News, Opinion, & Multimedia for Tamalpais High School

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News, Opinion, & Multimedia for Tamalpais High School

The Tam News

News, Opinion, & Multimedia for Tamalpais High School

The Tam News


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Humans

Humans

Sharing stories, one prison at a time. 

You would never be able to guess that the one-room office space tucked into a tiny building along San Francisco Boulevard in San Rafael is changing lives. It doesn’t look like much from the outside — but it’s a whole new world when you swing open the door. 

The first thing you will notice is the artwork on the walls. Almost every wall is covered with vibrant sketches, paintings, and photographs, lined up in an organized fashion to portray a blend of people, landscapes, and ideas. 

Next, you’ll hear the subtle click-clack of multiple keyboards typing away. The office is filled with all sorts of people: some seated at a desk, gazing into a computer screen, others huddled over a coffee table, sorting a tall stack of letters into neat piles, all while others are adjusting the focus on a camera to record an interview. Some people wait by a desk, listening intently as a robotic voice blurts through a phone, “You have a prepaid call from an inmate at San Quentin.” 

Welcome to Humans of San Quentin. 

 

The Backstory

Humans of San Quentin (HoSQ) is an organization that shares the voices of incarcerated individuals and breaks down stereotypes that the media has constructed about the humans behind bars. They are focused on showing incarcerated individuals empathy, compassion, and a freedom to tell their own unedited story. 

“HoSQ inspires individual change by challenging attitudes and beliefs, and by building healthy emotional connections which carry over into our larger communities. We are empowered by including the most excluded population into the public conversation,” HoSQ wrote on its website. With true crime and distorted media portrayals of incarcerated people on the rise, it can be difficult to imagine the people inside prisons as humans and not criminals. 

“When the [people outside prisons] are able to actually listen to someone’s story, they come to find out that there’s more that binds us together than pulls us apart,” HoSQ co-founder and co-director Diane Kahn said. 

Kahn founded HoSQ in February 2020 after months of planning. She had been working as a peer educator in the Academic Peer Education Project (APEP) at San Quentin State Prison, where teachers from around the Bay Area would create lesson plans for incarcerated men. 

Kahn explained that most men incarcerated in San Quentin don’t pursue higher education because they want to be paid for working during the day, but the APEP was flexible because it happened in the evening. The men were able to work with a teacher two nights a week to receive a GED, or General Educational Diploma, which is similar to a high school diploma. 

Simultaneously, Kahn was following an organization called Humans of New York, where an unemployed man named Brandon Stanton set out to photograph 10,000 people on New York streets and tell their stories. She was inspired by how quickly the project grew and how many voices Stanton shared with the world. 

According to data collected by the National Institute of Corrections in 2015, there are 10.35 million people incarcerated in the world—and it became Kahn’s mission to share all 10.35 million stories with the world. 

Kahn first approached her friend and accomplished, formerly incarcerated writer James King, about her idea. He referred her to Juan Haines, who is senior editor of The San Quentin News and an award-winning journalist. Soon after, Kahn met with Eddie Herena, a newly-released, award-winning photographer also from The San Quentin News. 

Herena remembered having thousands of photos that he had taken during his time in San Quentin, and at their first meeting, Kahn requested to hand the photos out to the incarcerated men so they could have a picture of themselves. According to Kahn, it is unlikely that incarcerated people already have an up-to-date picture of themselves. 

“When Eddie was released, Sam Robinson let him take the 17,000 pictures that he took inside with him, which is absolutely unheard of,” Kahn said. Sam Robinson was the previous public information officer of San Quentin, which is the person who handles any pictures and words that leave the prison. Despite many documentaries and podcasts being recorded inside San Quentin and innumerable celebrity visits, very little media is allowed to leave its thick, white walls. 

Kahn continued, “Eddie and I met over in Berkeley one day, and he started sharing pictures with me. [When we later visited San Quentin] I would walk in and give the guys inside a photo. It’s a huge deal to have a picture of themselves in prison.”  

Haines and Kahn conducted multiple interviews with men inside in March 2020. Suddenly, the pandemic struck.

 To further the growth of HoSQ during the pandemic, Kahn designed HoSQ introduction packets to send to men inside so they could write down their stories, instead of sharing them verbally. 

“[The introduction packets] took off like wildfire,” Kahn recalled. 

In August 2020, HoSQ went live from Kahn’s dining room table and became overwhelmed with the amount of men who wanted their voices heard. They conducted more interviews inside the prison and eventually moved into the aforementioned office space in San Rafael. 

 

The Now

Currently, HoSQ operates in over 130 prisons, all 50 states, and some South American and European countries, according to its 2022 Impact Report

It has corresponded with over 1,400 incarcerated individuals so far, have over 11,300 followers on Instagram, go into San Quentin once every week to talk to the men inside, and receive around 100 letters from incarcerated people per week. 

With these submissions, they respond, transcribe, and post them on their website, Instagram, X, and Facebook. They upload collections of art, poetry, recipes, quotes, gratitude letters, interviews, short and long stories, and any other form of media they receive. 

Humans of San Quentin does so much—but it’s not a one-woman show. 

In 2022, HoSQ had a total of 38 people (both incarcerated and not) interning, volunteering, and working at the organization. They have one paid employee, the office administrator, who is currently Elaina Ferguson. 

Every day, a team of interns or volunteers work on HoSQ projects. Sometimes, they go into the San Rafael office, but other times, they work from home. 

“I come into the office two days a week. I would come in and make two or three reels, brainstorm strategies for stories, and design posts. And then after I started getting comfortable, I started to bring other aspects of my interest [in journalism] into the internship, like interviewing,” Redwood High School senior and HoSQ Social Media Lead Intern Aanika Sawhney said. 

The interns and volunteers could be working on anything from writing letters to incarcerated individuals, handling HoSQ’s social medias, and writing grants to fund the organization. 

They put a lot of time into memorizing the specific standards of corresponding and telling the stories of incarcerated people. For example, interns work with the differing rules of each state to know how many pages the people inside prisons can receive, as well as if they can receive photos, staples, or if the envelope can be sealed. 

Interns and volunteers also work with “The Castle” a constantly-updated spreadsheet of every incarcerated person who HoSQ has written to, and the “Graveyard,” a file cabinet full of the stories that they have already shared. Sawhney said that as a social media intern, she has developed her interviewing and outreach skills by seizing the opportunity to record her conversations with anyone in HoSQ. 

“During the summer, we had so many different people in the office at a time that whenever I could, I would ask for the opportunity to interview them. Sometimes it would be volunteers, other times it would be previously incarcerated individuals and so I jumped at the chance to hear about the impact of HoSQ on them,” Sawhney said. 

As the HoSQ office administrator, Elaina Ferguson oversees all the interns and volunteers. She said that they experience something special that doesn’t happen very often. 

“When they come in and write a very short note to an inmate who’s just asking a simple question, and they take the time to answer that question, they can’t help but feel a little bit proud of themselves that they’re making an effort to reach out to these people,” Ferguson said. 

More people on the HoSQ team include a team of transcribers in Cairo, Egypt, who help type the handwritten submissions onto Google documents, as well as a few incarcerated editors who work with people inside the prisons on developing their stories onto the page. 

HoSQ continues to be active in the Marin community. In May 2023, it hosted an art show at Branson High School in Ross with pieces donated from and created entirely by incarcerated individuals. 

In early June, an auction for the pieces went live. HoSQ Art Director and current San Quentin inmate Bruce Fowler approached Kahn about knowing a couple of artists who wanted to donate their work and raise money for the organization. 

“It never occurred to me that incarcerated people would be the ones that would be the biggest advocates for Humans of San Quentin to raise money. So, Bruce had 17 artists and through the [donations of supplies from the] William James Association, they painted 6-by-6 canvases,” Kahn said. 

Another project that HoSQ has undertaken is reaching an “underserved population” in prisons, who are people who speak Spanish and are unable to write in English. 

HoSQ has a Spanish Director, Edward Chavez, who spreads awareness about the organization into the Spanish-speaking community. Through him, HoSQ has gotten more submissions and has been able to publish a translated version of those stories. 

HoSQ also has a tab on its website called “Conversations from the Cell” where they post interviews conducted by and with individuals incarcerated inside San Quentin. 

“During Omicron, the second wave of COVID, we had two of our inside team members that wanted to continue sharing stories, and both of them had jobs so they were able to get out of their cell. They would actually go to people’s cells, stand outside, and interview them,” Kahn said. 

HoSQ has grown to be involved in the criminal justice community of the world.

In late June 2023, Kahn and HoSQ board member Andrea Coomber traveled to the Stockholm Criminology Symposium in Stockholm, Sweden, and presented about the importance of understanding lived experiences in prison. 

Subsequently, they flew to Dublin, Ireland, for the North South Criminology Conference where they spoke on the importance of humanizing incarcerated people and the stigmatization in the media. 

Regardless of HoSQ’s impact on San Quentin and incarcerated people around the world, the organization said it has big plans for the future. Kahn said that a new HoSQ podcast on healing dialogues will be released in early 2024. It features Martina Lutz Schneider from the Ahimsa Collective, a survivor-centered restorative justice practice, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Episodes will include conversations between Victim-Offender Dialogue facilitators as well as victims and offenders who were impacted by similar crimes. 

“For me to be able to share the stories of people incarcerated and their victims is something that I have been overflowing with gratitude for,” Kahn said. 

Some of Kahn’s long-term goals include writing a book about the vital work that HoSQ does. Additionally, she envisions a home in Marin County for incarcerated people who are transitioning back into society, because it can be difficult if the people don’t have pre-made arrangements, she said. 

Formerly incarcerated people can face a myriad of barriers to successfully re-entering society, including not being allowed to vote, having little access to education and job opportunities, and are ineligible for public benefits, public housing and student loans, according to The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. This home would be part of a larger HoSQ building, Kahn explained, that would also contain offices where other criminal justice organizations would operate. 

Kahn noted that many organizations are barely scraping by so they don’t have the funds for an office space. 

“I personally would love to be invited into more prisons where I can just bring a camera and put it on someone’s face, and make connections with more people,” Kahn said.  

HoSQ Co-Founder and Board of Directors member Eddie Herena said he would like to see a HoSQ building closer to San Quentin that would be a resource center and resting place for families visiting their loved ones in prison. 

Formerly incarcerated and current HoSQ editor Joseph Krauter said he would love to see the organization get into policymaking. 

Everyone involved in HoSQ has a slightly different vision for the organization—all with the goal of continuing to share incarcerated peoples’ stories. 

If you are interested in the work that HoSQ does and want to stay updated about it, visit their website (humansofsanquentin.org), Instagram (@humansofsanquentin), X (@HumansSQ), and Facebook (Humans of San Quentin). HoSQ is always looking for new volunteers and interns so if you want to learn more, go to HoSQ’s “Contact Us” or “Intern Program” page on its website. 

 

The Humans

Below are biographies of people involved in HoSQ to highlight how the organization brings together people of all different backgrounds. 

 

Diane Kahn 

She is the co-founder and director of HoSQ. She has been happily surprised by all the kindness, love, and empathy she has received from people both inside and outside San Quentin. 

“I was moved by [the incarcerated peoples’] vulnerability, and just holding themselves accountable for what they’ve done. So for me, it felt like an injustice not to share their stories with the outside world,” Kahn said. 

An impactful memory of hers is when she was talking with a correspondent inside San Quentin named Duane, who showed bravery by sharing his story of childhood trauma. 

 

Eddie Herena

He is another co-founder and current Board of Directors member for HoSQ. Before founding the organization, he was incarcerated inside San Quentin and serving a life sentence. 

Around eight years ago, Herena’s cellmate approached him about an open photographer position on The San Quentin News

Herena decided to get more information about the job and went down to the newspaper’s offices to show his interest. He recalled being put on a 30-day trial run with three other men who also wanted the position. In the end, he was chosen as the new photographer. 

“I didn’t know anything about photography. But, my attitude was positive and this is the type of attitude they wanted for this position. I think that’s why they hired me,” he said. 

Fast forward to 2020, when Herena overcame one of his biggest challenges: getting parole and rejoining society, as well as one of his favorite moments: when he became a father. 

Thanks to his job at The San Quentin News, Herena has taken thousands of photos capturing life inside San Quentin. He is now an accomplished freelance photographer. His work has been published in acclaimed magazines such as Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Athletic, Mercury News, The Boston Globe, and San Francisco Chronicle, according to HoSQ’s website

Herena is also a TEDx speaker and he appeared in the award-winning documentary film, The Prison Within. He was recently celebrated by the San Francisco Foundation as one of the nation’s largest community foundations dedicated to social justice. 

“Just because you commit a crime, you don’t lose your humanity. We’re still people. We all make mistakes and the world is messed up, but we didn’t make it like this. Some of us grew up in the mess. But regardless, we breathe the same air as everyone else so try to not forget that,” Herena said. 

 

Juan Haines 

Unfortunately, The Tam News could not obtain an interview with Haines because he is still incarcerated inside San Quentin and has been for the past 27 years.  

Haines is the third co-founder of HoSQ and the senior editor of The San Quentin News. According to his profile on the website, his journalistic work has appeared in Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, San Francisco Chronicle, Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal, and UCLA Law Review. 

He has won many awards, including the Silver Heart Award from the Society of Professional Journalists in 2017 for providing a “voice to the voiceless.” During the pandemic, he was recognized by California Newspaper Publishers Association for his coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Haines had a conversation with Solitary Watch as its new editor-in-chief in late 2023 and said, “What got me into journalism while I was incarcerated was having the opportunity to tell stories about people and for people that would help them navigate the prison industrial complex and help them figure out ways to get back to their families. … For me, it’s really important to have directly impacted people and control the narrative of what’s being said about them.” 

 

Elaina Ferguson 

She joined HoSQ this year as the office administrator. Before coming to the organization, she worked in the Grievances Department of San Quentin under the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 

The Grievances Department handles all the complaints from inmates, which Ferguson said can range from a leak to staff misconduct. Every morning, she walked two miles, rain or shine, from the department’s offices into San Quentin, where she would stop by every housing unit to pick up the forms. Grievance forms are legal forms, so she picked them up by hand to ensure they wouldn’t be tampered with. Then, she would bring them back to the office where she would sort every grievance into their corresponding categories. 

She said she enjoyed her job, but added that she had to leave because it wasn’t a financially feasible option for her in the long run. 

“Working from the state side kind of had a stigma to me, because every morning I would say ‘hi’ to the [incarcerated] guys and want to have a conversation with them, but it was frowned upon as a staff. I think people didn’t trust me as much because I was employed by the state,” Ferguson said. 

However, she wanted to keep volunteering inside San Quentin and one simple Google search led her to HoSQ’s website. 

“Going in on a volunteer level, I felt that the human connection was a lot more meaningful. And I was kind of able to get that guard taken down for me and let people inside know that I was there for them,” she said. 

Ferguson hopes that incarcerated peoples’ voices will continue to be heard as well as that people outside will continue to realize and address their own biases about people inside prisons. She remembers her own experience with seeing the humanity of inmates. 

“I was amazed how easy it was to talk to them and how I was expecting them to not be able to hold conversations. I had this pre-existing idea that volunteering was going to be scary and awful, and it wasn’t. Not everyone works inside prisons like Diane and I do, and I think it’s important to me that we remember that these are still humans, regardless of the environment,” Ferguson said. 

 

Joseph Krauter 

Krauter is a formerly-incarcerated editor for HoSQ. He was incarcerated for 15 years inside Shasta County Jail and San Quentin. The most significant challenge he faced is fighting for more mental health resources in prisons. 

Krauter always knew he was different and recalled feeling uncomfortable in his own skin, according to his story on the HoSQ website. 

Upon his arrest at age 23, he was asked to be tested for Asperger’s Syndrome, a developmental disorder and form of the Autism Spectrum Disorder, as stated by the Nationwide Children’s Hospital. When the test results came back, Krauter didn’t have the medical background to read the intense psychological language, so his attorney concluded that he didn’t have the disorder. 

A couple years later, he was on a call with his mother who had met another man with Asperger’s Syndrome and said he looked and acted like Krauter. He was stunned. While returning to the original diagnosis to decode the language, he discovered that the report actually had diagnosed him with the disorder. 

Subsequently, he faced many barriers trying to get another test to confirm the diagnosis. He was denied by a mental health clinician and told that San Quentin didn’t test for Asperger’s. Finally, another clinician helped him get access to a general test, where he was officially diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 2015. However, this wasn’t the end of Krauter’s struggles. 

“The prison’s mental health system has no policies or protocols set in place for people on the autism spectrum, or any neuro-diverse people at all. It was a complete and total uphill battle to get any kind of accommodations at all—even a pair of glasses,” Krauter said. 

He was released from San Quentin in 2018, but hadn’t made a lot of arrangements to continue his life in society. 

He was referred to HoSQ by his incarcerated friends. After doing an interview sharing his story, Kahn offered him an editor position. Krauter said it was the first job he had since rejoining society and a perfect fit for him because he wants to become a professional writer. 

“When I’m not learning something, I feel like I’m drowning. So, I have learned all these different skills over the course of my life. I was an auto mechanic. I was a welder. I was a sheet metal fabricator. I was an artist, a librarian, a teacher, a gardener, a plumber,” he said. 

Krauter is currently enrolled in a creative writing program at a local college. He said he is proud of himself for following this passion and is grateful he has the opportunity to continue learning. As someone who had his story published by HoSQ, he said he would like to expand this opportunity to more incarcerated people. 

“Life doesn’t stop when people go behind walls. There is still humanity, beauty, wisdom, and intelligence [in incarcerated people] … The system isn’t just a garbage disposal,” he said. 

 

Aanika Sawhney 

Sawhey is a senior at Redwood High School and social media lead intern for HoSQ. She recalled finding the organization serendipitously when she heard about The San Quentin News from an AP Composition and Language essay prompt. Later that day she Googled the newspaper and found HoSQ’s website. She began following the organization’s social media and applied to be a summer intern soon after. She interned in the summer of 2023 and continues to work in her free time. 

She is executive producer for Redwood TV, which are videos broadcasted to the whole school weekly with announcements and segments. She applies her interviewing and producing skills to her HoSQ internship all the time by talking to incarcerated people about their stories and asking interns to share why HoSQ is important to them. 

Sawhney said it has been difficult to figure out the best way to reach HoSQ’s audience. It’s challenging to figure out the social media algorithms and investigate how their videos go viral, but she also tries to not get swept away by that aspect of the internship. 

“It’s been an incredible opportunity to listen and read the stories of incarcerated people. It’s a horribl[y] isolated population, that honestly I had not thought about in the forefront of my mind or the media that I consumed … You get to see their faces and hear their voices,” she said. 

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