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Photo of San Quentin State Prison by Eddie Herena

This story was originally published on December 9, 2021.

Going to prison is unlike any experience in your life — the metal, the concrete, the bars, the smell. You know when you’re stepping foot inside a prison. You can no longer walk where you want, and your movement is limited to a correctional officer holding a set of keys.

I still vividly remember the first time I went in 16 years ago — I got off the bus to see the enormous gray building and an amalgamation of metal and concrete shaped into a cage.

We were lined up, tagged and separated into different areas and fed. It felt like moving into a cattle farm. The only thing missing was the greener pastures on the other side.

We were then shuffled and moved into our quarters. It was there that we realized we did not own our life anymore, and our freedom was gone.

More than a year after I left prison in May 2020, I went back inside, but this time, legitimately.

Prison is like a really bad ex. You really need some time and distance to even think about getting back in contact. And as long as we don’t spend a night together, it’s all good.

I officially applied through the prison for permission to be authorized to go in. It’s funny how life can lead you to a place because of irrational thinking, poor judgement, and bad choices, but when one wants to go there, it then requires what seems like a congressional bill.

On a crisp, fall Sunday afternoon, I drove back to the last place I called home. But just like any home, it was not the structure or the color of the walls, but the people I was going in to see.

I had actually been back more times than I could count, but I had only gone to the gate to pick up friends being released or for protests urging the governor to release incarcerated people.

This time, it was different — I was heading straight inside with an adviser to the San Quentin News newspaper, where I used to work as a layout editor. Each year, a UC Berkeley journalism professor brings in his students as part of his curriculum, which is how I ended up on the road, driving students to prison on what felt like the world’s most awkward Uber ride.

As we arrived in the parking lot, multiple thoughts went through my head. My first was whether they would let me back out. I was still on parole and even though my parole agent knew of this trip, I was pretty sure he wouldn’t put up a fight if the prison decided to hold on to me for a couple of days.

My next concern was that I didn’t know how to get inside. Sixteen years ago, I had been chauffeured inside, courtesy of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). This time, I was entering of my own volition. I jokingly told the professor that I would pass if I had to get strip searched to go in.

Other harsh memories returned, such as the paranoia of having armed officers above you who can shoot anyone at any time, the food and, most of all, the clothes.

In California, the uniforms identify everyone. Prisoners wear clothing that labels them as prisoners on their pants and the back of their shirts. Visitors must avoid colors worn by prisoners.

I dressed in all black to differentiate myself from my former peers.

I was relieved to be told that I didn’t have to be strip searched. I did, however, have to leave the biggest part of my life behind: my phone.

It was ironic that the item that I went without for the last 17 years, was something I could no longer go without for more than 20 minutes. Walking in, the only two items that sat in my pocket were my car keys and my driver’s license. I left my phone in my glove compartment along with my watch, wallet, credit card, cash and basically anything of importance. I felt bare.

The first steps through the official entrance into prison felt weird. When I was still inside, I used to see hundreds of people going in and out of the gate daily, and I used to wonder what it would be like if I could head out like one of them.

When people are released from prison, we don’t just walk out of the front gates as depicted in movies. You wake up at the crack of dawn and wait a couple hours as you fill out a ton of paperwork to verify that you’re you. Then you’re brought out just like you arrived in a CDCR mode of transport, not of your choice.

I walked onto the courtyard and everything was the same as I remembered. A year of horror and tragedy had not changed this place since I last saw it right before COVID-19 broke out. I could have been walking to the chapel or to my medical ducat.

I saw guards and incarcerated people going on about their day and duties. No one paid attention to yet another group of volunteers coming in.

As I turned the corner, I saw the lower yard, where I had completed five marathons, taking part in food spreads to celebrate Cambodian New Year and participating in a baby powder fight. The workout area still had the pull-up and dip bars that I dreaded.

I waved to a couple of people. Even masked, they recognized me. You tend to recognize your own species even in sheep’s clothing. The smiles on people’s faces made my day.

But I also saw ghosts. I imagined a friend, who died earlier this year, smiling happily, handing people their care packages almost like Santa. I also saw the area where another friend, an amputee, passed from COVID-19. I could point out the exact spot where he used to do one-legged jump rope.

The joy of seeing my prison family was a blessing and a curse.

I walked into the newsroom, there were smiles all around even though you couldn’t see it with their masks on. Our eyes lit up with joy to see family after a year and a half. It was especially emotional because the prison had been under quarantine when I was released, and I had not gotten to say goodbye.

We started talking as if nothing had changed. We still joked and made fun of each other as if I were sitting next to them, working side by side, sharing meals and going to school together.

When I saw my friend Marcus, who was the main person I had come in to see, we hugged. We hugged as if it had been 20 years since we had last seen each other.

The comfort of hugging a friend can never be over appreciated. It brought me back to the first days of us starting the newspaper, the endless joking and complaining about work and life and us in a group where I heard his deepest pain with his partner and kids.

For a brief two hours, I was home. I admit that I felt more comfortable during this visit than when I was at work or with people who have never been impacted by incarceration.

I never feel like I fit in outside, but I could be myself and feel alive in prison in a room full of incarcerated people.

I tell people that being released from incarceration feels comparable to immigrating from a third-world country. Inside, we all struggle with incarceration, loneliness, and the possibility of death regardless of where you come from or how wealthy you are.

Can I say that for my neighbors now? Or the people walking around with their iPhones going on about their day?

It made me realize how I am not free even now. I am not free because my life is tied to incarceration, emotionally.

Making new friends and new memories after incarceration has helped, but walking away from my family, seeing a smile on their faces in their ragged prison clothes only brings me back to when I was in their shoes.

As I walked out, I left behind people who I have known for years, some even for a decade. I felt both happy and sad. Once again, I was leaving home.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Jonathan Chiu is a writer who served as the layout editor and crossword designer for Wall City magazine and San Quentin News, an award-winning newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison in California, where he was formerly incarcerated. His work has also been published in the Marshall Project.