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Imprisoned By Ourselves--Part 1

I just discovered that I am an expert in being oblivious. (Oxford English Dictionary definition—oblivious: not aware of or not concerned about what is happening around one.) After decades of disdaining awareness and concern, I have finally awakened to the uniquely American crime of mass incarceration.

Of course we’ve all seen glimpses of prison life through movies or in books, but nobody wants to keep thinking about the rapes and beatings, gang tortures, clandestine drug abuse, sadistic guards, solitary confinement, involuntary servitude, unrelenting boredom, denial of rehabilitation services and other inhuman features of daily life behind bars. We hate knowing it. Even worse, we Americans haven’t a clue about how to accept the fact that with only 5% of the world’s population, our prisons hold 20% of the incarcerated people on planet earth. Are we that much more rotten than other human beings?

So we all do our best to forget what we’ve learned and go about our daily lives choosing to ignore what we know. Very successfully. No one more successfully than me. How could one person have been given more chances right in his own household to be alive to this calamity:

· Forty years ago, my mother Nan Daley managed the election of a new sheriff for San Francisco whose top priority was bringing civility to the city and county jails under his authority. He then appointed my mother to be the director of San Francisco’s Victim and Witness Assistance Program where her staff dealt every day with myriad people affected by crime.

· Thirty-five years ago our daughter Alison was a volunteer worker at Centurion Ministries where they pioneered the vindication of wrongfully convicted and incarcerated people.

· Our daughter Shannon just completed thirty-one years at The Children’s Defense Fund where they work tirelessly to dismantle the damnable “Cradle-to-Prison Pipeline” that dooms so many children of color to an adulthood behind bars.

· Our son Jad who is CEO of American Forests initiated a program to train “returning citizens” (formerly-incarcerated people) for employment in the work of preserving and expanding the canopy of trees on earth that is so critical to mitigating climate change.

· And my wife Patti works pretty much full time in supposed retirement on multiple programs to enable both incarcerated individuals and returning citizens to develop the skills, the self-respect, and the networks that can help them establish footing as productive members of society.

Why have I dragged you through all this? Because if somebody like me has managed to ignore this situation, despite loved ones offering continual exposure to it, chances are pretty good that you have, too. After all, in addition to being unpalatable, this issue is hidden out of sight behind well-guarded prison walls, where some people want it to remain unexamined.

But I recently saw two feature-length movies at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival that have shaken me wide awake, and I’m planning to stay awake. Perhaps you’ll stick with me while I share what I have learned. My next three posts on The Daley Almanac are going to address this grotesque situation:

· Today, I’ll describe the two films I saw in Santa Barbara that shook me from my stupor. They are a good place to start, since they display hope. We can’t just wallow in ain’t-it-awfulness but need to know that paying attention and taking action offer promise of beneficial results.

· In my next piece, I’ll briefly describe the apparent reasons why America’s incarceration problem is so much worse than other countries’.

· In the third post of the series I’ll introduce some feasible, real-life actions that “ordinary people” like you and I can do to improve the lives of those involved.

Okay, about those films that awakened me.

The first film was “26.2 to Life”—a documentary celebrating a program initiated by a veteran marathon runner living in Marin County near San Quentin prison. Now retired from running himself due to bad knees, he conjured up the idea of training inmates at San Quentin to run long distances—inside the walls, of course—to help them gain fitness, set and achieve challenging goals, and win the self-respect that comes from the discipline and grit distance running requires.

Fellow members of his Marin running club joined him to train several dozen inmates in what evolved into their preparation to run an entire marathon—26.2 miles—looping around “the yard” at San Quentin. The film documents the extraordinary commitment of the incarcerated runners pushing themselves and each other through the tortures of unimaginable exhaustion, pulled muscles, and jeering taunts from cynical fellow inmates.

Of course the film probably would never have been made had not thirteen of the initial crop of incarcerated runners actually succeeded in finishing a 26.2 mile marathon. The fastest of them completed the scores and scores of laps around the dreary yard in just a little over three hours—a very respectable marathon time anywhere—while the final finisher endured over six hours of agony, staggering on with gritty determination into the twilight hours amidst the encouragement of the earlier finishers—and the grudging respect of those formerly cynical onlookers who had mocked their training and goals.

Anyone who has ever achieved a genuinely arduous goal knows what that does to you. Even highly paid professional athletes burst into tears on TV when, finally, they triumph against all odds. To this day, forty-five years afterward, I keenly remember how I myself felt after stumbling across the finish line of my first half-marathon (13.1 miles), for which I was utterly ill-prepared. I had never before run more than two miles in my life. Scarcely halfway through, my hip and knee joints were shrieking at me to quit. I had to reach deeper and then deeper still into my tolerance for pain, time and again, over and over, silently begging for the agony to stop but somehow dredging up a will to keep going that I never dreamed I had in me. I finished next to last in a field of 566 runners as the organizers were wrapping up the banners. And to this day, I will declare that nothing I have ever done has hurt worse or felt better.

So too, for the runners at San Quentin. Their experience and their example has generated a wellspring of newfound life beyond that initial circle. The program has proliferated, and the “graduates” have profited in the best possible ways. Those who completed their incarceration and were released into what we imagine is “polite society” have lived lives where recidivism is negligible and self-respect buoys them throughout their days.

Further proof that many incarcerated people are ready, willing, and eager for a second chance came from the other film, “The 50”. The setting is California State Prison Solano, in Vacaville, California. The U. S. Supreme Court had mandated dramatic improvements in California's repulsive state prisons, including reduction in overcrowding and provision of rehabilitation programs. Because prisons are startlingly rampant with drug addiction, one such program--documented in "The 50"--is Solano’s unique drug-addiction treatment staffed by…(wait for it)…incarcerated addicts who themselves are in recovery.

Of some two hundred who volunteered to be trained as counselors for this program, fifty were selected. Because only someone who has come clean with themselves can ever really help another to come clean, their intense training sessions plunge them face-down into the painful life experiences that spawned their own drug addiction and their criminal behavior. They found themselves edging into honest, shame-riddled, humbling, frightening tales of their personal evolution. As denial receded and courage emerged, they recounted personal evolutions toxified with personal trauma, rookie ventures into shoplifting, drug-fueled diversion from ugly reality, recruitment into local gangs, escalating criminality intended to demonstrate their manhood. Tears flowed in front of fellow inmates they had more recently sought to intimidate. But facing and mastering these demons was equipping them with the firsthand “expertise” to perform as in-house counselors.

In one of the sessions filmed in “The 50”, one inmate describes a surpassingly horrific experience as a 10-year-old. Living with his aunt because his drug-addicted mother was incapable of caring for him and his father was not in the picture, he found himself one day scrunched face-down in terror under a cocktail table while his aunt was being slaughtered by a murderer just inches away, her blood splattering everywhere. He told of clenching his eyes tight. He told of clenching the rug tight in his fists. He told of clenching his hearing to block out the sounds of her screams and her calling his name to save her.

As he groped to continue, the professional trainer who was conducting this session got up, took hold of an empty chair and gently placed it in front of the trainee so it faced him, just a couple of feet away. The trainer then quietly asked him to imagine that his aunt was sitting there in that chair. “What would you like to say to her?”

It would be almost obscene of me to attempt to describe his anguished response to that opportunity. No written words could ever do it justice. Suffice it to say that I have never before been so deeply moved by any moment ever captured on film.


There has been a several-minutes delay between the previous sentence and this one. I was too undone by recalling my experience with him and needed a time-out. I plan to say more about this film in the third/final of these posts in which I will address things we can do to rehabilitate both the people and the institutions involved in our prison system—like ensuring that many people see "The 50". If in the meantime you choose to know more about “The 50”, you can click here:

Let me just wrap this up now with the following epilogue, and then get back to you soon with the second of the three posts about this subject, which will focus on how we got into this predicament.

Epilogue: More than 500 incarcerated persons have now completed this training as addiction counselors. Some have served their prison terms and been released. Many of those are now employed as addiction counselors in professional settings, while others are gainfully employed in a wide variety of occupations. The normal rate of recidivism for such returning citizens is 30-40%. For those who served in this program, the recidivism rate is less than 1%.

Acts of love and labor pains seem to produce re-birth, as well.

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214 views8 comments


Aug 24, 2023

This is great writing about a tough subject. How do I get on your list to receive the blog regularly. I would love that.

Helen MEserve


Jun 03, 2023

John Clark

I have seen both films. I can say, without reservation, they depicted the most powerful of emotions (positive) (commitment) and the degree of the grizzly circumstances from which these men have extracted themselves.. Both are must sees.


Mar 11, 2023

Incredibly heart felt and important. It does feel like a wake up call. Thank you!

Kirsten (alison’s high school friend)


Mar 07, 2023

Eliot, as always, greatly appreciate your blog posts....Kevin Goldstein


Mar 06, 2023

Beautifully written and deserving of a wider audience. Thank you.

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