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For the second time in eight years, San Quentin State Prison almost killed me. What bothers me the most about getting a deadly disease and not knowing I have it is that it took healthcare providers nearly a month to officially tell me (and only through a letter) that I had Legionnaires’ Disease. Adding insult to injury, the origin of the bacteria was the cooling towers on the $136 million hospital built in 2010 where I was being treated for high blood pressure.

Death in San Quentin

Death in San Quentin—Juan Moreno Haines

When I had the sickness, my lungs were filing up with a deadly fluid. I was walking around ignorant that I was succumbing to this degenerative disease. I felt tired and had a slight headache. I lost my appetite and stayed in my cell, in the dark. I thought that my old migraines of 10 years ago had come back to nag me. I thought that rest would revive me and I’d recover in soon. However, I looked terrible and several people told me this.

Can you believe that some people on their websites have even declared that maybe Legionnaires’ Disease at San Quentin is actually doing the public some good by killing off criminals who are worthless anyway?

After a few days, I didn’t feel any better. And, I couldn’t muster up the energy to go to important meetings. I went to work late the following Tuesday and Wednesday. My friends and even a correctional officer urged me to see a doctor. Finally, I did. I was bed-ridden for days with a fever that climbed to 102.7 degrees!

Many might have said, “Good riddance to that scumbag! He’s done a lot of damage to our community.” Can you believe that some people on their websites have even declared that maybe Legionnaires’ Disease at San Quentin is actually doing the public some good by killing off criminals who are worthless anyway? I do seem to understand this attitude shared by lots of people—even good people—and yet it is so misguided. It’s our criminal past that seems to interfere with their thinking with more clarity and prevents them from seeing us as human.

Although I’ve committed grave misdeeds, I’ve never stopped being a human being and that is how I (and my fellow inmates) deserve to be treated. It’s funny that, at the ripe old age of 57,

I’ve finally grasped what it truly means to be human and that includes understanding the importance of relationships, community, and the powerful simplicity of empathy.

In large part, realizing who I am at my core came from reading the likes of Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl taught me what it means to suffer and to face death while still preserving one’s dignity. The following is an excerpt (in paraphrase) from his book that has inspired me:

Death in Teheran

A rich and mighty Persian once walked in his garden with one of his servants. The servant cried that he had just encountered Death, who had threatened him. He begged his master to give him his fastest horse so that he could make haste and flee to Teheran, which he could reach that same evening. The master consented and the servant galloped off on the horse.

On returning to his house, the master himself met Death and questioned him, “Why did you terrify and threaten my servant?”

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“I did not threaten him,” Death said. “I only showed surprise in still finding him here when I planned to meet him tonight in Teheran.”

At the height of having Legionnaires’ Disease, when I was feverish, I became delirious and could not figure out what was happening to me. I was headed towards Teheran and I didn’t know how to stop. Even though I dodged Death, I suffered a devastating and crushing psychological awakening: Death had a chance to take me and I barely escaped it.

It was by returning to Frankl’s descriptions of his own suffering in Man’s Search for Meaning that I was able to rediscover what all of it entailed. After getting well, I returned to rising each morning to do my job, but I had been given the gift of a new insight to life—something which made all the difference in mine.

When I first began to engage in criminal activity, I could not find purpose to my life and did not know how to respect the lives of those around me.

It is different today. Checking off my second decade in prison, I have grown increasingly fixated on the mistakes I’ve made. And God knows I’ve made a lot of them. There’s something important that I’ve learned: I am connected to every human being on this planet because, simply put, I too am human.

I have done my best to turn my incarceration experience into something positive and fulfilling. I am proud of my accomplishments and proud of the work I do on a day-to-day basis. Prison can kill people, physically and emotionally. Nevertheless, with all that I have and all that I have built for myself, I am still vulnerable, like the younger version of myself who had committed all those unforgivable acts.

I made the decision to create a life of purpose for myself even though I was still in prison. I became a journalist inside this place—a job giving me a way to tackle so many of my unresolved issues.

At San Quentin, I report through the San Quentin News about what inmates are doing with their time from a boots-on-the-ground perspective. Many here are people making remarkable transformations in spite of so many obstacles. This evolution has been made public via the News (which I edit) and through other reporting agencies. County sheriffs, district attorneys, judges, and teachers have come inside this place and are surprised by the range of humanity and productivity they find.

I bet that even the average American would be astonished by the resilience of the men inside San Quentin State Prison--many of whom are better now than they ever were before. They have experienced humility and have accepted accountability to the larger public for their past misdeeds. For many, they are seeking forgiveness from others even when it is hard to forgive themselves. For others, they seek not forgiveness for the unforgivable but, instead, work toward redemption through their own works.

For everyone’s sake, the conditions inside prisons in America must be of universal concern. We need to move away from the 18th century practices we are stuck in, to a modern system that treats prisoners (in California’s 34 prisons and countless county jails) as people worthy of rehabilitation and reform and not destined for recidivism.

In the meantime, here I am, awaiting the chance to demonstrate to the parole board that I am no longer the bank-robbing bandit I was in 1996—that I am a new person, finally deserving of a second chance and a new start.

Juan Moreno Haines