owes me everything … and I'm gonna get it any way I see fit.”
That included using violence. Wherever he went, Marcus says he always carried a gun.
Marcus became involved with gangs, and at the age of 16, he was arrested for first-degree murder. By 17, he was sentenced to life in prison.
Unfortunately for him, his introduction into the prison system began with a lesson that would almost kill him. “Within the first year I had an attempt on my life,” he remembers. “Within the first six months, I almost got put into a wheelchair.”
Marcus says he was the victim of a brutal attack by rival gang members, while he was lifting weights with other inmates. He says they pummeled him with 80-pound dumbbells.
After the attack, Marcus was sent to administrative segregation, also known as “the Hole.” After a year in the Hole, he was transferred to Folsom State Prison, which was already on lockdown. “We spent about 8 months on lockdown,” he says.
During lockdown, inmates are confined to their cells for 23 hours a day; all inmate movement is restricted unless under direct escort by guards. This gave Marcus a lot of time alone. Because of it, something started to shift within him.
“I started to become somewhat of a loner,” he says. He began to stay away from others. In the beginning, “it was all about self-preservation.”
This was a turning point for Marcus. But influences from the outside world would ultimately have the biggest impact on him.
“One thing that frustrates us about being in prison, anybody, is that you don't have control of over certain situations that takes place outside of these walls,” he says.
Family tragedies pushed Marcus towards self-reflection: his cousin was murdered, and within two weeks of that, a dear aunt passed away. For the first time, Marcus was forced to consider what type of future he would have when he got out of prison. He began to fear that his loved ones would be gone by the time he got out.
At this point, Marcus’ main priority became working on himself in order to become a better person, so he could be there for his family.
He started participating in self-help groups, and says he committed himself to personal growth and change. He was transferred from Folsom to San Quentin, and once there, Marcus noticed something he had never experienced anywhere else: a community of support among his fellow prisoners. “You're not going to find that in too many other places,” Marcus says. “Here you have a profound network of guys that support you through and through … I've never seen that in all my years in this institution.”
That support--along with programs like No More Tears, Alliance for Change, and the Prison University Project--helped Marcus to learn from his past mistakes. Throughout his 29 years in prison, Marcus had been before the parole board and denied on four separate occasions. But in 2012, he had another chance to convince the board -- and this time they saw something in Marcus had changed.
Marcus chalks it up to a shift in perspective. “They didn't see that gang member,” he says. “They didn't see that person that had caused all this trouble out there in the community … They didn't see a gang member sitting before them, coming in there with all these issues with this frown upon his face.”
“They seen somebody who was still somewhat troubled, but at the same time did everything he could and within his power to change his life the best [he] could.”
Now, after 29 years, Marcus is set to be released from prison. And a lot has changed since he was last out. To cope with this, Marcus has a simple plan, one that requires a lot of patience.
“It's going to be rough at first," he says. "It's gonna take diligence and it’s gonna take me being focused ... It's going to take a lot of self-discipline as well.”
This is the latest installment of the San Quentin Prison Report radio project – a new series that brings you stories produced by men currently serving time in California’s oldest prison. You can listen to more stories from this series at www.kalw.org.