A Conversation of Race in Prison

A powerful day this week in San Quentin discussing race and power. When I told the guys in our training group (about a dozen prisoners who are training to be GRIP facilitators) that I wanted to talk about race, gender, privilege, and power, I immediately noticed guys looking down, shifting their feet, some making indiscernible grumbles and a few glancing at others with faint traces of smiles, as if to say ‘is he really trying to talk about this right now?’ I felt like the substitute teacher who walks into a class of shy, adolescent boys and announces that its time to talk about sex. Here, where guys talk about their rage, their pain, their trauma, intricate details of their murders, to talk about race was immediately touching a raw nerve. I could feel it immediately in the room, and for a moment I felt self-conscious and awkward – perhaps, I wondered, I am making the #1 mistake in a prison, by bringing out the elephant, the wooly mammoth, in the room by trying to talk about race? After all, I am white, and therefore carry privilege and a position of power in a context such as prison – a place housing many people traumatized by institutionalized racism and classism. And after all, these are men who have served decades of time, most of which was served in maximum security prison yards, where there was no choice but to align yourself with your own race. Talking to people of other races could get you stabbed. I once heard that if a riot broke out in the yard and you didn’t jump in to fight (all prison riots are battles between the races) then your cellie (cellmate) would be obligated to stab you within the next 24 hours. If your cellie (who might have become your friend) did not stab you, then he would get stabbed. This is the brutal reality. Prison is mostly an over-crowded wolf-den of abused, neglected, and traumatized people with nothing but time on their hands, no resource to rehabilitation or proper healing, hair-trigger PTSD, all organized by gangs invested in perpetuating senseless race-based competition for limited goods. It is a tinderbox for violence.


A couple of the black men spoke about the pain and confusion of discovering early on about the pervasiveness and violence of racism in their lives. There were stories of police brutality, neighborhoods segregated by race, a disconnect with white American culture portrayed in the media. A white prisoner spoke about having spent many years involved in the White Supremacy gangs, primarily in prison. His confusion about the phrase BlackLivesMatter – “what does that say,” he asked, “about Mexicans and Asians? Why is everything phrased between blacks and whites? And what does that mean about white lives, do they not matter? I mean, I’m irish. I’m 100% irish, my parents have charts tracing their lineage way back into history. That’s how I identify – when I was booked in the county jail after my crime I wanted to put my race as “other”, because I didn’t really identify as ‘white.’ I mean, I think its incredibly wrong to throw people off that train in Napa because they were black, and any police violence that is done because of someone’s skin color is black is wrong, but I am also unsure of the idea that only BlackLives matter, doesn’t that imply in some way that white lives matter less?” I took a minute to speak to that issue, talking about how it doesn’t actually mean white lives matter less – in a culture in which white privilege means that white lives matter most, the meme of #blacklivesmatters is a desperate attempt to remind our culture that black lives (and other minorities) also matter, because if you look at the statistics its evident that there is a discrepancy. To skip over to #alllivesmatter, while a compassionate and understanding instinct, can actually be a move of ‘colorblindness,’ a potentially violent whitewashing and bypassing move into ‘love’ and ‘harmony’ which actually denies the actuality and reality of so many people – which is one of experiencing painful and tragic racism that still exists. White folks actually need to say that they see color, and therefore their own privilege, rather than claim they don’t see color. That can be a slippery slope.

Then a young and thoughtful black man begins speaking about his experience: “I mean, its crazy, how me and my friends were treated growing up by the police. It ain’t right. It wasn’t right back then, and it still ain’t right now. I remember we were teenagers and straight rolling with guns. In Richmond. Someone would give us a call and tell us that a certain train would be stopping in our hood at such and such a time, and we would go and break in, and there would be cases of AK 47’s and M16’s, like brand new in boxes, and we kids, cruising around with AKs in our neighborhoods, feelin’ like the baddest boys in town, cops would just let us be. But if we in some other nice neighborhood nearby, if our tires even made some sound on the pavement, we’d be pulled over and questioned…  It ain’t right man. Seeing the police brutalizing people, brutalizing communities because their black. But at the same time, I wouldn’t be here talking and getting to know you guys (white guys). Before I came in to prison I had never really talked to white people before. Honestly I didn’t even care about most other blacks, I was just asking, ‘who’s from Richmond?’, all I cared about was the cats from my neighborhood, I didn’t even talk to other black guys from other cities, or other cultures. I was so narrowed in on my own world. I feel thankful that I keep learning and growing. Thanks for that guys.”


Everybody was animated. There were many hands up in the air. We only had 30 minutes for this topic, yet everyone who spoke had taken 5-10 minutes to talk. Clearly there was a lot to say. Once the vacuum seal was broken, and it was seen to be safe to talk about it, its like everyone had a hundred things they wanted to share about it. Someone said they had a hundred thoughts about it they could have shared. It’s a conversation we’re going to continue, even if it takes 4 or 5 weeks. I feel convinced that race is now at a crucial centerpoint, a central intersection of so many issues. It arises in discussion about sociological, political, financial and historical phenomena, in connection to art, music, literature, and creativity, but I am most interested in how it is emerging more and more in conversations around psychology and inter-generational trauma, in philosophy, cosmology, and religion. How can there be conversations (in this case) about trauma, grief, loss, psychology, anger, rage, violence, nonviolence, faith, spirituality, healing and transformation without the ever-present but often silenced specter of race and its legacies of either privilege or trauma? Blessed to be exploring with these kindred souls. Here’s to taking the fist steps…

One thought on “A Conversation of Race in Prison

  1. Thank you for this, Jesse.
    I just picked out one to try, and it was Race. Oh my. So insightful. Possibly inciteful, too. But so compelling that I want to follow your chronicle as the weeks of exploration continue.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s