Nonviolence and Forgiveness in San Quentin Prison

There are many men in this prison who have turned to God for guidance. These men gather in the yard to hold prayer circles. At times, they take turns preaching. Some sing songs about Jesus, others join in a form of religious chanting.

A man named Will is one of these men of God. He takes it upon himself to evangelize the Word as much as possible. Pacing the tier, he tells us that Jesus loves us. When he passes by I smile and nod appreciatively.

A few days ago during breakfast, Will sat at my table. Accompanying him was another man of God. Will was looking over a piece of Prison Ministry literature. He offered his opinion that the author knew nothing about God.

“There is no antichrist,” Will calmly purred. “There is only Jesus, and he will save us all:” Will’s smile convinced the man to set the pamphlet down, where it remained when we left to return to our cells.

Yesterday, as soon as we stepped out to head for breakfast, I heard the cries of other inmates calling, “Man down!” I looked down the tier, and there on the concrete lay an old man thrashing about like a fish out of water.

“They recently changed his medication,” another inmate informed me. “It’s not working. This is the second seizure he’s had in two days.”

Officers gathered around the old man as his tremors began to subside, waiting for the medical staff to arrive.

Will’s eyes focused intently on the old man. His brow furrowed, and his body stiffened. “That’s God’s revenge!” Will said, spitting fire and brimstone. “It’s your payback for molesting children.”

The old man was now splayed out on the cold San Quentin concrete. His hands searched his head, feeling the knots forming after the seizure had violently pummeled his skull against the unforgiving floor. Despite Will’s disgusting allegations, I felt sorry for the old man.

Wasn’t it resentful of Will to insult the old man while he lay helpless and confused on the ground? The man was obviously in a lot of pain and it seemed unethical to harass an injured person. But Will continued to spew his insults with fury. “It’s God’s revenge! It’s payback!”

I had had enough. I decided to challenge Will over his insensitivity. I turned to him and said, “God must hate a lot of innocent people who suffer from seizures even though they have never done anything wrong.”

Maybe if he realized that many good people also suffer from seizures, Will would see that God could not possibly inflict a thing like this as punishment. But it didn’t seem to make a difference. Will insisted that the man deserved punishment because of his crime. His reasoning was simple: the man was disgusting because he molested kids.

Christopher Huneke

Christopher Huneke is a prisoner of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation who spent 15 months based at San Quentin Prison. To beat the crushing isolation, he took up creative nonfiction writing. His last pieces appeared in UUSangha (Fall 2008), in which he wrote about a prisoner's appreciation of melting memories, "Rocky Road," and the relevance of electing a mixed race President to a prisoner who lives in a racially segregated community (American Union'). See < >.