Sentimental Value: The personal value of an object, place or pet derived from the personal memories associated with it.
—Jake’s Sunday Post
This baseball has 216 single red stitches just like every other baseball made by Rawlings, but it has a very special sentimental value for me. It was a gift to me from a prisoner who plays on the San Quentin Giants baseball team in California’s notorious San Quentin State Prison.
In 2008 I went on a tour of the prison with a friend of mine who worked there and what I learned that day will stay with me until the day I die. I am not going to talk about prison over-crowding, death penalty pro/con, justice vs injustice, and the escalating cost of incarceration. This story is about a one-on-one conversation with a man who is paying the price for a heinous act of violence.
San Quentin State Prison is located in California’s Marin County, just north of San Francisco. After signing all the requisite forms —…if taken hostage, no attempts to negotiate for your release will be made by Prison Officials…— and learning about proper behavior —…if you see the prisoners sitting, kneeling, or lying on the ground, stop what you are doing and hold absolutely still, or risk being shot by guards…— my friend Ray (not his real name) led me across the prison yard to his workplace.
We met Bob (not his real name), a prison trustee, who was hard at work administering a Prison Database. Saturday was not his usual workday, he just happened to be there catching up on a backlog of work when we unexpectedly showed up.
Introductions were made and my nervous attitude was becoming apparent to the three of us. Ray explained our reason for being there and Bob seemed genuinely happy to have company. He went back to his Database while I got the Ten Cent Tour and overview of Prison Life.
Seated in a small classroom were half a dozen wide-eyed teen-agers listening to two prisoners talking, a guard was posted along a side wall. Ray explained that this was a group of at-risk teens who were in a program modeled along the lines of Scared Straight. They were being educated about the path of life that they were headed down by men who were already there.
Ray explained to me that approximately 3,000 volunteers a month came into San Quentin to participate in outreach programs such as tennis, baseball and adult education, literacy and art classes. My understanding of the theory behind these classes is that the more chances a prisoner has to occupy his time productively, the less likely he is to act out and lose those privileges due to a physical riot/altercation. Busy hands are, indeed, happy hands. The system works well, for the most part, but it is definitely not a 100% solution (click here for a look at the problem).
After touring the facility we were once again back in Bob’s area. Ray told me that Bob played baseball for the prison team and, although I am not a follower of the game, we had a pleasant conversation about the San Quentin Giants organization and their recent season. After a lull in the conversation, Bob said, “Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” I replied.
Sensing my ill ease, Bob got right to the point, “You have seen countless prison movies in your life, am I right?”
“Hollywood blockbusters, made-for-tv movies, HBO, Showtime, they all have created a mystique about what it is like to be behind bars, right?”
“Well here you are. You are in the famous San Quentin Prison, talking to an inmate. Considering all of the exposure that you have had in the movies and on television, and knowing that you would actually be here today, you have a question in your mind that you want to ask someone today. I am that person, go ahead and ask me anything. I will give you an honest answer.”
“No, I’m good. I don’t have any questions.” I lied. I did have a question for Bob but I was too scared to ask it.
Bob smiled wide, he knew exactly what was going on inside my head, “I am serious, this may be the only opportunity for you to get an answer to that question.”
“Well, you see, I don’t want to, I mean I am not sure if, I don’t want to offend…” I stammered.
Bob jumped in and helped me out, “Just ask the question, it will be alright. I will answer it and take no offense. Believe it.”
I looked at Bob and then at Ray. I glanced around the room, it was just the three of us. I took a quick look out the window and saw all of the prisoners either kneeling down or prone on the ground. “Oh, look. Everyone is having a timeout.”
“That’s not a timeout,” Bob said, “stay away from the window, hold still and ask your question.”
There is a certain comfort in the directness of others and this was one of those times. I took another look at Bob and realized that his eyes were not portals into Hell, but were two calm, placid lakes. He had a sense of calm that I did not. This was his ‘house’ and, as a gracious host, he asked me a question that I, as a gracious guest, felt an obligation to answer.
“What did you do that landed you in this place?” There, I got it out. He was right: I did have a burning question based on my perception of prisons.
Bob grinned and said, “There, was that so hard? That is a fair question and I will tell you exactly what happened.”
I learned that he and I had a lot in common, even though we were separated by 10 to 12 years of age:
- Bob had a sports scholarship to college which was cut short by an injury. I had some academic scholarships to college which were cut short by bad grades.
- Bob joined the IBEW apprenticeship program and became a Journeyman Inside Wireman (electrician). So did I.
- As the economy ebbed and flowed Bob and his wife argued more and more about money, the lack of it and the next infusion of it. My wife and I have had those same conversations.
- Bob began to drink more and more to cope with the stresses in his life. Been there, done that.
- One night in a blackout, Bob beat his wife to death. I…..I haven’t done that.
- Bob is currently serving a sentence of 26 years-to-life for his actions that night. He has no expectation of parole.
My mind was reeling, “Thank you for your honesty,” I said to Bob.
“No problem. I told you that I would give you an honest answer.”
“Can I ask you one more question?”
“Go ahead,” Bob said.
“How do you get through the day —day after day, year after year— knowing that you will never get out of this prison? I mean, how do you find the strength?”
“I am of service to others,” Bob said. “I help other inmates with the skills that I possess. For example, I tutor a couple of guys who are studying to get their GEDs. I write letters home for guys who dictate to me because they are illiterate and can’t write. Sometimes I just sit and listen to guys who need someone to talk to. I take an interest in others and help them do what they cannot do on their own.”
I was struck by what Bob said. The idea of helping others as opposed to doing for others resonated in me at that moment.
Bob said, “I would like you to have a memento of your visit today,” as he reached into a box of well-used baseballs and selected one. Bob autographed the ball that you see in this post and it sits in a square plastic display box across the room from my computer.
The gift of the autographed baseball is a tangible reminder of my visit that day, but the greatest gift I received is the lesson that Bob passed on to me: Be of service and help others. No matter what our circumstances are, we have a gift that can help someone else if we are open to the possibility.