Behind the Bars: Exploring the Prison System Shannon Donelan and carolyn french

The dimly lit room is alive with love. A woman feeds her husband french fries. A father throws his daughter above his head, she squeals with delight. A couple poses for a picture in front of a waterfall mural, staring affectionately into each other’s eyes. Siblings chat about current family drama. Hand-in-hand, another young couple walks laps around the room as they stare at what is beyond the window.

But there are bars on the windows. The men are dressed in blue, and “Prisoner” is bolded on the backs of their shirts. A security guard armed with guns roams nearby. This is the visiting room of San Quentin. These are the humans who live behind bars and the loved ones who they rarely get to see.

For 40 years, Guss Edwards has lived this life. Edwards, who goes by Lumumba, a 60-year-old African-American male, has lived in over six California prisons, including Pelican Bay, Vacaville, Tracey DVi, Old Folsom, New Folsom, Tahachee and now San Quentin.

Lumumba recalls waking up one night to the police shoving his father into a police car, and seeing his mother with her face bloody and busted open outside of his home. He was then brought to juvenile hall and after that, foster care. Four years later he was reunited with his father, only to learn that his mother had died. His father had remarried a woman who was physically abusive to Lumumba, and he faced neglect in a household with 12 step siblings.

“I was at home but still felt like I was in the juvenile system,” Lumumba said, as he sat to tell his story amongst fellow inmates and strangers in the middle of California’s oldest prison’s visitor center.

It was the rage and resentment he felt towards his his past that drove Lumumba to act up. He robbed pimps, stole from stores and sold drugs after his father left in order to become the “man of the house” and provide for his family.

At age 19, a friend suggested they rob a shop in Pittsburg, California. The two of them went into the store with the plan of taking the cash register money and leaving. They were armed with two handguns.

In the store there were three people: two women and a little boy. Lumumba shot both women, one of whom died. He ran from the scene, but was caught by a cop and later sentenced to between seven years and life in prison.

“There was so much anger in me that I didn’t value her life. I didn’t value mine. I felt pain but I didn’t give a damn,” Lumumba said.

The young boy in the store that day, who was the son of the woman who died, has been active in Lumumba’s parole hearings, and Lumumba said that he hopes to continue making amends with him by deterring other people from violence.

“I let the son know that my life now belongs to public safety. Apology isn’t something that can be represented verbally, it’s by action. I’ll let him know that every day. My apology has to be represented by deeds and actions every morning when I wake up,” Lumumba said.

While serving his time, Lumumba has taken advantage of many rehabilitative programs such as Guiding Rage into Power (GRIP), a program that helps prisoners to deal with anger and aggression, and Healing Dialogue and Action.

Additionally, Lumumba has corresponded with numerous pen pals, including Brad Widelock, a Kent Middle School math teacher and advocate for criminal justice reform, through Human Rights Penpals (HRPP). The two have been corresponding for around a year, and have formed a close bond.

“I am everything that Lumumba is supposed to be suspicious of. I am White. I live [in Marin]. I am well-educated. What reason should he have to trust me?” Widelock said. “So our trust built up slowly, over time, over the course of letters, over conversations that we had.”

Widelock said he recognizes his privilege and uses it to aid in prison rehabilitation among other social justice causes.

“The more you can get outside of yourself, I think for everybody, the better you are. Realize who you are and what you have and what other people don’t,” Widelock said. “It’s really easy to take things for granted. It’s very easy to take for granted that I’m a White male, I’m 54 years old, and I represent the power structure.”

Yet within the prison doors, Widelock becomes a minority. However, he said that his background and current lifestyle make him comfortable with not being a part of a majority that he generally is in Marin while he visits San Quentin. The high-security walls of San Quentin hold a different world than the affluent county that lies outside, but Widelock understands the value of viewing life from an opposing perspective.

“I grew up with a lot of black people, I grew up with a lot of Puerto Rican people, I grew up with people who I was told were bad, because they were different,” Widelock said. “Everything I’d been told about people of other races I discovered for myself was false. And that was a very wide awakening for my world.”

Widelock is involved with a variety of organizations such as Uncommon Law, The Essie Justice Group and California Coalition of Women Prisoners. Additionally, he has worked with the Resolve to Stop the Violence program (RSVP) which aims to teach criminals about understanding empathy.

“Learning how to be empathetic, learning how to express it, is difficult. It is difficult especially if your self-conception and what you have been is the “tough man.” Now you have to be the vulnerable person. That’s hard to do,” Widelock said.

Regardless of the facade many prisoners put up, at the end of the day the emotions are there and oftentimes they build up, according to Lumumba.

“Lumumba says it best, there’s not a guy in there who hasn’t cried on their pillow one night. Not one. And he would know,” Widelock said.

Widelock worked with the group of prisoners associated with RSVP in person, and described them as a community. The members were very welcoming towards him, and each played a specific role within the group.

“If they weren’t wearing all orange or all blue, they could be Elks members, or a sports team, or a high school class,” Widelock said.

As a middle school teacher, Widelock notices parallels between his students and the prisoners he works with.

“When I’m [with RSVP prisoners], right after a couple thousand kids that I’ve taught, I could look around the room and say, ‘I know you. I don’t know what your name is but I’ve seen you before. I know what you were like when you were 13,’” Widelock said. “Because I have children [that] are victims of domestic violence in my room. I know how they act. I have children who are victims of sexual abuse. Statistics on people who have committed crimes show that most are victims of crimes themselves.”

Widelock has also volunteered with Dolores Canales, a criminal justice reform advocate whose involvement began after her own incarceration and watching her son’s imprisonment.

“I think the one thing that is important is we have to remember the way that prisons are designed right now, they are designed in an inhumane standard. Humans were not meant to be kept in cement and steel,” Canales said.

Canales believes that serious rehabilitation must occur to improve prisons to become more humane and create a cycle that is not a revolving door.

“That's why I really believe in restorative justice and healing because at the end of the day these human beings are going to be returned into our communities. They are going to be our neighbors. They are going to be in our schools, in our stores, right amongst us. So treating them as if separate when they are really not is not the solution,” Canales said.

Four times a year Canales organizes bus trips from Los Angeles to Pelican Bay for families to see their loved ones who are inside of the prison. The trip provides transportation, a hotel room, food and more, which many families wouldn’t be able to afford on their own.

The last trip she organized was on Oct. 27, but was originally scheduled for December. Canales said that she moved the trip up after getting a phone call from Marrion Hawkins, the mother of a Pelican Bay prisoner, who hadn’t seen her son in 14 years.

Jeff Hawkins, Marrion’s son, was transferred multiple times between prisons, which made it hard for her to visit him. On top of this, Marrion's work commitment and lack of proper transportation to make the long trip prevented her from visiting her son.

“I’ve prayed and longed for this. God promised me that I would see him before the leaves fall, and that was two years ago,” Marrion said. “And so it’s actually happening this year, and I’m so truly grateful for this.”

Beyond the bus trips, Canales has been interviewed by Oprah, featured in the movie “13,” worked with a number of organizations and advocated for the Pelican Bay hunger strikes.

In 2013, Lumumba was one of the 29,000 people who participated in the hunger strikes fighting against the use of solitary confinement, according to the New York Times. For 20 days, all he had was an eight-ounce glass of water per day. He describes how they worked across gang lines to initiate this change and attack the administration together.

“You can feel the camaraderie around the enemy and friends. We built a bond of unity. We put our race and our gang affiliations behind us. Let's unify. Let's go after the administration,” Lumumba said.

In 20 days, two inmates died and two months later, seven more. Some had starved to death, one had passed out and hit his head on the corner of a bed.

“That’s why we wanted to jeopardize our lives for this. We got sick of it, being classified as monsters,” Lumumba said.

Angelica Camacha, a volunteer on Canales’s bus trips to Pelican Bay, became very involved in the hunger strike when it began. Camacha writes about both the hunger strikes and the criminalization of Latinos. She, alongside others, started with random, improvised protests, press conferences and talks at universities. Camacha said she would even conduct prayer circles, doing anything to bring light to the strike.

Camacha’s interest in social justice stemmed from two of her cousins: one of whom was shot and killed, and the other who had been in and out of the prison system system since he was 16, and had been on the run from the law for breaking parole.

"When [my cousin] was shot [my other cousin] had to come back, and they arrested him at gunpoint at his funeral. That moment just really stuck with me, and we grew up together so I didn't understand how that had happened," Camacha said.

"I was trying to answer how my cousin ended up in a casket and how I ended up in college," Camacha said.

In addition to her work with social justice organizations and the Pelican Bay hunger strike, Canales is working to end solitary confinement. She and her son both spent time in the “SHU,” (special housing unit) or solitary confinement.

“[My son] stays real upbeat because he studies a lot, but one time he wrote me and he said, ‘I have no doubt that this place was meant to drive men mad or to suicide.’ He said, ‘I know because I’m living in it,’” Canales said.

Lumumba was also placed in Pelican Bay and spent time in solitary confinement. An avid artist, Lumumba drew out tattoo sketches, and when guards found his drawings they went through his address book, finding a name and number of a gang member and labeling the drawings as gang affiliated. Lumumba maintains that he had no idea of either of these things, but they put him in the SHU.

“They told me, ‘We hadn’t gotten a Black guy in a while so we had to get you,’” Lumumba said.

According to Lumumba, some guards would perpetuate prisoner stereotypes to discourage people from visiting by warning them of the unstable people inside.

“They tell the rest of society ‘Pelican Bay [is] full of the most dangerous people, just forget about them,’ [They would] even tell people who came up there to help,” Lumumba said, describing how oftentimes human rights lawyers would drive up there only to be turned around by guards warning of the “monsters” inside.

Lumumba’s many years in prison have gained him respect from fellow prisoners. He said that he had no problem getting along with fellow inmates, but prefered to stay within his distinct group of friends.

“‘Birds of a feather flock together.’ I flock with those who want to save lives. I keep my circle close,” Lumumba said.

Lumumba described some of the other prisoners he had encountered during his years in the system, one of which was a gang member who had tattoos of the names of all of the rival gang members he had murdered. Despite this, he was in prison for only a year for possession of marijuana.

“He’s a certified killer. And what is he in here for? Possession of marijuana. And he’s back out there now. That’s the kind of justice system we have,” Lumumba said.

After spending 40 years in prison, Lumumba can now clearly pinpoint aspects of his life that impacted his decision-making and led him to where he is today.

Lumumba talked about how crucial it is for prisoners to have a safe space where they feel comfortable opening up and releasing emotions.

“There's nothing better than talking to people in the same situation; if you don’t release that valve you become dangerous. No matter what, you have to release that valve and let the pressure out and talk to people,” Lumumba said.

To release the pressure that Lumumba spoke of, people such as Widelock and Canales are determined to bring social reform to the prison system, and create healthier and more effective facilities.

“You can’t get people to change if you don't provide them with opportunity,” Widelock said. “It’s not going to happen. There’s not a single factor as there is a set of factors. You need to create environments where people can be successful.”

Lumumba was granted parole on Oct. 31. Governor Jerry Brown has the next 120 days to either affirm or deny the parole.

“Now we have to get up out of the fire and heal ourselves. We owe our lives to society. We owe our lives to public safety,” Lumumba said.

Artwork by Guss (Lumumba) Edwards

Photos by Peter Mert

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