One for the Books
San Quentin inmates raise $1,000 for Salinas libraries.
Thursday, August 4, 2005
<>>Olish Tunstall is serving a life sentence at San Quentin for murder. He’s 39 years old, and doesn’t have much chance of ever getting out. For some, that would be akin to a death sentence. It would be easy to figure that guys like Tunstall get to prison, resign themselves to nothingness and simply exist—breathe, watch TV, exchange the occasional phone call or letter with family.
But that’s not how it is—not for Tunstall, and not for most of the other inmate tutors and students involved in Project REACH—Reach for Education, Achievement and Change with Help—sponsored by the Marin Literacy Program.
On July 20, Tunstall and half a dozen other literacy tutors, most of whom are also serving life sentences at San Quentin, handed Salinas City Councilwoman Jyl Lutes a check for Rally Salinas, the city-sponsored fundraiser to keep Salinas libraries open until permanent funding is found.
“At the beginning, I wondered if we could really raise the money we needed,” Lutes says. “I knew we’d get community support, and some of the donations we counted on, but never in a million years did I think I’d be driving up to San Quentin to pick up a check.”
The inmates had raised the money themselves with a food drive that took months of preparation, was slowed by miles of red tape, but ultimately ended in Rally Salinas getting $1,000, and the Marin Literacy Project receiving $500.
Tunstall found out about the Salinas library closures from a newscast and took the idea to raise money for Rally Salinas to his fellow inmates in the REACH program.
“These are men who are in a position to recognize the direct connection between literacy and crime,” Lutes said.
Tunstall entered prison with an eighth grade education. Since then, he’s earned his GED, trained to become an X-ray technician, and now tutors other inmates.
The fundraiser was no easy task, according to Marin Literacy Project Director Jane Curtis, who was one of many outsiders who helped organize the food sale.
“Three or four months in advance of the sale, they have to submit a narrative of what they’ll offer, why, and what the organization does,” Curtis says.
Once a proposal is approved, the inmates have to rally the support of outside vendors. A Marin sandwich shop, pizza parlor, Albertsons, Costco and Krispy Kreme Donuts all agreed to sell food to the inmates at a discount.
“Then they create a menu, distribute it to the general population, and wait,” Curtis says.
After all of the orders are turned in and the funds are cleared through each individual inmate’s prison bank account, the orders are placed with vendors.
“We’re not talking about people who just go to a bank to get money,” Lutes says of the effort of the hundreds of prisoners who participated in the May 25 food sale. “These are people who earn anywhere from five to 35 cents an hour. So a $5 pizza or sandwich is a big deal.”
Once the food arrives at the prison on borrowed trucks, pallets or in trunks of cars, every last item has to be thoroughly searched by staff.
Next comes the tricky part: doling out the food to inmates.
“Food sales can get ugly real fast if you get in a position like we did one year,” Curtis says. “Some of the guys ordered sweet potato pies for $5. When they arrived, the pies were about the size of a 50-cent piece. The last thing you want is a bunch of angry convicts. They don’t generally know what they’re supporting, but they know what they ordered and what they expect.”
This year’s fundraiser, which earned more than any of the food sales in the past, went off without a hitch.
“All in all, it was a great day,” Curtis says.
Two months after the sale, when all the proceeds had been tallied and a check request submitted and cleared, the checks finally arrived.
But San Quentin isn’t the sort of place you just walk into to pick up a check.
“It took two weeks to get clearance,” Lutes says, talking about her visit for the ceremony. “It was a bit intimidating once I got there. On the way in, the guards warned me that if I happened to be taken hostage, the staff wouldn’t be negotiating for my release,” she adds with a nervous laugh.
But Lutes says all of that anxiety disappeared as soon as she met the handful of men who were responsible for raising money for the libraries.
“I was completely moved,” Lutes says. “I learned that these are men, real people, and just because they’re incarcerated doesn’t mean they stop caring about huge issues or about libraries in small towns. They recognized and told me that had they had education, they might not be where they are now.”
Tunstall and the others were nearly an hour late for the donation party they’d worked so hard to have a reason to throw. They were caught up in prison life logistics—a head count that didn’t come out right, so all prisoners had to be recounted.
When they finally did arrive, Lutes says it wasn’t long before their stories of crime and redemption, teaching others, and still wanting to give back despite their future behind bars moved her to tears.
“They were so genuine,” she says. “They had nothing else to lose. They were talking from the depths of their souls and were so pleased to be part of this.”
“For them, if they’re not getting out, this is one way that they can reach beyond those walls,” she says. “They realize they can make somebody’s life better; they can empower adults and kids and maybe raise somebody’s self-esteem. That’s the power of literacy.”
Amount, in dollars, that California military installations bring into the state’s economy annually. Source: Leon Panetta, co-chair of California Council on Base Support and Retention