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Behind Bars: A Powerful Experience

Hey, everybody. Sorry I haven’t blogged in a while, but it’s been a hectic few months rehabbing my arm (which is doing great), getting ready for the season and working on our ShowerPill business. But I had to tell you all about an amazing experience I had while I was training out west at Cal…

Thanks to Kevin Parker, a buddy of mine who works for the Cal football program (and has been a friend since I was in school there), I was introduced to the San Quentin Squires Program back in college. Basically, the program is a juvenile delinquency deterrence initiative that brings underprivileged and at-risk youth to San Quentin Prison to expose them to the realities of prison life. I was blessed with the opportunity to participate again last weekend…and man, it was powerful.

I visited the prison, which is outside of San Fran, with a group of at-risk middle and high school kids from the local community, as well as with Josh Johnson (who’s now a quarterback with the Ravens) and Kansas City corner Marcus Peters. Some of the inmates who were on “good behavior” showed us around the facility and spoke to the kids about the importance of making good decisions. Once you get to San Quentin, you’ve done something pretty bad. And since one bad decision can land you in a place like this, the inmates really encourage them to avoid this life path. Some of them – I’m talking murderers in there for life – shared their stories and made sure that the kids understood that jail is not a cool place to be. It’s sort of like a “scared straight” approach, but not entirely. It was more like a “you don’t have to do what I did” warning message.

Seeing their daily routine firsthand was scary enough. We had a chance to stand inside their prison cell, which is like the size of a New York City closet. You’ve got a bunk bed and a roommate. If you’re on the top bunk and turn to the side, your shoulder is touching the ceiling. And the toilet is right in there with them. There are all kinds of rules in the showers, which are segregated by ethnicity. I didn’t actually try the food (I didn’t need to go in too deep like that!), but they said it’s horrible.

We had officers walking with us on our tour, but it’s all pretty open. You’re amongst the prisoners out there in the prison yard, which actually looks like it does in the movies. When you walk through the yard, through the basketball courts, it’s all segregated by sections. You’ve got the Mexicans, the Polynesians, whites, blacks…they are all separate. As we were walking through, inmates were running up to me, hugging me, whispering to each other about me, yelling, “Hey, yo, Forsett. I had you on my fantasy team last season.” I was like, WHAT, you all have fantasy football in here!? It brings a new perspective to a season-ending injury when you have an inmate telling you he had you on his fantasy team…and I know I didn’t get any points for this guy. You know I had to apologize. It was a surreal experience that these guys know who you are and are playing fantasy football (I guess they get some type of good behavior privileges).

The average sentence at San Quentin is 20 years to life, but the facility is also used as a holding place. So we also talked with some of the incoming guys, orange jumpsuits and all, before they got shipped out. There was just a fence separating us, and these guys were yelling out all kinds of stuff. “You don’t want to be like us! You don’t want to be in here! You don’t want to make decisions like I made!” Some of these guys were saying they have kids the same age as the ones in our group who they don’t get to see. One guy started breaking down right there in the sand, crying out, “My mother just had a heart attack and I couldn’t go see her in the hospital.” It got really emotional. They’re people too. They are people who made some terrible decisions, but to see that vulnerability, especially in the middle of the yard among some pretty tough bad guys, it was eye opening for a lot of us.

Seeing something like that makes you so appreciative for what you have. San Quentin is located on a beautiful piece of land in the Bay Area, with a backdrop of the Bay. When the inmates get their daily hour of free time outside, many of them watch the boats pass from inside the gate. For some, seeing those boats and those passengers is a constant reminder that they are shackled down. They were telling us, “I got properties, I got money, I got all this stuff…but I don’t have my freedom.” They just want to be home, sitting on the couch, playing with their kids. After hearing all of this, you really don’t want to take anything for granted. And I think it resonated with the kids too…that you forfeit your freedom when you go to jail.

After touring the place, we broke up into small groups to give everybody a chance to open up and share their feelings. I walked in and one of the kids was crying, pouring his heart out. Apparently this group was one of the more emotional and communicative ones, and I was grateful for the opportunity to connect with them too. These are kids who come from the inner city and are accustomed to seeing drugs and violence all the time. Josh and Marcus are both from Oakland, so we wanted to emphasize that it is possible to come out of a neighborhood like theirs and become successful. With good decisions, they can make it out. On the flip side, many of the inmates, who came from basically the same types of environments, made bad decisions. They are trying to rehabilitate themselves and become better people, but they are already locked up. We were literally talking to murderers who are trying to turn over a new leaf, trying to do better. It was crazy.

For me, it was especially powerful hearing both the kids and the inmates’ stories.

I’ve spoken at jails and juvenile detention centers before, and I’d say this experience was particularly life changing. I’ll definitely be back. I’m always about inspiring and encouraging people, regardless of their background or circumstances. When I’m speaking, I try to impact and inspire everyone, from inmates to corporate execs. It doesn’t matter who you are; everyone deserves some inspiration.

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