Sitting Next to a Murderer

Advice Column

Standing outside the East Gate of San Quentin Prison at 9:22 a.m. on November 16, I was shivering and impatient for my tour to start. I was dressed in all black because I wasn’t allowed to wear denim, gray, blue, lime green, or orange. I couldn’t bring any electronics or wear jewelry, either. 

Along with several other business leaders in a group called Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), I was getting checked in when one of our guides shouted excitedly. 

The man coming out right now is being released after twenty-seven years in prison!” 

She motioned to a woman standing about 50 yards from us. 

That’s his wife and she has been here since 5 a.m. waiting for him to come out.

The guide had barely finished her sentence when a van pulled through the gate and an officer guided out a man in a baggy, light-gray sweatsuit. The guard removed his handcuffs. 

The man in gray walked toward his wife as she leaped toward him in giant ecstatic bounds, hands waving back and forth over her head, hooting in celebration.

They kissed and hugged.

Our group was silent. 

Tears welled up in my eyes as I thought about how it might feel to be on this side of the wall after twenty-seven years of being confined.

During part of the prison tour, I listened to the stories of about a dozen men who went through a program called the Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG). 

During those conversations I sat next to a convicted murderer, our elbows touching. As he shared the sadness and regret he feels for the woman whose life he took, he cried. He also shared about his own childhood traumas and spoke about his hopes for the future. 

As I listened to the men’s stories, two things struck me.

  1. The process they went through in the program – meeting consistently, for years, with a trusted circle of peers to bravely do deep work on themselves – is remarkably similar to the small group work we do in YPO in small groups of C-Suite executives.
  2. I could easily be the one who is behind bars. I like to think that I’m nothing like the person who committed a violent act while in a rage or the one who chose to drive drunk and kill someone. But I have lost control in anger and I have done foolish things like texting when I was driving. Those situations could have ended in a disaster if I was less fortunate.

I am left with the feeling that there is a thin wall between the outside and the inside of a prison. I feel lucky that I’m on the outside. And I admire the brave people inside who choose to do the work daily to become better versions of themselves. Their accountability reassures me, and their hope inspires me. 

Please don’t hear this as me wanting to minimize the horrific pain caused by the violent choices people make. We can each decide, in every moment, how we will act. There is no explaining away decisions that harm others. My realization is just that I believe hope and growth can happen anywhere. I want to be humble like the men I met in the prison so I can experience it.

Earlier this month the Advice Column team shared some ideas for practicing gratitude during the month of Thanksgiving. In my household, we decided to fill out a sticky note each day with something we’re grateful for. (A photo is below.) The night I came home from San Quentin, my sticky note had just one word, “Freedom.”

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