Kathleen Jackson

Based on appearances, you would imagine Kathleen Jackson’s involvements are raising hybrid roses, or plein air painting, or tending grandchildren (she has three). For 24 years, Jackson was a teacher and administrator at the prestigious Marin Country Day School in Corte Madera. And she has the subtle in-control look of a career educator.

Only now, at 75, her charges aren’t the offspring of Marin’s affluent—they are inmates at San Quentin State Prison. “Many of them are lifers,” she says matter-of-factly. 

“The men call me Kathleen,” she adds. “That’s what I prefer.” Jackson, divorced and a 20-year Marin resident, has been volunteering at the prison for the past three years. She works primarily with a group named T.R.U.S.T., an acronym for Teaching Responsibility Utilizing Sociological Techniques. Its tag line: “Changing Liabilities into Assets.”

“I am the only one working with the men on curriculum and how to be a teacher, but several other volunteers offer their skills and support,” Jackson continues. “These men created the San Quentin T.R.U.S.T., which has its own objectives, by-laws and executive committee. . . they are prisoners helping other prisoners turn their lives around.”

After retiring from Marin Country Day School and teaching 12th-grade English at an inner-city Oakland charter public school for three years, Jackson was steered to San Quentin by the Stupski Foundation, a Bay Area private fund dedicated to “improving life options for those of color and poverty.” Observing one class of the Prison University Project at the moderate-security prison had her hooked. “I felt extremely at home there; it was a place where I really wanted to be.”

In 2008, Jackson became an executive advisor to T.R.U.S.T. and has worked to organize food sales and health fairs inside San Quentin; advise the Richmond Project, a San Quentin outreach effort to improve life in that Contra Costa County community; and conduct weekly classes on topics ranging from anger management to male-female communications, child development, time management and poetry. Each once-a-week class takes several hours to prepare, is taught by a T.R.U.S.T. fellow, a guest speaker or Jackson and attracts from 35 to 40 convicts. Over a seven-month semester, 25 classes are given and, with few exceptions, the slender Jackson is the only “outsider” in the room. “It’s really become my life,” she says with a smile, “and I love it.”

Over the three years you’ve been teaching inside San Quentin, have you ever been in danger or felt fearful? No, I have not; being inside the prison is a very natural place for me to be. I like being there. Early on, I fully realized that if taken hostage I would not be rescued or be a subject of bargaining.

What are characteristics of the men you work with? I have to say, working with these men has shown me that here is an amazingly talented population that is mostly ignored or forgotten. Living in Marin, we drive by San Quentin constantly, but do we have any idea who is inside? Do we think about what they doing and what they are thinking? The men I work with in the T.R.U.S.T.—mostly lifers—have done a lot of work on themselves and, to my way of thinking, would make the community a safer place if they were outside. Why? Because they have worked on themselves for a very, very long time; they have dealt with their anger and they’ve dealt with their liabilities and worked to turn them into abilities, or assets. They understand the population that gets into trouble much better than those in law enforcement, political positions or the everyday citizen. Many of those I am with say that if they ever get out, they want to work with at-risk young people.

Will you give specific examples? Okay. I’ll start with James Houston, who is from Richmond; he’s chairman of the Richmond Project and a T.R.U.S.T. fellow. He is a 42-year-old African American—a beautiful man inside and out, in excellent physical condition. In the past three years I’ve seen him grow tremendously in public speaking, organizing his tasks and conveying the concept that in order for inmates to do good in the world, they first must work on themselves. Last Monday, James led a discussion on how to stay positive and help others do likewise. He shared that he grew up with a mother who insisted he stay out of trouble and remain in school. However, James fell in with a drinking crowd and that was that. I think he has served 20 years of a life sentence and I am not sure what crime he committed, as we are not supposed to ask.
In February, James is going before the parole board for the first time and he’s busy preparing for that. Personally, I feel it is so wrong to lock up people for years and years because of one mistake—as long as they’ve worked on themselves continuously. James is a devout Christian who spends a lot of time mentoring other convicts on his tier in the yard, or wherever he goes. He maintains he would be dead if he hadn’t been put in San Quentin, that he has matured while in prison and that he is now ready to be a good father to his 14-year-old son.

Another example, please? Darnell Hill is 45, an African American who’s married and who came to San Quentin about 25 years ago with his father, who taught him how to burglarize. At Monday’s session, he told me half the men who are incarcerated have fathers who are also incarcerated, and that trend will continue if something is not done to stop it. Darnell is chairperson of the T.R.U.S.T. and he is very articulate—all of these men are so smart. He is also in excellent shape, he keeps his hair in cornrows and is immaculate in his dress—his light blue denim shirt is always perfectly creased. Darnell is definitely a doer. He went before the parole board about three years ago and was told he was “not quite ready” because he did not show “enough remorse.” Well, how does one show remorse? As far as I’m concerned you stay active, you train and mentor others, you participate in programs—and Darnell has done all of that. Then there are others such as Larry, or “Doc,” Histon, who was in the financial business and now gives seminars on time management and organizational skills. Also, Demetrius Daniels and Noe Valdiva, who are out now and are working with T.R.U.S.T. members to establish “halfway” houses similar to Delancey Street, the highly successful San Francisco program.

Currently, are you a “committee of one” working with the T.R.U.S.T. and advising the Richmond Project and the food sales and health fairs inside San Quentin? Not exactly. There are graduate students from Berkeley, Mills College and St. Mary’s who often help with undertakings. If anyone with the required skills is willing to conduct one of our self-improvement sessions, they are always welcome. However, it does take training and enduring the bureaucracy.

For information, go to sanquentintrust.org or e-mail [email protected].