"Please Don’t Feel Sorry for Me"

In this week’s installment, we remember an extraordinary class we taught at San Quentin Prison and talk to Zakee Hutchison, who was released this spring after serving twenty-one years.

Scene from graduation at the Prison University Project at San Quentin Prison (now called Mount Tamalpais College)

In the summer of 2012, we co-taught a course for the Prison University Project at San Quentin Prison in Northern California. It was ostensibly an English class, a college writing requirement, and the theme we chose was “Doubt and Belief.” Our goal was pretty simple—we wanted to use the class to read as much classic literature as possibleBut it became so much more. The course changed our lives. 

Early in the semester, we read the Book of Job, and asked students to describe the kind of God who might take everything away from you. Was God a jerk? We didn’t know how provocative we were being until a student got up and walked out, slamming the door behind him. At home that night, feeling low, we started to question whether the dispassionate analysis of a text—the conventional method of academic discussion—was the only way. Religious belief had given this student hope, a reason to live. It had been a rock to him. It occurred to us that you have to gain a person’s trust before you take away his rock. And that you have to know what to offer in its place. 

At our next class, we said all this and more. We brought in a rock to make our point. We apologized. This time, the student who had walked out stayed with us.

So we kept going. We’d never had such motivated students. While discussing Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, one student began a comment with “On the fifth reading, I realized…”  (You might assume this studiousness results from an abundance of free time, but you’d be wrong: each student had a packed schedule, which often began at 5 a.m. and included other classes, vocational work, and a whole slew of meetings. Many students had waited months or years in other California prisons to be transferred to San Quentin, where they could have access to its unique work opportunities and programs.) 

The character of Ivan Ilyich, a high-ranking judge who is dying of illness, prompted the students to talk about judges they hated. Judges never saw them as people, they all said. Ivan was clearly the sort of judge they had encountered face-to-face: coldly civil, distant. Ivan has been climbing the career ladder and is conscious of his social position; he’s eager to imitate other judges. In his final days, though, he questions what it was all for. All he wants now is some affection. The students related to this. Their ability to see the judge as human—a generosity unreciprocated—was striking. “It’s all about facing mortality,” said one student, for whom Tolstoy would become a favorite author. “I’ve always felt I was weird because I’m always aware of it, always thinking about it, and that’s why I appreciate mountains, wind, all of it.”

The last week of class, we talked about the characters we had met during the semester and what they desired. For Job, it was to know God and feel relief from misery. For Macbeth, it was “to slow down time,” as a student put it, “for life to have meaning.” For Chekhov’s bishop, whose mother treats him with trepidation, it was to be loved by her unreservedly—and, a student said, “to love like a man.” Another added, “To love without limits.” 

This led us to talk about what we wanted. “Freedom to not be determined by my past,” said a student who was seventy and serving a life sentence. “To know how I matter and who I matter to,” said another.

Our final project was to write a letter, in the style of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, to somebody—mothers, fathers, children, friends. We’d never seen students so focused. One revised his ten-page letter, to his mother, by hand. He told us he had rewritten it so many times his hand hurt. “Usually when I write letters,” another one said, “they’re just, you know, not longer than a page, Hello, how are you. There’s not much to say. This is different.” Another said, “You really learn in this class how to write something in a way that others feel what you’re feeling.”

Finally the class read their letters aloud. Students remarked that they had never heard or seen each other be vulnerable in the prison context. One—shy, soft-spoken, brilliant—wrote a letter so astonishing it stunned the rest of us into silence. (After a beat or two, he finally said, “Aren’t y’all gonna say something?”) 

*

It was in this class that we met Edwin “Zakee” Hutchison. Zakee was formidable in every sense of the word—he had a towering, physically imposing presence in the classroom—but his warmth was evident from the outset. He smiled easily, laughed easily too, always had an encouraging word for another student. Here are some pictures from his time in San Quentin.

When we read Ivan Ilyich, it was Zakee who argued that the story was about places and institutions with no values. “Everybody is decent, everybody is civilized,” he said of Ivan’s world, “and they think this is what it is to have values—to be polite.” This launched a discussion about whether the lower and upper classes have different moralities. One student said that the morality of the upper class tended to be “you earn what you deserve.” We observed that Gerasim, the peasant servant who stays up all night to keep Ivan company, is the only person in Ivan’s life who shows real compassion, and we wondered where that compassion came from. Was it his faith, or that he hadn’t been poisoned by Ivan’s world, or something else?

Zakee had been sentenced to twenty-five years to life in prison for robbery. This was a consequence of California’s notorious Three Strikes Law, passed by a majority of voters in 1994 and weaponized by prosecutors, and which is so punitive that one man received fifty years to life for shoplifting nine videotapes, and another a life sentence for stealing three golf clubs. In 2003 the Supreme Court upheld the law, and since then other defendants have received life sentences for crimes such as possessing 0.14 grams of meth or stealing a pizza or $2.50 worth of socks. 

This March, after serving “twenty-one years, ninety days, and eight hours in the California prison system,” as he puts it, Zakee was released. A few months later he got in touch with Michelle through Facebook, and we asked if he’d be willing to speak to the summer reading group we were leading, which was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement to explore issues of racial and social justice. 

Just as he had at San Quentin, Zakee dazzled the group with his openness, compassion, and generosity of spirit. “I think I speak for everyone when I say that just the experience of being in this space with you is just remarkably positive,” said one participant. “I feel connected to all of you guys right now. It’s really strong.” We’re humbled by Zakee’s passionate belief in our common humanity, and inspired by the clarity of his values—which enable him to do what our institutions apparently can’t.

*

Zakee started by talking about his first act of freedom when he got out: eating an orange.  

We stopped at a little park right by the Bay the first day that I got out and the first thing that I ate was an orange. I had wanted an orange so bad because in prison we don’t get oranges. They stopped giving it to us because guys would make illegal wine which they called Pruno. So I hadn’t had an orange in like twenty years. That orange was so good that it brought tears to my eyes. I mean, literally, I started crying because it was so good.

That initial joy was soon tempered by the nationwide lockdown. He talked about how bizarre it was to emerge into the world of COVID: 

Coming home during this pandemic was just the worst thing that I could ever imagine. I was so glad to be home but I was like, “Damn, this is just awful.”

So the first day I head out, I’m driving from the prison and we go over this bridge and we’re going over to Richmond. We were going to catch the Amtrak train to Los Angeles. As we were riding through Richmond, the streets were clear. It was like eight o’clock in the morning and I remember saying to my friend, “Man, this reminds me of the apocalypse.” It’s like there’s nobody out here. The next thing I was thinking was, like, there’s going to be a herd of zombies coming around the corner. I mean, it was just crazy, there was nobody out. 

So I get to the train station, I get my train ticket, and when the train comes I’m the only person on it for a long time. There were no other people in the train with me, in the big and long Amtrak. 

It was just really awful. Not only from that standpoint, but when I got to the transitional house, they had us on a lockdown because of the pandemic. So I couldn’t go nowhere. I couldn’t get any of the identification that I needed.

He would remain without any identification cards for two months. 

I was in Los Angeles. They had these protests going on, and I was scared to go anywhere because if I were to walk to the store to buy me a soda or whatever and they had one of those protests and the police were like, “Hey you, Muslim dude with the kufi on, come here for a minute,” the next thing I know I’d be back at the police station waiting for my parole officer to come and get me because I couldn’t identify who I was. 

I went from the big prison to a little prison on the streets. That’s basically what it was except they didn’t have that many guard towers.

So that was one of the reasons why I left Los Angeles last Friday. I got to the Bay Area this week and here it is just much more relaxed. I can move around and do the things that I need to do. I can basically transition into being a normal human being again.

A person in our group who has an incarcerated family member asked how we can help people in prison. Zakee said the primary issue for inmates is loneliness:

For a lot of men who are in that situation, the number one thing that they have to deal with is that they feel alone. You know, there were many times that I just felt alone and that nobody cared. You’re in an environment that is harsh, where people don’t give a damn about you. It is a mental type of torture. It is a physical pain that you feel. 

What helped me was that I was still connected to my family. I was connected to my friends. It kept me in touch. It was like a rope to society.

In his isolation, Zakee found religion. He had grown up Catholic, but he was introduced to Islam in a maximum-security prison in 2003: Friday prayer services were the only way to get out of solitary confinement. A French-Senegalese student of ours, who is also Muslim, asked how he first converted.

I was just trying to get out of the cell. That’s all I wanted to do. I wanted to get out of the cell and walk around and breathe a little bit. So I just started going to the services on Friday. 

For nine months straight, I would go and I would just listen. I would listen to what they called the Khutbah, which is basically like the sermon in church. As I sat there and listened to it, it just kind of resonated with my soul and with my heart. 

I would see them reading this book, and I was like, “What book is it that you guys are reading from? Is that your Bible?” They were like, “Yeah, this is our Quran.” I said, “Well, give me one of them books so I can have something to read because I don’t have nothing to read in my cell.” So that’s how I started reading the Quran. And I can honestly say that was the best decision that I’ve ever made in my life. 

I tell people all the time that I had to come to prison in order to learn how to be free. I learned how to be free in my mind, in my heart, and in my soul. So even though my body was physically held captive, I’ve been free for a long time. I was free before I even got out of prison. Islam gave me that.

That student also complimented Zakee on his name, Zakee Abdul Hakim, which means “the intelligent, charitable servant of The Most Wise” in Arabic: 

I didn’t choose it. It was given to me. The Imam who gave me this name said he saw these qualities in me. It's funny, a lot of times people can see things in you that you don’t see in yourself. 

Another student asked about racial classification in prisons. Zakee responded that the the prison system is “designed … to cause racial division.”

When [you go] into the prison system, they process you by asking what race you identify with. When I went in, I told them that I’m African American. Then they also base it on geography. I said, “Well, I’m from Los Angeles.” The next question that came out of this officer’s mouth was what gang was I associated with.

I said, “What gang?”

He said, “Yeah, do you identify as a Crip or a Blood?”

I said, “I’m not neither one of ’em.”

He said, “Well, you’ve got to be from one of them, you’re from Los Angeles.”

I said, “No, I’m not a gang member.”

He said, “You’re not a gang member? How did that happen?”

I said, “Because I went to school, I graduated from high school. Gangs just wasn’t something that I wanted to do.”

Then they designated me as “non-designated,” meaning I wasn’t a Crip or a Blood—I was “non-designated.” I’m like, “What the hell is this?” 

In prison they label everybody. You have the Whites, the Blacks, the Asians, the northern Mexicans, the southern Mexicans. Everybody is lumped up into these labels and into these groups. The system is designed to do that. The CDCR [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] designed it that way to cause division. They create these atmospheres that cause tension and hostility, because as long as prisoners are fighting against themselves they will not direct their attention towards the staff. It’s that divide-and-conquer mentality: “As long as we can keep these idiots fighting, they won’t be bothering us.”

A faculty member who had read Zakee’s blog asked about the role of writing and education in his journey.

Writing for me has always been therapeutic. I wasn’t always able to share feelings, thoughts, and ideas because I grew up not trusting very many people. And in prison, you don’t talk to very many people about your feelings and thoughts and ideas because people can misinterpret that as you being weak. If you’re weak, you get preyed upon. 

So I educated myself and I made myself an asset to other men in prison. I had no clue how the law worked, but knowing that I had thirty years to life, I just started reading. Every legal book that I could get, whether or not it applied to my case, I just started reading so I could start getting into that mindset of legal language, of legal jargon, of procedures, of policies. I became what they call a jailhouse lawyer. A lot of the men, even though they may not have liked me or cared about me, they knew that I had something that they needed. That kind of protected me from violence and things of that nature. People would tell other people, “Look, you can mess with anybody else but just don’t mess with Zakee, because he’s doing my case to help get me out of prison.” I made myself an asset. 

Even before I went to prison, I was always academically very successful. […] When I took classes with Albert and Michelle, reading and writing would take me outside of myself. It would open a different world. We read stories in their class that just really fundamentally blew my mind. Like, wow, they were thinking about this three hundred years ago? It broadened my horizons. 

That’s why I am starting to do my blog, because we all have stories to tell. I don’t know, maybe my story might help the next person not have to go through what I went through, or maybe it might help them deal with a situation that they didn’t know how to deal with. 

None of us are different from the next person; we all have the same universal needs and wants. We all want to be warm when we are cold, we all want food when we’re hungry, we all want water when we’re thirsty. It doesn’t matter what part of the world you’re from, what religion you’re from, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, whether or not you’re a Trump supporter. Whatever. We all have the same needs and wants. 

One student told Zakee how sorry he felt that he had to spend twenty-one years in prison because of an unjust law.  

No, no, please understand. Don’t feel sorry for me. Please. I do not feel sorry for myself. I just had to go through that journey. I look at it from a different perspective than other people. This was what I had to go through in order to be this human being, this man who is sitting right here right now. So please don’t feel sorry for me. Even though it was the hardest twenty-one years of my life, it made me into the human being that I am today. 

We’re so happy Zakee is out.

We can’t wait to see what he does from here, and you can follow his blog here.


Many courses fade over time, but this one is etched in our memories. We can’t forget how seriously these inmates took the project of reading and thinking together. We can’t forget our seventy-year-old student clutching his cane as he recited Macbeth’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy, and how he told us he’d practiced for weeks, pacing in his cell, muttering the words “like a crazy person.” And we can’t forget how, on the last day of class, our students surprised us by each giving us a rock.


Some links from the week:

  • Our dear friend Sebastian sent us this great story of a tailor in Hong Kong who gives free fittings and suits to protesters who must appear in court. Thousands of young people have been arrested on charges of unlawful assembly. “It’s my first time wearing a shirt that fits,” said a 24-year-old protester, with a grin on his face.

  • Another wonderful friend of ours, Hannah, quit academia to harvest wine. She’s blogging about her journey here. We love her pursuit of “radical novelty,” which, she writes, “gets rarer as we get older.”

  • A student of ours, Jasmine, writes about organizing BLM protests in Japan in a student magazine that Michelle advises. She explores how Japan holds racial homogeneity as an ideal and its history of excluding mixed race people and ethnic Koreans.

  • A former student, Shane, just started a weekly newsletter on international politics. We love how global their weekly roundup of the news is. The most recent issue includes a story about the Korean stock market.

  • And our very soulful friend Andrew, who was Albert’s advisor in Chinese literature, sent along our favorite genre of animal video: inter-species animal solidarity.


Overheard in the Kuo-Wu household:

Student [during a discussion on how scholarly citations reflect power and influence in the academy]: So, Professor, how many citations do you have on Google Scholar?

Albert: [nervous laugh]


Little extra notes. (Substack needs to improve its footnotes function! We’ve bullet-pointed them here.)

  • The Prison University Project is now called Mount Tamalpais College

  • Zakee’s release is mentioned briefly in this New York Times article. For a good primer on the Three Strikes Law and how and why Californians voted for it in 1994, read Matt Taibbi’s piece in Rolling Stone.

  • Zakee was released early due to what’s called a 1170(d)(1) petition. In 2018, the California legislature passed a bill that empowers the CDCR (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) to recommend for resentencing inmates who have been extraordinarily rehabilitated. Zakee’s case went smoothly—the Secretary of the CDCR wrote a letter to the judge and the judge approved—but other letters have been lost in the mail (yes, really) or denied.

    Thanks to the efforts of the Stanford Three Strikes Project, these petitions are now being tracked and taken up. Michelle has a client in a Sacramento prison now and is working on his case with her buddy-comrade Chris Lim; she hopes to share more after (hopefully) this person gets out. In keeping with our theme of cold judges: this particular judge denied the CDCR’s petition two days before Christmas, never contacted his lawyer (a different person at the time), and never asked for his full prison record, which has literally thousands of pages of supervisor reports, testimonies, program certificates, letters of support from the warden, assistant wardens, CDCR staff, and letters from members from his local church and family.

  • Zakee will be speaking to Michelle’s classes this semester. If you’d like to sneak in a question for him, please let us know.

  • Albert’s discussion on citations happened to be remote, so it was technically in our household.