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“Soul Of A Citizen”: How A 17-Year San Quentin Inmate Helps To Heal His Community
What would happen if we listened closely to the stories in our community

“Soul Of A Citizen”: How A 17-Year San Quentin Inmate Helps To Heal His Community

What would happen if we listened closely to the stories in our community

What 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.

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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 system.

David 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.

David 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.

Bored, 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.”

David 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 respect.”

David 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.”

David’s 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.”

This 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.”

But 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.”

David’s 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.

“I’d 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 repeating.”

David 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.”

A Politics Based on Story

Drawing 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.”

Monday 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 other.

“We 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.”

David 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.

“Lots 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.

David 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 “wonderful…rich 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 sanity.”

Loeb also wrote “The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear,” the History Channel and American Book Association’s #3 political book of 2004.

For more information, to hear Loeb’s live interviews and talks, or to receive Loeb’s articles directly, see You can also join Paul’s monthly email list and follow Paul on Facebook at From “Soul of a Citizen” by Paul Rogat Loeb.

Copyright © 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Griffin. Permission granted to reprint or post so long as this copyright line is included.

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