If There was just one thing you could tell people what would it be?
What I would try to get across is that despite what any of us thinks about the troubles in our lives, there is always someone who has it far worse. I would ask people to find gratitude no matter how hopeless things feel—just keep counting your blessings, no matter how hard it is to do, and stay mindful of others who are less fortunate.
What was the first thing you felt walking into San Quentin?
To find home in San Quentin I had to summon an unbelievable will to survive. My first step was to flush the toilet. To my surprise I found all I needed to clean my cell in the fish-kit-a towel, face cloth, and a box of state detergent. There were also a bar of state soap, a toothbrush and comb, a small can of powdered toothpaste, a small plastic cup, and two twenty-year-old National Geographic magazines, one of them from the month and year of my birth.
It seemed that time was now on my side. I started cleaning vigorously. I began with one wall, then went on to the next, scrubbing them from top to bottom as hard as I could to remove the markings and filth. I didn't stop until I had washed them down to the floor and they were spotless. If I had to sleep in here, this was the least I could do. The cell bars, sink and toilet, and floor got the same treatment. I was especially worried about the toilet. I had heard that prisoners were compelled to wash their faces in their toilets whenever tear gas was shot into the units to break up mass disruptions and the water was turned off. I imagined leaning into this toilet, and I cleaned it to the highest military standards.
I spent hours, sometimes on my hands and knees, washing down every inch of my cell-even the ceiling. When I had finished, I was convinced that I could eat a piece of candy that had dropped onto the floor. The roaches had all drowned or been killed. I blocked off all their hiding places by plugging up the holes and cracks in the walls with wet toilet paper.
How do you love a mother like you had?
I never learned how not to love the mother I had. I was placed in a foster home at 5 years old and my foster mother Mamie never let me forget my mother, to love her always. I felt extremely sad for my mother. And even years later, after I stopped praying, there was no doubt in my mind that my mother had been sick, a heroin addict, etc. I saw her as a victim.
What do you think about at night?
For decades now I have used the night for my Buddhist practice and meditation. In the past I've also spent the night writing, while other times I've been awakened by the sound of an alarm signaling that someone had hung themselves in their cell. Afterwards, I would lay down and unable to do anything else, just think of the daylight and the innocent on death row.
What would you say to us at our school if you could visit?
I believe that the most important message for any school is to teach and show kids that EVERYONE MATTERS, including those who have never been given a chance to attend school or have been kicked out of every school they’ve ever been to. They matter just as much as anyone else. It might sound simple, like just words, but I’ve seen these words bring out the best in people, and change lives, especially in inner city schools where what is being communicated is often the opposite, which isn’t cool at all.
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