A Day in the “Big House” – My visit to San Quentin
……………………..by Randy Mayfield…………………………
Some of you know that I spent the day today in San Quentin prison, one of the most famous prisons in the world. (Thanks for our thoughts and prayers!) Famous not only because one of my musical heroes, Johnny Cash, played there, but because it has housed some of the most notorious criminals in U.S. history, including Charles Manson, Richard Ramirez and it currently houses Scott Peterson.
San Quentin is located in Northern California about 20 minutes north of San Francisco bay and it’s on a beautiful bay itself in what would be truly prime real estate for building some massive and expensive homes. Here’s a quick bio. of the prison from Wikipedia; San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California opened in July of 1852. It’s the oldest prison in California with the state’s only death row for male inmates, the largest in the United States. It has a gas chamber, but since 1996, executions at the prison have been carried out by lethal injection. The prison has been featured on film, video, and television; is the subject of many books; has hosted concerts; and has housed many notorious inmates.
So today, I participated with a group of volunteers that take young men/boys into S.Q. not to be “scared straight” but more to hear about life there and to be educated about prison life. One article I read recently about the program said, “Unlike the Scared Straight prison programs of the ’70s that employed fear as a deterrent, the “Squires” use a more educational and therapeutic approach that pushes the young people to examine deeply how they get caught up in the thug life.” As one inmate said to us today, in a voice like Mohammed Ali, “We don’t scare straight, we communicate!”
Again, here’s what Wikipedia says about this program; “The San Quentin SQUIRES (“San Quentin Utilization of Inmate Resources, Experiences, and Studies”) program, which began in 1964, is reported to be the “oldest juvenile awareness program in the United States…It involves inmates at the prison interacting with troubled youths for the purpose of deterring them from crime, and was the subject of a 1978 documentary film ‘Squires of San Quentin.’”
The program is led totally by the inmates, almost all of whom are doing life in prison for murder or multiple murders! (The Squire program was also founded by an inmate more than 50 years ago.) I found the inmates who shared with us today to be some of most gentle and articulate prisoners that I’ve ever encountered.
So let me just take you through the day and share some photos of the facility. (These pictures were taken from “Google Photos” as I couldn’t take a camera in today, but they are the exact places where we were and even some of the very same people that I interacted with.)
Our first stop after clearing two or three guard posts, signing in and having our hands stamped with some kind of ultra-violet stamp. We then walked on through a large courtyard and into the main prison entrance and out into the “yard” by several inmates and to the education building where many of the rehab and teaching programs take place. We broke up into three or four groups of about six to seven inmates and six to eight guests, four or five of which were the young guys coming for some “education.”
The inmates began by sharing who they were and why they were in prison for life. Then they asked each boy to state who they were, why there were visiting today, what they had been involved with to get them in to trouble, their family situations and other behavioral “issues.” Most of the young men were either in a gang or hanging with gang members. One guy had already attempted murder (he was 17) and another young man was on probation for aggravated assault and arson! (Yea, these are some of the kids running around out there today!) And as you might imagine, all but a few come from broken homes, very dysfunctional family relationships and most are not doing well in school…when they attend.
Many shared openly and honestly, even with a parent in the room with us. One mother and son got quite emotional sharing some of their issues. The inmates handled it all so professionally and directly but with much care and honest emotion towards the young men. I won’t go into details on all that was shared, but it was quite eye-opening and I think the young visitors took a lot away with them.
After about a two hour “sharing and learning” session, we began our tour of this vast prison facility. We visited both the less violent cell blocks as well as one of the most violent cell blocks, which they affectionately call the “Badger” block, I assume because the guys are quite restless, noisy and a bit crazy like badgers! Pretty spicy language was heard as we passed by the cells.
We walked among the inmates in the “yard” as they worked out, played basketball and just hung out in their mostly segregated groups. These guys were those who had earned some “freedom” to walk around freely and do pretty much what they desired with their recreational time. Most are lifers and many have committed capital crimes, including murder, but they’ve proven over time to be responsible and trustworthy and so they have earned more rights.
Later, we would walk by another “yard” where many of the new-comers worked out and “played.” They were locked behind barb-wired fences and guards were very present as they tend to be more violent as they are awaiting their final assignment within the California Penal system.
Then we visited what they call “Condemned Row,” where the worst of the worst are held. The Center, which is actually Death Row, is where more than 750 inmates await execution. Just as we were walking by this area, a guard came by and shared a bit about his 30 years working on Death Row. He explained to the young men who had joined us to “learn” what it was like on the inside, that many of these men began their criminal careers with smaller crimes, just like many of the young visitors had committed. Stealing, doing drugs, etc. but that this had led the inmates to commit bigger crimes and eventually to murder. (Murder with “special circumstances” as they call it, which requires the Death Penalty.) Here’s a link to a brief video on prisoners on Death Row in San Quentin. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsSw0tjBEeM
After visiting some other areas of this vast correctional facility, including a walk by of the “Adjustment Center” for the very hard-core guys, we were led into the dining hall and greeted with an awesome mural of the history of California that had been drawn on both walls by an inmate using coffee grounds and shoe polish. It was quite impressive!
We then sat down to an exquisite meal of peanut butter and jelly, corn nuts, cookies, an apple and water! (Kinda makes you want to commit a crime just to have such sumptuous fare on a daily basis!!)
After lunch, we visited with some other inmates and then had a debriefing and final session to discuss the day with the young men. It was obvious from the words that these young men shared that they were truly touched that such men on the inside of a prison cared enough about them to spend their free time for an entire day just to tell them that they cared about them and wanted them to do whatever it took to avoid making the mistakes that they had made. Almost everyone of the 20 young men shared how they were grateful to the inmates and told them some of the things that they had learned. Many of the parents in attendance expressed their thankfulness as well.
During the day, I had the chance to speak and share with several of the inmates. We spoke about music, spiritual things and just life inside the walls. I spoke with a big Samoan guy who loved to do cultural dances from his homeland. He was all tatted up and he wore a huge Kukui nut necklace. He was a big guy with a soft heart. – I also spoke to J., a young man from Africa who was very excited that I had visited several countries in Africa and that could speak some Swahili. He wore a African shaped pendant around his neck with a cross cut into the country of Ethiopia where he was from. He also prayed for the entire group before we took the long walk out of San Quentin and headed home.
It was a great day and I think fruitful for both the young visitors who needed some direction and for the inmate mentors who shared their hearts with these young guys. I hope much fruit continues to be bourn from these efforts. My thanks to Larry for inviting me to come along for the exciting ride!
HAPPY TRAILS… “Trails and Trials” 5/24/2016
No, I’m not going anywhere… at least not soon! I just took a nice walk today down a beautiful trail near our family’s home in California. It’s fairly steep and it ends up on a beautiful beach. It’s called “Pinnacle Gulch.” I guess because it begins at the pinnacle of the hill and it’s a gulch. Makes sense!
I walked about two miles all total today, which is just a warm-up for my girlfriend and bride. She usually goes on for another six to eight miles! But then, she’s built for it. (and I’m lazy!) Well, anyway, once you reach the bottom of the gulch after 15 to 20 minutes of walking, you come to the beach. Then it’s a wonderful walk in the sand amongst the big rocks, the tide pools and under the God’s big beautiful blue sky. Today, as I walked by myself (I usually walk with Sharon but she’s out of town with her family) I had time to think about a lot of things. Mostly just listening to God speak to my spirit. It brought to mind the scripture that says, “Be still and know that I am God…” from Psalm 46.
As I walked, I reflected on my own walk through life and all of the trails (and trials) that I’ve walked. Admittedly, it’s been a fairly smooth walk for me. Yes, I’ve lost loved ones and I’ve been hurt deeply at times. I’ve felt the scorn of others and had people say some untrue things about me, but when I look around me, I don’t think I’ve even come close to experiencing the trials in my walk that others have faced. Losing a young child, facing cancer or another dire disease and ultimately facing death itself or the death of a spouse. I am truly thankful that in all of my years of ministry, the Lord has allowed me to walk the difficult trails with many of these hurting people and to be able to share His peace and comfort with them, but it’s still not the same as facing these things yourself.
I noticed a lot of things while walking the trail today. There was the beautiful flora and fauna, but there were also a lot of rocks that could have caused me to stumble if I wasn’t careful. Kinda like life I guess!
There were even places when the trail almost disappeared because it had been washed away and other places where the overgrowth of plants blocked the path.
Even when I came across some man-made steps to assist in the journey, they were often uneven and some of the steps were so steep that it was difficult to take them without holding on to something. Some of the man made short-cuts along the path were too narrow and steep and didn’t really help at all. They were more dangerous than the original path. (Are there enough analogies here for all of you? J) But God spoke to me in all of these things and by my paying close attention to where I was going, He showed me that I could avoid the pitfalls (and literally avoid falling in a pit!) both on today’s journey and on my journey through life.
Another interesting thing that I noticed as I finished my walk on the beach and after taking my photos of the ocean and rocks and even some jelly fish, was that as I began my ascent back up the trail to the pinnacle, my view going back up was quite different than the view coming down. I could see different plants and flowers that I hadn’t noticed because they’d been hidden on my way down the trail. I was also mostly looking upwards and not down as I climbed back up the path. I noticed that going up the steep trail, that it was more difficult and painful on my body. I even had to stop and catch my breath a few times. And as Sharon will tell you, my knees “click” due to some injuries I incurred when I was young. But when I finally made it back to the top of the pinnacle and I looked down at where I’d been, I could again see all of God’s beauty from a different angle.
All of this made me think once again of the many who have suffered great loss in their lives and how they too have to begin their journey back up the trail. I pray that God will show them many more beautiful things that they may have missed on the way down and that He might give them strength in their journey as they go through the hurt and the pain. Also that He’ll allow them times to breath and just to be still and know. And finally, that God give them the knowing, that they’re going to make it back up to the top safely… And when they get there, they’ll see His beauty once again from a different perspective.
It’s funny how God can use a little walk down a trail to remind you once again of His goodness and mercy! He’s just like that!
As Dale and Roy Rogers used to always say at the end of their TV show, “Happy Trails to You!” Walk with Him! – Randy Mayfield
“THE SACRED HEART” 5/23/2016
Often when Sharon and I are walking along the beach, we look for interesting sea- shells, sand dollars and more recently we’ve been looking at rocks. Especially for rocks shaped like a heart. Sharon found one several years ago that she wrote “I Love You” on it and gave it to me. (Yea, she’s sweet like that!) A heart often expresses our thoughts of love for one another. So I wanted to find a heart shaped rock to give to her too, so we’ve been looking. We’ve come close; I even found one today that was almost heart shaped, but not quite.
While I was walking and looking for a heart-shaped stone amongst the broken shells, little jelly fish and seaweed, God again spoke to my spirit. He said, “What you’re looking for is a man-made heart that’s shaped like a Valentine heart. That’s not even what a human heart looks like, much less what my heart is like.” Now I don’t think that He was scolding me or even humoring me, but I believe that He was simply reminding me that often we look for false idols and things that are not the best things that He desires for us. There’s nothing wrong with fun little reminders of how we love each other and even in just seeing the beauty in how God can form a stone into a heart shape for our enjoyment, but it’s a deeper beauty in knowing His heart for us. Some people, particularly in the Catholic faith, call it the “Sacre Coeur,” the Sacred Heart of God. There’s even a beautiful cathedral in Paris, France that I’ve visited called the “Basilique du Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre.”
So what is the Heart of God, the “Sacre Coeur?” I believe it’s about true love; Agape love; Sacrificial love!
Scripture tells us this in I John 4; Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him…”
And of course the familiar verse that we all learned as little kids in Sunday School; “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” – John 3:16-17
God’s heart is a heart of love. It’s a love that gave it’s all for us when Jesus died for us on the cross. It’s a heart that desires us all to come to Him and to have everlasting love and everlasting life!
I’m still looking for my “heart of stone” (no, not that one!) but just for fun. Maybe when I find it, it won’t only be a gift to the one I love so much on this earth, but also a gift to me that reminds me of the One who has a real heart for me and for the nations. The Sacre Coeur.
Love, Randy Mayfield
WHO’S YOUR HERO? – 5/22/2016
OK, so I’ve got some free time as I relax here in Calif. but please bear with me…When I’m not so busy and on the road “Doing” things, I have a chance to “Think” of some things. I hope that it’s being led by the Spirit. So here are a few thoughts about Heroes…
This is a crazy world! There are so many people who give of themselves unselfishly to help their fellow man. Some give their very lives to help others. Missionaries, men and women in our military who put their lives on the line every day, nurses and doctors who give of their time and training to save others. But too often we exalt those who are “stars” of athletics and entertainment instead. Don’t get me wrong, they’re talented people and certainly some degree of respect is due them for their gifts and talents, but “heroes?”
I know that there are those in these fields who are deserving of praise, but it’s not just due to their skills on the field or stage, but due more to their character and genuine love for others. (ie: Kurt Warner, Mike Matheny, Carrie Underwood to name a few…)
So, I just watched a television program on a professional ball player. He was a great athlete and played in the pros for a few years. He won many awards in his short career but it was cut short when he was tragically killed leaving a girlfriend and baby behind. The program referred to him as a “Hero.” But… a hero for what? He’d been arrested for drunk driving and again for aggravated assault. He publically flaunted his wealth. And yet, they retired his number and exalted his life as a great man. Now I don’t know everything about this guy of course, but it didn’t seem to me that he was a “hero” in any sense of the word, just a good athlete who made a lot of money for his team owners, himself and his friends.
Where are our priorities? Why aren’t the Nate Saint’s, Jim Elliott’s, Wang Zhiming’s and Rani Maria Vattalil’s our modern day heroes? (Yes, some Christians know who they are. You can look them up!) Why don’t we raise up Sgt. Dennis Weichel or Father John Washington, Rev. Clark Poling, Rabbi Alexander Goode and Rev. George Fox? Don’t’ know them? Here’s a great article about them; http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/03/opinion/greene-four-chaplains/
Hey, I know that I won’t change too many hearts and minds with an article like this, but if just a few people begin to think differently and learn to appreciate what so many around us are doing who truly deserve the title, “Hero,” then maybe we can make a small change in our world. And please, don’t hear me wrong, I’m not against enjoying life and I have absolutely no problem with people rooting for their favorite sports team or enjoying and singing along with your favorite pop singer. But maybe we can start looking for better examples of who our “American Idols” and heroes should be.
I hope and pray that I can leave a legacy because of my love for God, my family and my fellow man. I may never be called a “Hero” but I’m trying to do the best that I can by His grace. – Peace. rm
P.S. And yes, of course, Jesus is the ultimate hero, but that’s preaching to the choir. J