With one of the highest crime rates in the country, Richmond, California, is a regular on the evening news.
Zoom out to just California and that crime rate looks even higher: the city’s murder rate is seven times that of neighboring San Francisco, and more than twice as high as Oakland’s. Only nine miles west of Richmond is San Quentin State Prison.
A lot of the men housed here are from Richmond, and will return when they’re done serving time. But that could be twenty, or even forty years out. That’s a lot of time to think about mistakes, and leaves many inmates stuck in a place of depression, helplessness and guilt. One group of Richmond inmates, though, has been transforming those feelings into something positive.
Pass the barbed wire chain-link fence and thick jail gates, go through the enclosed quad, and there it is: the San Quentin prison chapel. It’s a place where a lot of the inmates meet for different groups, classes, and treatment programs. For most, their work ends at the prison walls. Not this group, though.
“We want to work with the community to help stop or curb some of the things that are going on out there,” says Nate Collins. “We want to help bridge the gap between the perpetrator as you will and the community.”
Nate Collins is an inmate and president of the Richmond Project. It’s a San Quentin based group that works to improve conditions in Richmond from behind prison walls. Collins has been in prison since 2002, serving 60 years to life for second-degree murder.
“I’ve taken so much from Richmond. I’ve taken a life,” Collins says. “This is my way at least try to give back. I won’t be able to give back that life, but maybe I can stop someone else from taking a life.”
Some of the men sitting in this room come from warring Richmond gangs. In the past they couldn’t be on the same street, never mind the same room. But these days, they’re more likely to be talking about grant writing, and fundraising for elementary school uniforms.
“You want your freedom, right, I just try not to focus on that. No matter my outcome, whether I go home or not, at least I know I’m making a different, I’m useful, I’m not just thrown away, I can actually affect change somehow,” Collins says.
One thing they’re doing to affect change is running an essay contest for students at Richmond’s Leadership Public High School. For the past two years inmates have chosen topics for students to write about. It’s a way for them to connect with the students and help find solutions to violence. They even organized cash prizes for the winners, using the proceeds from snack sales in San Quentin.
“I chose the one, ‘what would you do to help out someone?’” Luis Ledesma, a tenth grader who won first place last year writing about solutions to violence in Richmond.
Leadership Public High School’s principal Jesse Madway says participating in the contest was an easy yes – even after he realized that convicted criminals would read and judge the students’ essays.
“We don’t spend a whole lot of time speaking about what happens to the people in this community who make the decisions that end up people in places like San Quentin,” Madway says. “We certainly have a lot of families who have, where, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles have run into trouble in their life and have made decisions that have gotten them into places like this.”
That said, the students aren’t allowed to have any direct contact with the prisoners. In his office, Madway tells Luis Ledesma that working with them is still a powerful experience.
“I’m sure that is just feels incredible to them that they’re connected to you writing this,” Madway tells Ledesma, “and probably for some guys that haven’t attached to a whole of positive things in their lives, to feel like they generated the idea for you to write about must have made them feel pretty good the night that they went to bed after they read your essay being part of something so good.”
Back at San Quentin, Nate Collins is staying busy with college-level classes and other groups. He says he especially appreciates The Richmond Project’s curriculum. Nearly everyone who’s participated has managed to stay out of prison after their release.
Collins thinks that could be because they talk about things like PTSD, community justice, family reunification and peer pressure. Things he wants young men like Ledesma to start thinking about now
“These are the same things that we recognize that we were going through then, we just didn’t know the words for it,” he says. “We didn’t know what is was. It took unfortunately for us to come to prison, then fortunately enough to come to San Quentin and be a part of a lot of the groups here to start to put names and words to some of the feelings that we were going through.”
The men know they’re somewhat unlikely mentors – like Collins, most of them will be incarcerated for decades to come. So they can’t do this work alone. Since the group started in 2006, Richmond City Council members and the chief of police have joined their meetings to help them accomplish their goals. The men are currently working with a pro bono lawyer to become a fully operating non-profit. And In the meantime, they’re already planning next year’s essay contest.