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Our team has had the privilege of getting to know and work with inmates at San Quentin State Prison. As we continue to learn and listen right now, we wanted to reach out to some of our friends there and have a conversation with them. This first letter that we wanted to share is written by our friend Branden about his perspectives on the justice system and race. His leadership, wisdom and kindness have shone through in all of our interactions with him, and we are so grateful to be able to learn together.

Was I Given Grace Because Of My Race? 

Over the past 8 years, I have had the pleasure of building beautiful relationships with hundreds of my fellow inmates and conversed with thousands of others of all different races. However, racial segregation and racial intimidation has also been an everyday obstacle I have had to navigate through. Not systematic racism, real racism. The culture of racism in San Quentin separates, and can often turn violent. This ‘us against them’ mentality forces many to adopt a belief system that defines their race to be the most dominant.

This mentality was a very unnatural thing for me. I grew up playing sports and playing in the streets with all different races, and formed many great friendships and memories with them all. When I got to San Quentin, I felt forced to pick my own race to protect myself from the possible violence that not choosing it would cause.

 In addition to the separation of races within the prison, I have witnessed first-hand how terribly our criminal justice system has treated the black community. I can honestly tell you, as I share with others all the time, if I was ANYTHING BUT white, I would have received a life sentence for the crime I committed.

Many of the relationships that I have built are with black men serving life sentences for crimes that deserved maybe a few years. Do I feel guilty? Absolutely! I live in a country that doesn’t provide everyone access to equal justice. I have black friends who received 210 years to life for stealing from a McDonald’s. I have friends who were given life without the possibility of parole at the age of 15 who truly didn’t commit the crime. Let me tell you again, friends who are doing life in prison for petty crimes or for crimes that they never committed!

 When you hear about all of the innocent people who have been killed by officers of the law, I also want you to remember the thousands of people whose lives were taken by sending them to prison for the rest of their lives.

When serving time in the California prison system, you don’t have a choice. Racism is a way of survival for many of the men, created and perpetuated by our unequal justice system. Despite all of this, I now believe that I do have a choice to stand up against this. Up until recently, I was not strong enough and lacked the courage to go against the politics of prison and the racial segregation. For that I am truly sorry!

To all those who are calling out for change, I hear you and I support you, we’ve got this! I hope and pray we can all come together as one. We all are one body of people, we must walk in love and focus on our similarities not our differences!