Speakers share stories of rehabilitation, redemption

Someone who didn’t learn to read until age 20 can explain the stock market and the essentials of money management in such a way that even the most hardened criminal could understand that crime doesn’t pay.

Educating inmates about money management is pivotal to criminal justice reform, according to Curtis “Wall Street” Carroll. He was one of more than 20 speakers at TEDx at San Quentin State Prison (SQ), a day of storytelling and inspiration inside California’s oldest prison.

“Financial illiteracy has been a disease that has crippled our nation,” Carroll said during his TEDx talk (TED stands for “Technology, Entertainment, Design). “Seventy percent of criminals are driven by money issues. You can’t have full rehabilitation without learning money management.”

The SQ event was co-produced by SQ’s Public Information Officer Lt. Sam Robinson, Delia Cohen and San Quentin Television. The theme was “Life Revealed,” and according to the program was intended to encourage new perspectives and ideas through discussions and partnerships that lead to meaningful and lasting solutions to building safer and healthier communities.

Host Phil Melendez told the audience: “The men in front of you are exercising emotional intelligence. We are going to show you lives that have a purpose.”

The day included performances by the San Quentin Hawaiian dancers, several music and spoken word pieces, and discussions about the healing process of theater by members of Shakespeare at San Quentin. Inmate artwork lined the halls of the chapel where TEDx was held, and on breaks inmates mingled with dozens of outside guests who had made the trek to prison on a drizzly day, not knowing what to expect.

Carroll, also known to inmates as the “Oracle of San Quentin,” talked about growing up in Oakland. His criminal life began at age 14, with him and his mother withstanding homelessness in a drug-infested environment. By age 17, he was convicted of murder/robbery and given a life sentence.

He said his inspiration to learn how to read was when he heard about stocks.

“I read everything, ingredients on food packets, candy wrappers – everything,” he recounted. “The feeling I got from reading, was amazing. Then, I picked up the business section of the newspaper. I wanted to find these rich white folks. After I owned up to the fact I turned to crime, I wanted to teach people how to manage money. When I learned that over 60 percent of Americans have less than 1,000 dollars in savings, I was surprised.”

A finance expert himself, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin discussed obstacles to getting out of prison, reentering society and finding employment.

“Those incarcerated need to continue to take advantage of opportunity and we as a society need to make sure that people have access to opportunity to make contributions to our society, Rubin said. “People outside of prison need to learn that you are not just the crime you committed. We are all, every one of us, much more than the single worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Troy Williams, who spent 18 years behind bars, returned to SQ to speak about his experience re-entering society, and the challenges he faced starting over after prison. He began with an apology to his daughter and victims of his crimes and then drew on the struggles of reentry.

“I felt like I was paroled to a neighborhood of throwaways,” Williams said. “It was the tools that I learned while in prison that protected me from harm. I had to get away from the feeling of worthlessness. I watched about 30 men succumb to the pressures of the environment … When things got rough for me, I thought about my daughter, my mother. I thought about all the people depending on my success. I had a plan that I’d waited 20 years to get to. I knew that I needed to build a support group. I knew I couldn’t do it alone; so I reached out to the only community I knew, the volunteers in this audience here today.”

“Most of society is missing the benefits of what the men in here have to offer. There are many men here who are many teachers. We need to learn how to take the skills that the men here have developed and bring them to the community.”

Crime survivor Dionne Wilson told the audience how she found forgiveness for her husband’s murderer.

“July 25, 2005, my life changed forever,” Wilson said with tears falling. “I went to bed thinking tragedy wouldn’t touch me. I thought as long our prisons were filled, I was safe.”

Wilson described her emotional turmoil while seeking closure. Through the Insight Prison Project, she connected with people who had similar stories to hers.

“I learned that the key to my healing was connecting with people who had done great harm and were seeking their own healing,” Wilson said. “It was clear that more suffering wasn’t the answer; the key to healing comes from programs like VOEG (Victims Offender Education Group).”

“To society: I ask that you set aside what you think you know and get curious. Don’t ignore the harm they’ve caused. But, be open to the fact that people change. I ask you be open to the fact that redemption is possible.”

Chung Kao spoke about the benefits of meditation and yoga in search of peace. He said he spent his first 13 years incarcerated pursuing self-discovery. Flowing through a series of poses, Kao shared his journey with the audience.

“Violence to violence was the way I thought,” Kao said. “But, deep inside, I felt something wasn’t right. I wasn’t me. I returned to center, time and again. He who overcomes self is mighty. I found center through meditation. I believe if everyone looks inside, they’ll have such a transformation.”

Bob Barton, the Inspector General, discussed the importance of rehabilitation.

“Punishment is not a long-lasting solution to crime. There has to be rehabilitation,” he said. “Transformation is a process and is the only thing that will have a long-lasting effect on society.”

San Quentin Warden Ron Davis thanked the crowd for coming, and the organizers of the event for putting in months of hard work to make it happen.

“Everybody has their ideas about prison, but two things echo from today: opportunity and responsibility,” Davis said. “Hearing these guys talk about accepting responsibility and then having them take advantage of the opportunities that we’ve provided will help them become successful members of our society.”

~ Story by Juan Haines, San Quentin News, and photos by Raphaele Casale (unless otherwise noted)