How A 17-Year San Quentin Inmate Helps To Heal His Community

would happen if we listened closely to the stories in our community, and used
them as clues to how to act for change? It's tempting, for instance, to dismiss
the criminals in our jails as irredeemable problems. Yet when they transform
themselves and help heal the wounds that they've helped create, they can offer
powerful lessons. No one exemplifies this more than David Lewis.

* * *

In 1992, East Palo Alto, California,
had the highest murder rate in America.
Five years later, serious crime in the community dropped nearly 90 percent and
has remained there ever since--in large part thanks to a long-time San Quentin
inmate named David Lewis, who'd spent seventeen years in the California prison

still looks intimidating: He's a six-foot-two, 220-pound African American man
with a shaved head, a handlebar mustache, and eighteen-inch biceps, one of
which is adorned with a fading tattoo and a scar. But his eyes and voice are no
longer edgy and desperate. Patient, reflective, and forgiving, David is a very
different man today than he once was.

started his downhill slide when he was ten. Though undiagnosed at the time, he
was dyslexic. His school responded by placing him in a class with mentally
retarded kids, where the teachers did little but baby-sit. After they told him
he had no educational future, he felt there was nothing to be gained by trying.

angry, and powerless, David began drinking and skipping school, making "a
conscious decision to take whatever substances would change the way I
felt." When David was fifteen, Nixon cracked down on the marijuana trade,
and heroin flooded the streets. "It felt really good to take a shot of
dope," he says. "It took all my pain away."

soon found other kids who were also scorned, discarded, and wanting to get back
a sense of worth however they could. "We'd come up to a random person, the
biggest grown man we could find, and knock him unconscious with a single punch.
I could do it with either hand. People on the street started treating me with

grew bolder, entering drug dealers' apartments with a sawed-off shotgun.
"I'd fire it at the ceiling, then clean them out. I never killed anyone,
but I was crazy enough to threaten people. I liked being the kid with no
future, the kid people were afraid of." When David was eighteen, he and
three friends were caught robbing a gas station of $156. The judge sent him to
San Quentin.

David mastered
the prison environment quickly. He felt at home with inmates who'd similarly
learned to survive from score to score and crime to crime. Many shared David's
dyslexia and had been excluded from school. The once-terrifying clanging gates
soon became familiar, almost reassuring. Even when David joined a prison
affiliate of the Black Panthers, he and the other key leaders spent most of
their energy finding ways to get high.

Two and a
half years later, David was released, only to be turned in a month later by a
onetime friend, to whom he'd sold $20 worth of heroin. This time the sentence
was ten years to life. Prison became steadily more comfortable, despite its
physical harshness. David found a pet mouse and "fed it, played with it,
tried to teach it to play chess, did everything but make love to it."

He was
released a few more times. But in each case, life outside prison seemed like a
strange hiatus. An uncertain spectator in an alien world, he'd eat food from
the kitchen pot and sit on the toilet with the door open. "I had no social
skills," David says. "I felt like God had left a component out of me,
and that I didn't fit."

He also
kept returning to heroin. "I always thought I could regulate it, not let
it master me. Then I'd do something crazy to get back inside, where I had a
place and a reputation. If I was hungry, I'd get a gun to take what I needed.
Someone else could work and stand in line, but I wasn't going to."

turning point came while he was getting ready to watch the World Series on a
small TV set in his San Quentin cell. The ground started shaking. It was a
major San Francisco
earthquake. "I felt helpless and hopeless, locked in a cage. I heard the Bay Bridge
had collapsed. I thought of my twenty-seven-year-old son, who I'd had when I
was seventeen. I'd spent half my life behind bars. Now he seemed headed for
jail, too. I wondered if both of us might die here."

sudden sense of vulnerability, David now believes, was the key to his
transformation. In prison, people admired his toughness. It didn't matter that
it led nowhere. "Only when I began to doubt could I change."

wanting to change wasn't enough. David was full of resolve the next time he got
out, but still had no clear models for a different way to live. Aside from a
few men who'd embraced more religion than he could handle, he knew of no
long-term inmates who'd "broken free and gotten a regular life with the
job, house, wife, dog, goldfish, and a car that you don't have to steal."

probation officer found him lying beneath a bridge with a needle in his arm,
then got him into a rehab program. There he saw a video in which the veteran
convict turned leadership trainer Gordon Graham described prison as a comfort
zone, where people came to feel more at home than they did outside.

never seen anyone really change who was like me," David said. "Gordon
spoke in a language I knew because he'd been there. He showed me how I was
stuck, like a broken record going rup, rup, rup in the groove, and how the
survival skills I'd learned didn't work. He helped me get past just endlessly

stayed in the rehab program nine months, got a job as a painter, and began
attending Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. They were his
medicine, says David, "just like someone sick with diabetes needs insulin,
or someone whose kidneys don't work needs dialysis. If you don't remember what
you've been through, you're doomed to keep doing it, which means something
dreadful will bite your ass like you never want to think about." After
David appeared in a Bill Moyers TV program on an African American men's support
group, he got a call from East Palo Alto's
mayor. "She wanted me to help stop the community violence. I was one of
the people who'd helped sow the land mines of violence to begin with. When you
have a war like the war in our streets, it's the people who sow the land mines
who know best how to dig them up."


on his own story, and with support from San Mateo County,
David started a drug and alcohol rehab center called Free at Last. Its approach
stemmed from the lessons of the street culture he'd inhabited. Instead of
hiding the program, the staff tied it to the community with a highly visible
storefront center. They kept it open late, so people could drop in and get
support at almost any time. By day, people enrolled in the center's education
and health programs. At night, Free at Last outreach workers, led by David,
visited bars, crack houses, and shooting galleries to test people for HIV and
offer them treatment programs. "Most IV addicts are out at night. So it
doesn't work to have a clinic that follows the standard medical model, open
eight to five, and expect people to come to you. You have to go to where people
are. We got trained in how to draw blood and give the tests, so we didn't need
a nurse. We'd pass out bleach and condoms as a way to draw people into the
rehab programs. They'd listen to us because we'd been in gangs with them and
shot dope with them. We'd been there."

night was a bad night for murders in East Palo Alto.
"On the weekends you're getting high," David explains. "You've
got your money, your drugs, maybe a girl. Then it's Monday, the money from your
payday is gone. You have to start all over, broke and hurting. That's why all
the blues songs talk about 'Stormy Monday' and 'Blue Monday.' You have to steal
to get what you need. That's when you feel desperate and people kill each

developed one of the early Midnight Basketball programs for Monday and for
Thursday, which is another bad night. To join you have to be a school dropout
or on parole or probation. Our players attend a workshop at eight in the
evening, where they talk about their lives and learn about alternatives. Then
they play in the basketball games, with community coaches. We give them
somewhere to go when they're likely to be the most vulnerable and reckless.
They don't have to go blow someone away."

built the clinic through state and private grants and community health program
contracts. He drew no salary, keeping his other job as an HIV outreach worker.
But under his guidance, the organization has grown over 15 years. Like the
community they serve, the 54 staff members are overwhelmingly African American
and Latino, and two thirds are in recovery. Free at Last developed residential
services for women going through rehab, so they wouldn't be separated from
their children. They challenged liquor store licenses, advocated for access to
treatment programs, worked with the local court system to offer alternatives to
drug-related incarceration, and ran domestic violence groups for women and for
the men who abused them. Together with Gordon Graham, David continued to lead
prison workshops nationwide, developing prerelease programs to address the
chasm between prison culture and the outside.

of things I do today use the same energy and drive as when I was crazy. You
don't go into a person's house and rob them with a shotgun without emotional
faith. It's just as scary as asking for a hundred thousand dollars from the
president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. I just discovered a way into
being a powerful person instead of being a fool." Within a few years after
Free at Last began, three-quarters of the people who graduated from its
programs remained clean, sober, and gainfully employed. David continued to
serve as its president, and has used the organization's innovative approach to
develop similar programs in Tanzania,
Kenya, and Kazakhstan.

wanted to see a new politics coming out of the stories of the recovery
movement, where "we start in a dark room, lift the shades so we're able to
see, and begin fighting for a fair chance for our communities. If they'd had
'three strikes' laws when I was in prison, I'd never have been released. But
I'm not an exception, just an example of what can happen when people get the
support they need, in a language they can understand."

Adapted from the wholly updated new edition
of "Soul of a
Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times
" by Paul Rogat
Loeb (St Martin's Press, $16.99 paperback).
With over 100,000 copies in print, "Soul" has become a classic guide
to involvement in social change. Howard Zinn calls it "
with specific experience." Alice Walker says, "The voices Loeb finds
demonstrate that courage can be another name for love." Bill McKibben
calls it "a powerful inspiration to citizens acting for environmental

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