Interfaith Vigil at San Quentin

Interfaith Prayer Vigil at San Quentin, photo by David Bacon

The conditions at San Quentin State Prison are deplorable. The current COVID outbreak has spread to over half the population, sickening over 2000 incarcerated individuals, over 250 employees and claiming the lives of at least 19 people. These illnesses and deaths were preventable – they are the direct result of the lack of concern for those incarcerated and the inhumane treatment they regularly endure.

On July 19, the interfaith community gathered outside San Quentin to decry the conditions that led to this outbreak, demand an end to inhumane practices that cause such conditions in the first place, and declare a vision for restorative justice practices that provide healing for individuals, communities and society. Over 100 people gathered to hear testimonies of incarcerated individuals and their families, mourn lives needlessly lost, and provide public witness of the faith community. We prayed together: Respect Human Lives – Release the Captives – Restore Our Community.

Our united, ongoing prayer, photo by David Bacon

We made four demands of Governor Newsom: immediately improve the conditions at San Quentin, ensuring that all who are incarcerated are treated with mercy, compassion and human decency; intervene and stop all transfers among prisons and ICE detention centers, ending further spread of the virus; release incarcerated individuals, starting with those in great danger: the medically vulnerable, the elderly and the trans community; reduce the population at San Quentin to 50% of capacity to allow for social distancing – release should be to family, the faith community or other community-based re-entry programs, not other prisons.


I encourage you to add your voice by calling Governor Newsom to share our demands, as well as to offer the prayer below, which grounded our action. To learn more about this action, and for a sample script to email, call or tweet the governor, click SQVigilToolkit. Here is a video of the service.

Interfaith Prayer for San Quentin Action

Respect Human Lives 

As human beings, all people, all of us

  • All of us deserve to live – and for incarcerated individuals COVID has become a death sentence
  • All of us are capable of redemption – no one deserves excessive punishment
  • All of us are more than our worst mistakes – we all have the ability to grow
  • No one deserves to live in a cage

Release the Captives

  • Release people to families, faith communities, or community based re-entry programs
  • Release the vulnerable – because they are at great risk – especially the medically compromised, the trans community and the elderly
  • Release those who have completed base terms – they have done their time
  • Release those who have been unduly burdened by lengthy sentences or life without parole – undoing racial injustice
  • Release those who are currently low risk – they are in need of community support
  • Release those who have changed – they are ready to return
  • Release imprisoned community leaders – we need their wisdom and leadership
  • Release us all from the inhumanity of prisons to new ways of community redress & repair.

Restore Our Community

  • Restore families and loved ones
  • Restore individuals to their communities
  • Restore justice to black and brown communities
  • Restore humanity to all communities
  • Restore us back to the oneness of our humanity
photo by Joyce Xi

Growing Light

Sunrise outside San Quintin State Prison, July 1, 2020

“What if this is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?” suggested Sikh faith leader Valerie Kaur, in the wake of the election of Donald Trump. Her words, pregnant with potential, describe well the moment in which we are living – a moment where death is palpable – people are dying of disease, of disadvantage, and of dehumanization at the hands of the state – but also where we are surrounded by signs of new life – community coming together and demanding better, community thinking creatively about how we can support and strengthen the vulnerable in our midst, community enacting new ways of welcoming the stranger, loving our neighbor and protecting and serving everyone around us. Kaur invites us to breathe deeply in this moment of tremendous labor pains, breathe deeply into the birthing process of welcoming something beautiful, something long awaited, something that has the potential to transform our nation. Below is one way I witnessed the power of hope and the promise of new life in the midst of darkness and death this week.


Wednesday morning faith leaders and friends of Chanthon Bun gathered outside the west Gate of San Quinton State Prison, awaiting his release. Bun had received parole, but it was unlikely that he would walk out of prison a free man. Instead, ICE’s practice is to transfer people scheduled for release from prison directly into detention facilities, thus doubly punishing those who do not have full citizenship status. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) commonly notifies ICE of release dates for immigrants, despite our state’s sanctuary laws, thus enacting a prison-to-detention pipeline.IMG_6432

Because ICE transfers often take place in the early hours of the morning through back gates that are used for transfer of supplies, we arrived at 5 a.m. in hopes of witnessing Bun’s transfer. We dreamt of intercepting the transfer, but, realistically, we assumed our role would be to witness it, document it, and be a visible sign to Bun that he wasn’t forgotten as he endured this unjust form of double punishment.

fullsizeoutput_581dBun’s words, “to live is to hope,” grounded our gathering. At sunrise, we offered prayers of hope and pleas for justice and mercy – for Bun and the 1100 inmates in San Quinton who have tested positive for COVID. Knowing the harsh conditions inside, we watched darkness transition to light and clung to Bun’s inspiring words. Bun’s story did not begin with great hope. Born in a Cambodian refugee camp, growing up in poverty, enduring bullying, discrimination and war trauma, Bun found his way on the streets of Los Angeles. At 18, he received a 49 year sentence for a crime he committed that resulted in no physical harm. Yet while in prison, Bun found ways to turn his life around, heal from the trauma he’s endured, educate himself and give back to his community. Bun’s life bears witness to the hope he proclaims.
We don’t know why ICE didn’t show up Wednesday morning – perhaps our presence made an impact, or the countless phone calls to Governor Newsom and CDRC Secretary Ralph Diaz the day and weeks before, or the growing protests outside of San Quintin and media coverage of their COVID outbreak and inhumane conditions, or simply ICE’s notorious ineptness. Whatever the reason, were overjoyed to be able to welcome Bun back to his community who has been walking with him and working with him on his journey for freedom. We were overwhelmed by the power of miracles, the promise of hope, and a moment of transformative clarity that the efforts of those serving love and liberation are making a difference. This celebration is yet another reason to renew our commitment to the world we long for – the world we are fighting for – the world that we are birthing into existence.

On this 4th of July, I am mindful of the words of Langston Hughes, “America will be,” and am encouraged to keep serving as midwife to a land of liberty and justice for all.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man [sic] is free.