At the exact moment the riot broke out on Facility A at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, I was in a classroom on a nearby yard, learning about alternatives to violence. Correctional officers burst into the room and told everyone our class on peace was cancelled. We were all sent back to our cells and locked down. Violence, it seemed, had once again prevailed.
I was saddened by the riot, not only because it took place at all, but because of the extensive news coverage it received. It seemed the media was supporting the views of certain inmates that violence is an effective way to make a point.
Yes, prisons can be dangerous places. I know this because I live in one. But to be honest, violence scares me, and it would be really good if more time in prison was spent on positive things.
And there are positive things going on at Donovan State. About 40 prisoners –including me–work for a program called Inmate Ward Labor. It’s a hands-on construction program, in which inmates do most of the work under the guidance of a journeyman construction worker. Right now, we are completing a $30 million project for the prison healthcare facility.
In the four years I’ve been working with the program, we have built four dental clinics, four medical clinics, a new wing for specialty medical care, a new emergency room, and (my personal favorite) a dialysis center. In the past, inmates needing dialysis had to be transported outside the prison for treatment several days each week, at a very high cost.
Clearly, having an in-house unit will save the state a substantial amount of money. The state also saves enormously on labor costs in building these state-of-the-art facilities, as prisoner-workers get paid $1 per hour, compared with $40 to $50 per hour that is the going rate for professional journeymen.
I don’t resent the $1 rate, either. From the very start, I felt good about myself for participating in the program. I take pride in the skills I have learned, even though I may not be able to apply them in the outside world because I am serving a life-without-parole sentence.
But I take pride in teaching other inmates all aspects of the construction trade, helping them gain important job skills so they have a better chance to succeed when they are released. It is very important to me to do as much as I can to help others, so as to make up for the wrongs I have done and give back to the community from which I have taken.
During the 19 years I’ve been incarcerated, I have seen the same faces come back to prison over and over again, and it disturbs me greatly. I wanted to do more to help people who have a chance to get out — stay out.
So a few years ago I began writing letters to construction companies telling them about the labor program. To my delight, one company responded and its representatives came to Donovan State to tour the facility and learn more. They were very impressed, and have since hired several graduates after their release.
The labor program is only one of many positive programs at Donovan State that help inmates and the community alike. For the past several years, I have also been involved in the Victim Offender Education Group, conducted by Insight Prison Project. This is an intensive, 52-week course that helps inmates take responsibility for the impact of their crimes on their victims, their families, and their communities, and gain vitally important skills of accountability, insight, and compassion.
One of the ways in which this happens is through meetings with victims and their families, during which inmates are able to take full responsibility for their actions and express their deep remorse. The healing that takes place on all sides during these meetings is nothing short of extraordinary.
Still, it troubles me that so much attention is paid to things like prison riots and other forms of violence, rather than to the good that can flourish in the unlikeliest of places–prison.
Samuel P. Redmond III has served 19 years on a life without parole sentence, and is currently incarcerated at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa..