As part of Mount Tamalpais College’s summer 2021 fundraising campaign we are highlighting the bonds of support that exist within the incarcerated community at San Quentin, and the many ways that people care for each other, and lift each other up. We are proud to share some student reflections on people in their lives that have helped them through this last year.
Juan Moreno Haines has been in prison every bit of two decades. During his incarceration, he’s created quite a resume and carved out a spot for himself alphabet by alphabet in the world of journalism. Juan is a modest man. Writing is his passion. He’s known for passing his skills to other prisoners while not interested in being the focus of attention. Juan has attracted the attention of some heavy hitters in the news industry. He’s made his appreciation clear when saying he can’t do what he’s doing “without the assistance of very dedicated people who believe in me and go out of the way to support incarcerated journalists like me.” He shows humble appreciation by honoring those who believed in his journey.
In 2009, he began working for San Quentin News and today he’s its Senior Editor, and he’s a member of its Editorial Board. Juan has authored writings for a variety of publications such as The San Quentin News, Solitary Watch, Oakland Post, California Prison Focus, El Tecolote, Race and Poverty Law Journal, and many more. In addition to his publications, he’s a board member of Mourning Our Losses, he is the co-founder of Humans of San Quentin and if that isn’t enough, he has also received a number of awards such as, the 2020 Fielding A. Dawson Prize in the Fiction Category awarded by the PEN America Prison Writing Program Literary Contest, and the Silver Heart from the Society of Professional Journalists. He achieved all of these achievements from prison, yet his best achievement is that none of this has gone to his head.
The purpose of my story is to talk about living next to my friend The San Quentin writer – Juan, the person in the concrete jungle of San Quentin State Prison. Just in case you are wondering who I am, my name is Alex Ross K23127. This May will mark my 27th year in prison. My friend Juan is one of the forces that helps me stay grounded here at San Quentin. Prison is a very violent place and for most people in prison, violence is the norm. I had to reprogram my entire way of thinking which is how Juan and I became cool. Another one of his successes: he’s facilitated several self-help groups. I’m pretty sure his interactions with me inspired him to pull out his old notes.
I’ve been living next to Juan for nearly four years now. In the beginning, it was just every day prison living, respectful neighbor type stuff. Then I started spreading (which is when the guys cook together) with him and his old cellie Yah Ya who was one of the best cooks around. We would eat, joke, then go our own ways. During this time, I was dealing with some stressful issues surrounding my struggle with OCD. Juan was somebody who I could talk to. Something he said really made a lot of sense to me: “Writing connects people in the prison environment, which is so disconnected.” That hit home with me because it wasn’t until I began to write about my problems that I was able to really understand them.
I’m a student at Patten College which has now been renamed Mt Tamalpais College. Originally I joined the college just to take math. But in order to take a math class higher than algebra, it’s required to pass English. This scared me because I thought it would be a repeat of my old high school days. However, with the help of Patten College, the volunteer tutors from Free To Succeed, and my old friend Juan, somehow I took a liking to this thing called writing.
San Quentin is a community within the prison that is not as easily penetrated as one may think. The in-house powers-that-be shifted and I wasn’t used to the no politics (prisoner controlled rules). I really had to overhaul my belief system because I was used to solving my problems with my fist. Violence will get you on the first bus out of SQ. But if one ever wishes to qualify for parole, one must abort the old ways of criminal thinking or perish in prison. A lot of guys want to get themselves a name and not look back. Juan is not one of these guys. He pushes others to be all that they can be. He’s colorblind, so to speak, and more importantly, he tries to see things from other people’s perspective. Juan has no problem mentoring other prisoners, something he attributes to his mentor, Arnulfo T. Garcia.
Juan will be going to the Prison Board this year and he’s written about so many other people, I felt like somebody needed to write about him. He being my next door neighbor, I’ve personally witnessed two or three people at the same time seeking advice from him. Every now and then I’ll step out the cell and say “Hey Juan, I wasn’t ear hustling but I couldn’t help but hear” such and such. He laughs, then gives me clarity, and says “And you was ear hustling.”
Who is this San Quentin Writer? Juan is about five-foot-three and probably 120 pounds. But his writing has a voice like thunder. I told him what I was up to and he said “Good luck with that. I’m not giving you an interview.” I said, “You already did, buddy.” He laughed because he knows that as long as we’ve been neighbors, I’ve been bugging him about writing tips and taking notes. He did give in and answered a few questions once he realized how serious I was. I take pride in writing about my buddy because he’s all right with me. Plus, he made me write about myself. But I can’t get him to write about himself. He’s always telling me about reading up on people and situations, and the importance of collecting evidence. So I wanted to share a little evidence I collected on him. He chuckled as he walked off headed toward the media room. Actually, his cell is just a pit stop because the media room is where he spends most of his time. The prison is slowly opening back up and Juan is like a fish out of water that was put back in its habitat. As I mentioned earlier, I was going through my own issues with OCD and people didn’t really get me. Juan was one of the people I could talk to and he understood where I was coming from. I put out a few cellies because of my issues with germs, causing me to be the talk of the town. Truthfully, I was on the verge of a violent relapse. Being able to trust talking to a person and not lose my cool was helpful for my rehabilitation. While in Patten College, I took an abnormal psychology class. Some of the things that I read were familiar. I talked to my psych about it and I shared it with Juan. So when I did my final report that semester, I wrote about myself as if I were someone else. Normally, I only share personal business with my psych but Juan became just like my second psych and plus, I like to hear his opinion. I’m right next door so we chop it up on a regular. He felt like I should share my story. He started a story about my situation but the pandemic changed the course of history. I ended up writing it myself. Juan and my tutor felt I should send it to the Prison Journalism Project and, to my surprise, they printed it.
I did tell you that Juan is my friend and no friendship is without its ups and downs. Actually, it was those ups and downs that let me know we are really friends. Let’s face it. We all met over a bowl of soup, as we say, and in the beginning it doesn’t make a difference if a person makes friends or not. We are all here to do our time. In the process, we run across every type of person in the world. The good, the bad, and the ugly of every background of life are right here in prison. If one can decide to be a good person in the concrete jungle of prison and absolutely mean it, then one could be that same good person upon his or her release from prison. My friend Juan is one of the very few people in life that I look up to. If anyone approaches him with negativity, that is a wrap – conversation over! If I bother him when the news is on, I get the cold shoulder. But if somebody else stops by, he is a little more patient with them and doesn’t want to be rude because, as he says, ”They don’t know I really like my news. You do.” Now what kind of foolishness is that? I’m the doggone neighbor. So I get him back. When somebody is at his door and I know he is trying to watch the news, I step out to see that look he has when he’s wanting to get back to the news and doesn’t want to be rude. LOL. But that’s a part of how willing he is to help others. The little time that he does have to relax, he lets it go to lend a helping hand. It’s especially funny when I walk back and forth in front of his cell as he tries to watch the news and ignores me. I keep passing by until I give in and start laughing. Now wait a minute though, it’s not just me. Juan likes to bring me his chow whenever there is corn in the main dish because he knows doggone well I’m never going to eat corn. So I have to get him back when I can because I’m telling you, Juan is a jerk at times. I was sitting in my cell writing and I got stuck on a word. I called out to my friend and asked how to spell the word. Do you think he helped me? No! He told me ”The word is in the dictionary.” If I felt like looking in the dictionary, do you think I would have asked him to spell the word for me? He told me his name was not Webster. I wanted to tell him they’re the same height but I decided to be the bigger person. So I lied and told him “I must be pronouncing it wrong because I still can’t find it in the dictionary. “Mr. Juan felt as though he was ahead of the game and yelled back “I can’t hear you. Got my headphones on.” I said “What?” And he repeated it. So he thought he won that battle just because I was forced to look up the word ”THE” for myself. I tell you people, Juan is truly a good dude but living next to him, I realize he can also be a real jerk, but that’s my buddy.
Juan said his goals change from time to time. He is presently working on three books: a novel about an incarcerated journalist; a collection of short stories; and an anthology of book reviews that he wrote while in prison. Spike Lee look out because my neighbor Juan The San Quentin Writer is coming.