What has been your favorite school assignment, and why? What did you learn?
My favorite school assignment was in English 101A. We were issued some books to read and one was Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass. This work woke me up, and the impact has been that I now value an education. In my teen years, my feelings about school fell somewhere in between indifference and hate. Now, after reading Douglass’ account, I wished that his work had been required reading in my youth. An epiphany hit me the day I discovered this secret: education will free you, and without it you are a slave. Today I view education as a remedy for the feelings of powerlessness which have besieged me most of my life. Presently in this state of empowerment, I believe that the human capacity of all people’s potential is unlimited through the transformational power of education.
What piece of work are you most proud of?
The piece of work that I am most proud of is the paper that I wrote in Sociology class, promoting equality between men and women. My upbringing wholly lacked healthy representations of male-female interactions, developing in me a very skewed perspective of the world, which remained hidden within. For this reason, I’m able to recognize the tremendous distance that my perspective has shifted from the unhealthy male chauvinism to a healthy feminism. I am incarcerated for physical, sexual, economic, and emotional violence that I perpetrated on my underage girlfriend, who, six months later, gave birth to our daughter. Today, twenty years later, I am able to equate all women as equals to men and I appreciate the opportunity to actively speak out in defense in the very area that was formerly my blind spot.
If you could share one piece of advice with incoming students, what would it be?
Right at this very moment, you are where you are supposed to be. Whatever needs that you have, we—the Patten Family at San Quentin—shall help you to fulfill. Don’t overload yourself, as feeling overwhelmed may render you less productive. Push yourself, test your limits, and settle into your sweet spot. Focus on what you want and never give up. The conduct of your actions will always reveal where your focus truly lies. I took English 204 three times before I finally passed the class. I have dropped many classes and the “W” for a withdrawal is no stranger to my college transcripts. The requirements to graduate adjusted to add English 102, after I thought I was finished with English. Prison violence, quarantines, and modified programs kept me out of class, but it all served to sharpen my focus. Adversity and all the haters are necessary for growth of character. So where you find yourself right now, know that you are already destined to be an overcomer. What you put in, is exactly what you will get back; give 100% and value your education.
Beyond completing your AA Degree, what goals have you set for yourself?
I plan to use my education to give back to the community that I once took from. I hope to help the same vulnerable population that I came from, and push the educational system in America to amend the pre-K through 12th curriculum. Besides rethinking the process of funding that leaves schools across our nation inadequate and unequal, I want a curriculum on emotional intelligence included as an asset of equal, if not greater importance in the state business of human development. Emotional intelligence includes the development of interpersonal skills that many of us lacked in our formative school years of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Focus in this area will drastically impact the amount of people with behavior problems as it addresses the core problem of criminal thinking which leads to antisocial behavior. This direction removes all fears and barriers that make people apprehensive about being transparent, allowing them to pinpoint how they feel and why. Whatever else I do in life, I want to help normalize emotional intelligence.
Tell us about an instructor or tutor who has been especially influential in your experience as a student. How has s/he impacted you?
The instructor and tutor who has been especially influential in my experience as a student is none other than Alessandra Wollner, a.k.a. Allie. Reintroducing us to the joy in learning, she has done more to motivate me than anyone in this world. Figuratively holding our hand along the way, she came back the next semester as a tutor, and I trust that wherever she is, she is effectively teaching her students. First impressions are powerful and she, along with the other two instructors, chose a stellar curriculum. Ms. Wollner’s ultimate concern for one of the most vulnerable social classes is a testament to how much passion she has for teaching and reveals the high esteem in which she holds her students. Allie allowed me to feel human again, to feel like an important part of the whole. Her affinity for those on the lowest rungs of society restored a part of me that was lying dormant for so long, and for this reboot, she shall always be a part of me. Amazingly, many more volunteers have blazed the same trail, and this is why I trust the Prison University Project. Thank you for giving me what I felt so unworthy of.
Who are the people in your life who have helped you succeed? Tell us about them.
First and foremost, the one who has helped me to succeed is my creator Yahweh, for he gives me the strength to move forward in peace when I feel like the world has abandoned me. Secondly, the Prison University Project and all the staff (my extended family). Last but definitely not least is my daughter Brittany. When she was born I was suddenly forced to be concerned about another human being. I wanted her to be proud to have me in her life. “Don’t worry about it!” was what she repeated to me over a prison phone call. She was only two years old but full of wisdom beyond her years. Fourteen years later, she gave me the most effective approach to homework. “Whenever I get the assignment, I do it right away,” she told me. As a habitual procrastinator, this strategy has helped me to lower my anxiety. Brittany is the best thing that has ever happened to me. Several months after my arrest, she was born. She gave me feelings that I had previously classified as inappropriate. I was later to begin my journey of embracing my feelings of concern, compassion, and belonging. I am so very blessed, and forever thankful for her love in my life.
What do people most commonly misunderstand about the criminal justice system? And about incarcerated people? What do you wish people understood?
The most commonly misunderstood belief about the criminal justice system is that longer sentences and harsher punishments deter crime. In fact, prisons across the nation are full of crime and contraband, and it is by design. The irony is that for many of us, at the time of the offense, we were 100% convinced it was the correct or only thing to do to survive. We lacked critical thinking, due to the fact that we had embraced the criminal thinking errors which gave birth to violent antisocial behaviors. Unfortunately, the violence experienced then references the strategy of violence in the mind as a solution that is both temporary and ineffective. Frustrated by the contradiction, we fall into hopelessness that is disguised as not giving an “f” word. The good news is that education is the most effective, evidence-based crime deterrent. What the criminal justice system lacks, the restorative justice system can revive. The criminal justice system serves the system itself, while restorative justice serves the needs of humanity, involving the whole community. As human beings, we all have value. The question is, “where do you want us to have value?” As anti-social habitual offenders that escalate, or as pro-social, productive members of society?