Going to San Quentin Soon


I’ve received word back that I am now approved to visit and on the visitor’s list for San Quention. SQ is the big (and fairly famous) prison in the Bay Area of California. What many people don’t know is that it is also a facility with an incredible amount of volunteers and volunteer work. There are all kinds of groups and individuals meeting with inmates to try to help their lives or give them opportunities.

There has been a Zen sangha there for ten years or so. Most of the volunteers for it are affiliated with the San Francisco Zen Center or East Bay Community of Mindful Living. It meets every week on Sunday evening and has a fairly regular population of inmates during its existence, though people do tend to come and go as inmates get transferred around, released, or simply move on.

A number of years back, I spent about a year and a half volunteering at McNeil Island in Washington State (the only surviving prison on an island, as far as I know). This was in a Neopagan context, working with a friend who had been running a group out of the chapel there for a few years. My own practice was transitioning to Buddhism at this point but he needed help, effectively running a one man shop on his own. I began helping him and quickly wound up running things as he was forced to go to Iraq for our lovely war there. Eventually, I simply couldn’t maintain the level of commitment involved, especially with the prison being hours and a ferry ride away, but I have been wanting to go back to working with inmates. The group at San Quentin, with its large volunteer pool, is a good opportunity to get back into this sort of thing. It’s only a 25 minute or so drive away on the other side of the Bay.

As I’ve mentioned to people before, prison really strips things to their essentials for a lot (if not all) people. The inmates have so little control over their lives and, really, so little to actually do that they wind up having a lot of things that we all tend to ignore in our lives made unavoidable. They have nothing but time to think and, if so inclined, they have ample opportunity something as straightforward as a meditation and study practice. Given the barrenness of life in prison, as well as the stresses, anything that can be done to support inmates in practice should be done, in my opinion.

This is leaving aside the unfortunately large part of the population that thinks inmates should be locked away for life, treated like animals, and forgotten by society while they are being punished. That doesn’t really play well with Buddhist ethics though. These people made mistakes, often many of them, and are, justly or not, paying a price for them. Cause and effect is karma in its essential form. That being true, they are still not any different than you or me and you have to ask yourself, when working with inmates, how easily it could be you on the inside there. I’ve certainly wondered at times. It is important to treat them as people and give them opportunities. If they don’t choose to avail themselves to them, that’s one thing, but it is one of the best ways to help them turn their lives around when they want to do so. We have one of the largest prison populations in the world and these are men and women that are shit upon by society, even once it is all over. The Dharma is for everyone, not just for supposedly perfect people. Everyone!