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What Happened When a Group of Judges Went to Prison

Written by Timothy Hicks,

This story was originally published by Prison Journalism Project.

April 25, 2023

A large group of judges and lawyers visited San Quentin on Nov. 2 to gain understanding about a place where some of the people they sentence may end up residing.

The judges had been instructed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation not to disclose their names to the SQ residents. But during their visit the group was impressed by the openness and candor of the incarcerated men who guided their tour.

After welcoming the group and providing a brief history of the prison’s programs and general structure, SQ tour director Vincent Turner Jr. told the judges, “We are up here to not only be better public speakers, but mainly we are here to show you all what being fully accountable for our crimes looks like.”

The guides introduced themselves in succession after the judges were seated on the Catholic Chapel’s pews. San Quentin resident Ricardo Romero was working as a tour guide for the first time. He talked about having an opportunity to meet the judges and to demonstrate some accountability.

I want them to know that change is good and possible,” Romero said. “Accepting what I have done and being accountable and being able to identify triggers and causative factors is always good to show them [judges]. It lets them see that we are more than just our crimes.”

Turner then invited questions from the judges, whose field trip was mandatory. One remarked that it was good for them to get a look at conditions within the prison. Raw perspectives were provided by their experienced, incarcerated guides.

The judges began to ask a series of questions. “Is there a reason for stating the names of the victims of your crimes?” one judge asked after hearing the men relate details of their crimes.

Veteran tour guide Rafael Bankston responded, “We state their names to show more accountability of our crimes.” Tour guide Tare Beltranchuc added, “We also do it to recognize their [victim’s] humanity.”

The tour was guided by Vincent Turner Jr., Tare Beltranchuc, Chase Benoit, Kevin Brinckman, Greg Eskridge, Gabriel Granado, Michael Pulido, Tommy Wickerd, Louis Sale, Rafael Bankston, Ricardo Romero, George Yacoub, Jamal Green, Oscar Acosta, Tim Hicks, Kenny Rogers and Kevin Sample. All responded to the judges’ questions.

As the willingness of the incarcerated men to be candid became clear, the questions continued to flow. “How do you feel about the judge who sentenced you?” asked an inquisitive judge.

Responses from the incarcerated men took a variety of forms: One talked about never making a connection with the judge presiding over his case; one mentioned a judge who seemed not to care; another expressed not being able to understand what was happening in his trial.

Jamal Green said that he felt like the judge who presided over his case actually was on his side and was fair.

Romero said he missed the opportunity to be more mentally present in the courtroom at the time of his trial.

“I didn’t trust him [the presiding judge] at the time but, I wish I could have opened up a lot more at that time,” said Romero. He has been incarcerated for 21 years.

Among the incarcerated men guiding the tour the collective amount of time amounted to more than 500 years, including multiple life sentences.

Some of the judges appeared surprised by the sum of the sentences among their guides. Some shook their heads in disbelief and a flurry of hands were raised with more eager questions.

“What can we do to redirect people from prison who come before us?” asked a judge. “What programs help the most for you guys?” asked another. “Has anyone had contact with their victim’s family?” The questions kept coming and the incarcerated men continued to answer them.

Then a judge asked a question at the root of the cycle of crime; “What can we do for youth that are going through the system?”

“Try to understand that when you deal with juveniles, you have to consider their causative factors and get some insight to their choices,” responded tour member Mike Pulito.

Other topics discussed included the following: What role did substance abuse play in your crimes? Were your parents an issue? What about child welfare and foster care? What were your experiences in court? What is life like on level-four yards and what’s the difference between that and level-two yards? How do you stay away from negativity while in prison? What could we do to stop crimes from happening?

One judge asked a question that caught some of the men off guard, “What would you tell your younger self?”

“I would tell myself to have hope,” said Bankston.

The team of incarcerated guides received a standing ovation upon conclusion of the question/answer session.

The judges toured the prison’s historical sites, such as the dungeon, the prison hospital and Death Row. Some of their perspectives may have been changed.

One judge said that she did not want to come at first because she did not want to see people of African American descent gawked at like caged animals on display or in some laboratory experiment. But she was glad that she came.

Upon leaving, some of the judges expressed empathy and compassion for the incarcerated.

David Abraham - We hope that this level of proximity and empathy can take place in every state. This story shouldn't be abnormal, but it is. Judges, legislators, and prosecutors would benefit from speaking to the people their jobs impact the most. We appreciate stories like this and look forward to hearing more like it nationwide.

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