My Day at San Quentin with the VVGSQ

(Written as journal entry, but also to teacher Ms. Teddy Duffy, who was the Wilcox High School Awards ceremony presenter)

Since you were the person handing the token acknowledgement envelope to me, Mary Manley, last Thursday in proxy for the Vietnam Veterans Group of San Quentin prison (V.V.G.S.Q.) award, I thought you might like to know some information about it and the history of the award.

San Quentin is the largest prison in the US and the oldest in California being started in 1852. It is located overlooking the San Francisco Bay, south of San Rafael and north of San Francisco. Originally, in 1851, the prison was started on a barge anchored off the site it is now currently on.

A V.V.G.S.Q. scholarship award has been given out for about the last 14 years and has about 20 or so applicants each year. (This year was the all time high of 32 applications.) It was started at San Quentin Prison with a group of honorably discharged Vietnam Veteran lifers, James "Sneaky" White and Geronimo Pratt, who had a need to find ways to pay back to society not only for the wrong that they have done but for what has been a less than honorable feeling that society has burdened them with for even BEING in the Vietnam War. (The Vietnam war was the first war that men and women of the armed forces came home not to a hero’s welcome like previous wars but they were made to feel guilty for the part they played in history and were made to endure societies anger.) One of the men in the group then suggested giving a scholarship to a deserving high school student. At first it was strictly for students who's parent/parents served in Vietnam. Today it has been amended to include students of a parent/parents who have served in any war, since the age of Vietnam Vets now makes them mostly grandparents. The application process involves showing proof (discharge papers), that one parent has served in the Armed Services during wartime and was honorably discharged. The students must also include a copy of their transcripts, three recommendations and an essay. The essay is to answer the question, ”How has your parent being in the military effected your life”?

I, being the curious person that I am, wanted to know more. How can a group of prisoners afford to give out a $1500 scholarship? There is no information about this scholarship. So through a call to the prison I was able to find out that this group (called the V.V.G.S.Q. - Vietnam Veterans Group San Quentin), solicit food donations from grocery stores, hold food fairs and sell it to the prisoners. It takes them one year to raise enough money for the scholarship. Needless to say, this was very humbling. I then felt even more determined to complete the application.

Two weeks ago I got the call that informed me that the group had selected me for an award, although not THE award. It turns out that out of the 32, two were chosen immediately and the prisoners toiled for days over who should get the award. It was an even split for the two. Someone in the Group suggested they give the award to both (two awards), so they called a special meeting and settled on a totally new award called "The Inspirational Scholarship Award" for $750, since that was all they could afford at this time.

This was by no means sad to me because now I became the FIRST EVER recipient of this new award, one that may or may not ever be awarded again. The Group informed us that they were so touched by the two essays this year that they called them “two hanky” essays.

Bill Waltz, one of the co-sponsors of the group, asked my mom if I would come to San Quentin on Saturday June 12, 2004 to receive my award. He explained that there would be about 70 people, 40 inmates and 30 guests for the four and ½ hour ceremony. Little did Bill know that I, whose career choice is in Law Enforcement, was SO honored to be the recipient of this award, that I wouldn’t have missed it for anything! We had to give him our full names, address, birth dates and drivers license numbers of those attending so he could do prior background checks to get us cleared to enter the prison. Meanwhile, we conducted our own research about what we should wear and what we could bring. We found that we could not wear denim, solid blue or green, and no: thongs, under-wire bras, sunglasses, remotes for the car, (one key only), skirts above two inches of the knee, tight clothing, bare midrifs, sleeveless or see through clothes.

Last Saturday we drove to San Quentin for the luncheon to honor the winning applicants. The hour drive brought us to a parking lot situated on the bay and about a block away from the prison. We walked up a hill to a building with the word; “Visitor” over the door, which appeared, to be the 1st process-in area. Inside was a long hallway with doors at both ends, and another in the center. With about 15 women and a few children somewhat scattered in a line on both sides of the hallway, and on both sides of the center door, my mom asked the one closest to the door if this was the line. She mumbled something incomprehensible, clearly a woman with an attitude. My mom repeated her request, in which the lady muffled again, and I was able to discern her say, “appointments over there, no-appointment here”. Not knowing which we were, we proceeded to walk through the haphazard standing women to the line at the other side of the hall, which we knew to be “appointments”. The lady in front of us was talking to the child in line in front of her about why we can’t wear blue. She told her it was “because we would look like the prisoners and if something happened the guards might kill us”. The child’s mother berated the lady to stop telling her child stuff like that. At that point we were relieved to hear a voice in the hallway asking if “there is a Mary here”. Bill had been watching and suspected it was us. We were extremely glad to be wisped away from those women with attitudes! Welcome to San Quentin!

Bill took us around the corner to a guard, at the gated entrance of a driveway, who was screening the parade of cars and busses that were both coming into the prison and leaving. We had to show our drivers license and Bill explained who we were. The guard let us pass around the gate to a shack with another guard who again viewed our licenses and had us write our names on the “incoming” clipboard along with the time and where we were going, and Bill told us to write “Chapel”. We began to walk the block to the prison as Bill gave us the history of San Quentin, until we came to the next guard shack. This one involved a metal detector and another show of our ID’s. We continued our walk to the prison building where Bill paused before the door of the building for a moment and said; “Oh by the way, the State of California has a no negotiations policy for hostages”. Wow.

We entered a doorway to find yet another guard, another clipboard for name, signature, time and where we were going and another show of our ID’s. We also had to have our hand stamped, with what seemed like, invisible ink. We walked a few feet to the first set of bars and waited until they began sliding open to a barred cage. The bars closed behind us and we were completely enclosed in a mini-cell until another guard inside began to open the bars that were in front of us. We walked through this gate and a few feet through a doorway and were immediately in an open yard that was surrounded by a “U” shaped one story building, similar to being in the quad at Wilcox High School. The building had numerous doors and Bill explained that these rooms were Chapels of several different religions. On the right was a water fountain that the prisoners made but at the moment had a broken pump. An old rose garden was to the left. I couldn’t help noticing that although there were only about 25 people mingling around this large open area, that there was noise that seemed to come from nowhere and it was somewhat hard to hear a conversation. We could distinguish the inmates, who wore all blue, from the guards and personnel, who wore all green and the sponsors who wore street clothes, like us.

Almost immediately, five inmates, noticeable by all blue clothing but also with light blue baseball hats, walked towards us to within about four feet. They just stood there in front of us in millitary stance, patiently waiting until one of them, (“Wolf”, the Chairman of the group), finally spoke and told us they couldn’t talk to us until we stepped over the yellow line that was between us. We quickly stepped over the yellow line and it was non-stop conversation from that point on. These five were the officers of the VVGSQ, who quickly informed us that we were not to worry for our safety, as they would be our protectors. After this initial meeting we began mingling in various discussions in the open yard with all the hospitable and gracious VVGSQ inmates, who all looked like a bunch of Grandpa’s, but most aging very well for being in their 50's and 60’s. The conversations were many and full of questions and information. They all thanked us for coming and that this was all being done to honor me, it was “my” day they exclaimed. One had researched my interest of being an FBI agent and had advice on what classes and degrees I should pursue in college. Others wanted to know what college I was planning on going to and what I was going to spend the award money on. All of them told me to at least spend half on myself and have fun with it. We wanted to know what branch of the service they had been in and many told us that they were in programs to get their degrees. Most had stories or told us little bits and pieces of themselves and their families. Others told us were they were in the war and some told us they wished they had stayed in the service. Some told us of their hopes of a parole hearing. Most had been there for upward of 20 years.

With so many conversations and so much information, we began to associate nicknames with them to help us remember them by, like, Mr. Tennessee alias Mr. Two Hankee Man, (strong southern accent and always talking about how emotional the essays were), Barney the dinosaur, Mr. Sicily, Mr. Bifocal, Mr. Air Force (because he was the only one who was in the Air Force), Mr. LDS (because he has hopes to join the Latter-day-Saints Church when he gets released), Mr. Flow…….(he was listening to a rap CD for the first time and said now he now knows what the young people mean when they say rap music “flowed”), Mr. Tear Man (claimed to be the bubbler of the group), Mr. Parent Forger, (and American Indian who forged his parents signature to get into the service at age 17), Mr. Can’t Remember A Name, alias Mr. June (as he called my mom), to name a few. We were taken inside one of the Chapels and offered drinks of water, soda or coffee while one inmate, who appeared to be of American Indian decent, walked around the room and us with an incense stick that give off a pleasant aroma. Then I was then greeted by the American Indian Spiritual advisor, who was not an inmate, who hugged me and told me how much my essay touched his heart.

With about three from the VVGSQ, and about three sponsor escorts we were then given a tour of the prison. We first walked past a group of about 50 teenagers who were there on the R.E.A.L. Choices program, a program that gives teenagers a taste of prison life, in hopes they don’t end up there. We saw the lower yard of basketball courts and a soccer field, and the upper yard, complete with bullet holes in the tin roof of a breezway. As we turned the corner we entered the upper cell block where the first thing you see is the small door to death row, which is labeled, "Condemned" with convex bars locked in front of it. Around the corner we observed the sleeping quarters, toilet and showers, (which is noting like what we see on TV!) These rooms were about 4' wide by about 10' deep, hardly enough space to walk next to the bunk beds to get to the toilet in the back. On the way back we were taken into the area they are most proud - the Hobby Shop. Here they have their own lockers and are allowed to have any tool, including knifes. Here they have to fix things when they break and they make their own tools. Their lockers are checked by a guard when they first open them to make sure no tools have been stolen by the guards as well as checked back into their lockers when they are done. We were amazed at the expert craftsmanship of the various wood projects of intricate clocks, jewelry boxes and cedar chests to name a few. My mom was so envious of the goods that she expressed her wish to have such beauties and we were informed that they welcome custom orders. Besides being able to do most anything, they make all the furniture located in all the State Buildings, mattresses, and have even made the nets that are located under the Golden Gate Bridge. Although it seems like life in a penitentiary is slower in comparison to how we live, there were always reminders of time, like when “Wolf”, kept telling us that "if we get moving we would be able to see more on the tour because we only had three more minutes". He took us into the second room, the machine shop area of the Hobby shop, where it was explained that in this room the prisoners have an unwritten rule that NO ONE fights another prisoner here.

Escorted back to the open yard we where again allowed to mingle and talk to all the men, where more of the group now congregated. My mom and I would start out together but several times we found outselves having our own conversations near by. Some of the men would come right up to us and start a conversation while others would watch us from a distance and from their facial expressions and slow steady movements towards us, said they wanted to talk. Most eventually made their way over to us or we to them. We always knew quickly which ones they were from the light blue baseball hats they all wore. The hats bore the initials V.V.G.S.Q. with the various pins attached that they earned from their respective branches of the service. We were later to find out that they themselves made these elaborate pins. Some had more pins than others, but each one in the group had the distinctive pin of the group - the outline of Vietnam with a spirit ghost attached.

The ceremony, which was held in the Islamic Chapel, one of the rooms surrounding the yard, had the front of it decorated with the flags of all branches of the service. One in the group called the meeting to order with a formal color guard of inmates parading the United States and California State Flags, who then introduced the speakers, men who said little but what they said you could tell was well thought out, relevant, inspirational and to the point. There always seemed to be two spiritual American Indian advisor's nearby, one, a sponsor to the group, and the other an inmate himself, who, continually summoned the Earth Spirits, and one of them graced the meeting with an inspirational talk and song. For lunch we were seated in the front of the room facing the 40 inmates and 30 guests, who were intermingled with each other on long folding tables, two across and three deep. I sat next to my mom and the other award winners dad and my mom had the honor of sitting next to the Warden of the prison, who had just taken over the job and appeared to be well liked by the inmates. She hardly had time to eat her lunch from all the interruptions from the prisoners and sponsors having conversations with her. We were constantly being reminded by the sponsors and the Warden, that these men were in prison for life. My mom told the Warden, "what a great group of men the VVGSQ were and that they were so kind and caring, like dads and grandpas." And she replied, “they ARE dads and grandpas”. It was so easy to get lost in this seemingly dream world of wonderful men, doing a wonderful good. We quickly forgot that they are there for a reason, and although I asked them the question in my essay, “why are you there in prison,” I never asked them for that answer. I knew it was for something really really bad though. It was so very hard to believe that any of these men were there at all and that they did anything wrong. It was now easy to see the discrepancy between why some argue for prisoners to be paroled and why the victims grace the parole hearings with long speeches to the contrary. Would the victims change their minds if they got to know these men? Is there ever anything the perpetrator could do that would give the victim a reason to otherwise fight their release from being locked up behind bars for the rest of their lives?

For lunch we were served fresh salmon caught the Wednesday before from two of the Group's sponsors and food that was SO incredible and SO much that it was better than a 10 star restaurant! - Spinach and baby green salad, homemade potato salad, vegetables, stuffed tortellini, fresh fruit and the two pieces of cheesecake, one coated in 1/8 inch of chocolate, was to die for, all prepared by the sponsors.

We were then allowed to mingle again in the Chapel and on the grounds, making sure we spoke to all in the Group and the sponsors. At this point Comcast came in the chapel to set up to videotape the program, which is to air soon on cable. We were then seated in the chapel again, this time facing the front of the room, for the awards. Barney, the secretary of the group knelt down in front of me across my table and told me what was going to happen next. He explained that he would talk a little about me, introduce me and then present the award to me. He said that I could accept my award with a little speech, as the guys would bug me to speak anyway. He was so calm, kind and helpful encouraging me. Then the meeting began and “Wolf”, introduced Barney, who told the story of me and my essay. He then summoned me up to the front podium and presented me with my award. I thanked him with a hug, unbeknown to me that this was probably not allowed. And just as Barney had said, the group then asked if I would speak. Holding back tears I movingly told the group how thankful I was and what a great group of men they are and what an honor it was to be there, receiving this award. I also told them that I was sorry that the group member that passed and was not there. I tried not to look at my mom because I knew she was crying too. These men had touched our hearts as much as we had touched theirs.

The warden introduced the other recipient and she too spoke thanking the group for the award. The meeting then continued with more inspirational talks, and some of the groups unfinished business. Then they presented the two award winners with their very own VVGSQ baseball hat, which I am most proud. These hats are dark blue to distinguish them from the inmates light blue ones, but they have the same V.V.G.S.Q. letters as theirs. Finally the group closed the meeting with the color guard procession withdrawing the flags. This was followed by more mingling in the yard and a group photo. (Since cameras cannot be brought into the prison, we made a request for pictures from the prison spokesperson and he got a digital camera and throughout the ceremony took numerous pictures, which he is emailing to us. At this point we were invited to stay for the memorial service for the inmate in the Group, who read the essays, but passed two days before the ceremony. The officiator was the American Indian spiritual guide who invoked the Spirits with incense, tobacco sprinklings, speech, song and drums, who were being played by several from the VVGSQ Group.

We were then able to do more socializing to make sure we had spoke to everyone. From this group of new found fathers and all the fatherly advise, the last words I remember is Wolf telling me, "if anyone ever messes with you, tell them that you have 40 friends in San Quentin", not a claim many can make. Then Bob, one of the VVGSQ Group, broke off two roses from the garden of old aromatic roses and presented one to me and one to the award winner. We were then ushered back through the series of gates, scanners and numerous guards and processes, for the long, almost silent walk back to the car.

I can't begin to express to you the impressionable impact that this emotional day has had on me - one that I will remember the rest of my life. On the way to the prison this morning I was telling my mom, that out of all the scholarships I have received, (a total of 5) this one meant the most. Once I met and talked with all the imamates that awarded me this honor, and went through this experience, I not only think that this scholarship means the most, but I now feel it means even more than that. The inmates were so gracious, heartfelt, sincere and honest and throughout the day presented me with bits of themselves - their share of history and knowledge. An honor so bestowed on only a few, from such honorable men who unfortunately made a mistake in their lives but least we forget, also defended our freedoms and the freedoms of those in less fortunate parts of the world.

I came away with a different understanding of life that day - one that we hear and talk about, study our ancient scriptures for and strive to live, yet not really having the concept of what that REALLY looks like. I thought that life never changed from our own little bubble and that’s all there is and was. Well these inmates gave us a good long hard look at life that day. One that I hope I will never forget. Here is a small group of men making a significant difference in the world, a world that they have taken advantage of and have been called to pay the price for, a world that they cannot even see. They are truly blessed with a very special gift.

Mary Manley

VGSQ 2004 Inspirational Award Winner

Wilcox High School

13 June 2004

Update! June 27, 2004 VVGSQ General Meeting minutes– “Chairman Stipe proposed that the V.V.G.S.Q. adopt the name Mary Manley Inspirational Award for future recipients, on the condition that funds are available, and a suitable application is submitted. The motion was adopted."

Make your own free website on