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Interview with Yukari Iwatani Kane: Volunteering at San Quentin

Yukari Iwatani Kane at San Quentin State Prison

I recently wrote about criminal justice reform and James Forman Jr.’s book, Locking up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. When I attended his talk at a local bookstore, he shared some of the ways in which we could all support the cause. One of the examples he mentioned was volunteering to teach in a prison setting. Forman himself taught a class in a Connecticut prison and found it very rewarding.

Yukari Iwatani Kane is a book author and journalist who teaches writing and journalism at San Quentin. (She is the author of Haunted Empire: Apple After Steve Jobs and previously worked as a journalist at the Wall Street Journal and Reuters.)  Here’s what she has to say about her own experience teaching journalism and writing to inmates.

Are you interested in issues of criminal justice reform?

I really wasn't before. I read about them of course, but it was something that affected a part of society that I had no connection to. Now, I'm absolutely interested. When I hear of a change in law, for example, there are real people I now know who will be impacted. I see names and faces now.  

What motivated you to sign up to teach at San Quentin?

I heard that they were looking for a teacher through a friend, and I had the time and flexibility. It came at a time when I had just started teaching journalism and wanted to gain more experience in it. I had also been thinking about how many successful writers that I respect seem to have opened themselves up to new worlds and new possibilities even when they don't know where it's going to lead.

I had always covered news with a national and international business focus, and I never had an occasion to cover criminal justice, social justice or prisons, so I was curious about it. My position on issues like the death penalty are "progressive," so to speak, but I wanted to see for myself what prison was like, what the challenges were and be knowledgeable about it. I hoped it would help me grow as a person and as a journalist, and it has.
What are your students like as writers? What do they like to write about?

I teach journalism at San Quentin News, which is the inmate-run prison newspaper, but I think many of them also write fiction and essays too. Writing is a way for them to express themselves, just as it is for all of us. They aren't any different in that way.  

What impact has the class had on your students... and on you?

I think my students gain confidence in themselves in addition to becoming better writers, observers and reporters.

The newspaper is also probably one of the most diverse parts of the prison, so they learn to work with each other regardless of color, religion or socio-economic background.

For me, it's been perspective changing. Every week, these guys remind me of what's really important in life. They help me appreciate the small things like the freedom to walk in and out of San Quentin. Or to be able to have anything I want for breakfast. Or to be able to sleep in my own bed in my own house with my family.

Professionally, it reminds me why journalism is important, why I do what I do.
What do you wish people knew about your students?

First and foremost that they're real people. Many of them had no one who cared about them growing up. And some of them -- obviously not all -- are working really hard to rehabilitate themselves.

I was just there last week, and I told them that we were only going to give out certificates of completion in my class to those who I feel have really demonstrated an ability to use what I taught them because I want them to learn, not just to show up. You might think they wouldn't like that, but most of them really appreciated that because they didn't have anyone who cared enough to say "Stop, let's make sure you've really got this before we move on." I once talked to a guy who had gone to school all the way up to 10th grade, but when he came to San Quentin and was tested for reading, he was only at a first grade level.

What did you find most surprising about teaching at San Quentin?

Almost everything was surprising, so it's hard to know where to start. The first thing you would notice if you walked in for the first time is how beautiful it can be inside. When you step in through the main gate, there is a courtyard with a beautifully maintained rose garden and sculpted bushes. Across the way is the medical clinic, which still has an old historic brick facade. When you turn a corner, you enter the yard, which has a tennis court in addition to a basketball court and baseball field. There are geese on the field among the guys. Occasionally I see them running with guys who are jogging.

Beyond it is the education center, which offers a ton of programs. As an inmate, you can get your GED (high school equivalency test) and even a bachelor's degree. San Quentin is a prison that inmates really work hard to get into because it's got more education and rehabilitation programs that most prisons in the country. There's even a marathon club called the 1,000 mile club. To run a marathon, the guys have to run around the yard almost 200 times. It's really incredible. There are different kinds of levels of inmates at San Quentin, but the majority of them (called the mainline population) have freedom of movement during the day. They have jobs and they take classes, participate in self-help groups, and work out.

I've also been surprised at how not scary it was for me personally. That's not to say that there's no violence or that it can't be scary for them at times, but I don't see it. The men are some of the most respectful people I've ever met and they are very appreciative. They are also very hungry for knowledge.

Of course, there are sobering things you learn too. On the left side of the beautiful courtyard, for
example, is the building where some inmates are in solitary confinement. The toilets in the yard are completely open, reminding you of how little privacy they have. If you watch the second episode of the first season of Kamau Bell's Emmy Award Winning "United Shades of America", he actually visits San Quentin and you can see much of this for yourself.

Is there a particular inmate whose story has especially moved you?

Almost every inmate I meet has a story that moves me, but I can't talk about them for their privacy. The one person I would like to mention is Arnulfo Garcia. He was the executive editor of the San Quentin News and his warm and charismatic leadership has been instrumental in turning the paper into what it is today, and creating one of the most diverse and capable staff in the prison. He also was responsible for some important restorative justice programs inside. After 16 years in prison, he was released two months ago, but died in a car accident just over a week ago on his way to look at a property for a re-entry house he wanted to start. All of us are still mourning his loss. He was one of the first people I met, and he was always looking out for us volunteers, making sure we were doing ok. His last words to me before he left prison was "You're doing a great job. Just keep doing what you're doing." He had been destined for greatness, and I know I'm not the only one who had been looking forward to seeing how he would have affected even more positive change. He was truly an inspiration and he will always inspire me. It's not often that one has a chance to meet someone as special as he was.

You're a journalist- is there any question I missed that I really should have asked?

Can't think of any!

Thank you, Yukari!


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