I’ve known Ben for about four years now. He’s very social, at times, even a clown. But, for the most part, he stays to himself or his small circle of friends. Ever since I’ve known him, our conversations have consisted of funny debates about sports then quickly shift to his inquisitive eagerness about current or upcoming legislative changes.
I have always tried to give him as much information as possible.
Four years ago, he asked about Senate Bill 260. The following year, the unthinkable happened for him when Senate Bill 261 passed.
[SB 260 gives people who were convicted of a certain range of crimes as kids in adult court a chance at a parole hearing after serving a certain number of years. SB 261 is similar to SB 260, but changes the threshold for the age of conviction from under 18 to under 23.]
Ben is a lifer. He committed a crime when he was 19 years old. That was over 20 years ago. When SB 261 passed, instead of another decade or so, he was headed to the parole board within a year.
Six months prior to his parole board hearing, another unthinkable thing happened. Ben was caught with a cell phone. From the outside looking in, for Ben to get caught with a cell phone was unbelievable. The guys around him couldn’t believe he would “do something so stupid,” especially when he was months away from the most important interview of his life.
Ben received a five-year denial at the parole board. Cell phones are illegal contraband in prison. Because of the crimes we’ve committed, prison administrations want to monitor and control all of our contact with the outside world. Prison officials understand that cell phones could be used for good or harm, and it is their responsibility to protect the public from any further potential threat.
After his five year denial, Ben walked around here depressed, isolated, and I didn’t experience too many funny debates about sports anymore. One thing did remain, however. Ben continued to ask me incessantly about legislative changes. I couldn’t understand why. I felt like he had his chance already when SB 261 passed. Every time we’d cross each other’s path, he would stop and ask me “What’s new!? Anything change?!” A lot was happening and I would try to inform him. I updated him about Assembly Bill 1276, Assembly Bill 1308, Prop 57, and Senate Bill 1437, all new laws affecting other men inside. Though he was not affected by these new laws, it felt as if Ben still used those changes as pieces of hope for himself.
Within a year of Ben’s five-year denial, he was caught with yet, another cell phone. The men around him said to each other that “he doesn’t want to go home,” or that he was a “dumb ass.”
Ben walked around feeling what seemed to me as shameful, as guys who were further along in their journey talked behind his back about his “stupidity.”
I think about Ben and others like him. I know he’s not “stupid.” I see Ben as respectful, funny, and remorseful for his crime. He cooks for friends and offers people the little that he has. Ben is not a violent person, is not involved in gangs, doesn’t have “anger issues,” nor is he addicted to drugs.
Ben’s addiction is cell phones.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about this “addiction.” People who use cell phones in prison not only talk to their families, they may text, use social media and surf the internet. They can check Facebook, Instagram, search on Google and watch YouTube videos. The connection they seek can go beyond family to a bigger and wider linkage into the world.
I wondered if Ben was truly addicted to the phone itself—the material object—or was it deeper than that? What are Ben’s needs? His human needs? What “addiction” is he trying to soothe? I believe the cell phone habit is an addiction to connection, or simply, a deep and intense need to feel and express love to his family, and perhaps to feel connected to the world at large. Unfortunately, he chose to express that need illegally and it cost him a chance at freedom.
In prison, there are a few ways to communicate with our families and loved ones. We write handwritten letters which take about three days for our families to receive. It takes about two or three weeks (sometimes more) for our family’s written responses to reach us, due to administrative security clearances. Another way to have contact with family and loved ones is through the visiting room. Those visits take place on Saturdays and Sundays from about 8:00 am to 2:00 pm. We also get visits on certain holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year and, interestingly, the 4th of July.
Recently lifers were returned the right to a family visit, where we can spend 72 hours with our immediate family in a small “apartment” isolated, but on prison grounds.
The other way to talk to family is through a 15 minute collect call a day. I got to call one person for 15 minutes. In my experience, it was difficult to develop, or further sustain a relationship with my sisters and mother in that amount of time. I believe Ben experienced similar struggles.
In 2009, when I was in a maximum security prison in Corcoran, I too was caught with a cell phone. I was well aware that cell phones were illegal contraband. Having one was wrong and I knew it was wrong. However, at that time, my need to be connected with my family mattered to me more than the consequences. I felt depressed and distant, from my sisters, physically and emotionally. With the cell phone, I was able to call them at a comfortable time and spend hours talking with them. I was a consistent presence in their lives. I actually got to know my sisters.
I’ve had a distant relationship with my mother my entire life. In 2009, I was the closest to my mom I’ve ever been. We were able to talk at length, openly. Most importantly, we had the time to mend, build, and further sustain our severed mother/son relationship. We shared secrets and talked honestly about our interpretations of prior experiences with each other. We had ample time to converse, process, and heal. It was amazing and for the first time in our lives, my sisters, mother and I were actually happy. After being caught with a phone in 2009, I gave up using cell phones.
Unfortunately and honestly, though we love each other and are there for each other, the closeness in the relationship with my family grew distant.
I thoroughly understand what Ben and I, and others did was wrong. We broke prison rules, lied, covered up, and selfishly placed our needs above making amends for the people we’ve harmed.
Cell phones are illegal contraband in prison and they come into the prison illegally. The phones get distributed through the prison’s black market. I understand that by participating in the use of cell phones, I am also participating in criminal activity. I am not advocating for the illegal use of cell phones. But what I am encouraging is maybe, the legal use of cell phones. Or, perhaps a more affordable system for incarcerated people to communicate with their families. After all, isn’t the establishment of love the essence of rehabilitation?
Adnan Khan is the Co-Founder of Re:store Justice. Adnan also created FIRSTWATCH, a media filmmaking project with films produced entirely by incarcerated men at San Quentin State Prison. Adnan works in collaboration with survivors of crime, currently and formerly incarcerated people, district attorneys, CDCR officials, and other stakeholders to move towards restorative practices.
During his own time in San Quentin, he co-founded the organization Re:store Justice and worked as an advocate on the felony/murder rule legislation, Senate Bill 1437. The bill passed in August 2018 and on January, 18th 2019, Adnan was the first person re-sentenced under the bill he helped create. Today, he is continuing his advocacy & work at Re:store Justice.
This column first appeared at FirstWatch.