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Juan Haines at San Quentin State Prison
Juan Moreno Haines (Photo illustration by Teresa Tauchi)

My next door neighbor Juan Moreno Haines has been in prison for two decades. During his incarceration, he has created quite a resume and carved out a spot for himself in the world of journalism.

Juan has written about so many other people that I thought somebody needed to write about him. He's always telling me about reading up on people, situations and the importance of collecting evidence, so I wanted to share a little evidence I collected on him.

Juan has attracted the attention of some heavy hitters in the news industry.

In 2009, he began working for San Quentin News. Today he is the senior editor and a member of the editorial board. Juan has written for a variety of other publications as well, including Solitary Watch, Oakland Post, California Prison Focus, El Tecolote and the Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal. In addition, he’s a board member of Mourning Our Losses and the co-founder of Humans of San Quentin. He has also received a number of awards, including the 2020 Fielding A. Dawson Prize in the fiction category from the PEN America Prison Writing Program Literary Contest, and the 2017 Silver Heart from the Society of Professional Journalists.

He said he would not have been successful “without the assistance of very dedicated people who believe in me and go out of the way to support incarcerated journalists like me.”

Juan’s passion is writing and is known to pass on his knowledge to other prisoners.

My friend helps me stay grounded here at San Quentin. I’ve been living next to Juan for some four years now. In the beginning, it was just everyday prison living and being a respectful neighbor. Then I started spreading — a term that describes when guys cook together — with him and his old cellie Yah Ya, who was one of the best cooks around.

During this time, I was dealing with some stressful issues, and Juan was somebody I could talk to. “Writing connects people in the prison environment, which is so disconnected,” he said to me at one point. That hit home with me because it wasn’t until I began to write about my problems that I was able to really understand them.

Juan helped me on my writing journey, which started when I became a student at Mt. Tamalpais College, which was then called Patton College. Originally, I enrolled just to take math. But I was required to pass English. With the help of teachers at the school, the volunteer tutors from Free to Succeed and my old friend Juan, I took a liking to writing.

I also took an abnormal psychology class. Some of the things that I read were familiar. I talked to my psychologist about it, and I shared it with Juan. So, when I did my final report that semester, I wrote about myself as if I were someone else. Normally, I only shared personal business with my psych, but Juan became just like a second psych. Being able to trust talking to a person and not lose my cool was helpful to my rehabilitation. He thought I should share my story. Juan and my tutor encouraged me to send it to the Global Forum Online. To my surprise, they printed it.

As you can see, Juan’s impact at San Quentin goes beyond writing.

San Quentin is a community that is not easy to break into. And if one ever wishes to qualify for parole, one must abort the old ways of criminal thinking.

Juan has no problem mentoring other prisoners, something he attributes to his own mentor. I’ve witnessed two or three people at the same time seeking advice from him. Every now and then, I’ll step out of the cell and say, “Hey Juan, I wasn’t ear hustling, but I couldn’t help but hear …” He laughs, gives me clarity, and then he says, “And you was ear hustling.”

One day, I was sitting in my cell writing and I got stuck on a word. I called out to my friend and asked him how to spell it. He told me, “The word is in the dictionary.” He told me his name was not Webster (I wanted to tell him he was the same height as Webster). I lied and told him, “I must be pronouncing it wrong because I still can’t find it in the dictionary.”

Juan yelled back, “I can’t hear you, got my headphones on.” I said, “What?” And he repeated what he’d said.

Juan says his goals change from time to time. He is presently working on three books: a novel about an incarcerated journalist, a collection of short stories, and an anthology of book reviews that he wrote while in prison. Spike Lee, look out. My neighbor Juan is coming. He’s about 5-foot-3 and probably weighs 120 pounds. But his writing has a voice like thunder.

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.

Alex Ross is a writer and a Patton College student incarcerated in California.