Jesse Vasquez is the poster child for prisoner rehabilitation.
In a world where incarceration is largely viewed as punishment instead of rehabilitation, Vasquez’s story is equally improbable as it is inspirational. There simply cannot be a better example.
Considering that Jesse was sentenced to multiple concurrent life sentences in the California state correctional system for his involvement in a drive-by shooting in Orange County when he was 17 years old, it is utterly remarkable that he is now functioning as a more-than-productive citizen outside the concrete confines of barbed-encased correctional facilities. In fact, he has grown, transformed and flourished into an exemplary leader of a non-profit organization that is committed to improving the fates, lives and futures of his incarcerated brothers and sisters.
Today, the 40-year-old Vasquez is Executive Director of the Pollen Initiative (formerly the Friends of San Quentin News), the umbrella funding organization for the award-winning San Quentin News (SQN), which is the first incarcerated-run media organization in the country. At the heart of the journalism endeavor is the newspaper, which was started in 1940 and is run and operated by prisoners at the San Quentin State prison in Marin County. Remarkably, former staff have a zero-recidivism rate.
If it were not for the San Quentin News, Vasquez might still be behind bars. Shortly after arriving at San Quentin in 2016, Vasquez enrolled at the fully accredited community college within the prison. Once he began taking classes, Vasquez spent more of his time engaging with the college and met staffers from the newspaper, who ultimately invited him to join the Journalism Guild and began writing articles. It was the first time in a long time that Vasquez felt a sense of purpose.
“Every time you get to write a story, that’s the first account of history, right? Because 20 years from now, when they read your story, it’ll matter to them,” Vasquez says. “This is what (keeps) people going. We never had that before. San Quentin News gave people a sense of hope.”
San Quentin and its newspaper certainly gave Vasquez newfound hope. It wasn’t long before joining the paper that Vasquez quickly ascended to Managing Editor and eventually to Executive Editor, which was a dramatic transformation for a young man born into a Southern California gang family who had spent a total of more than 500 days combined in solitary confinement over the course of his 19 years spent inside the California correctional system.
It was through his involvement with the newspaper that Vasquez finally began to build his social skills. He did not have the opportunity before to cultivate those skills as an adult inside the correctional system, says Yukari Kane, Founder, CEO and Editor-in-Chief at the Prison Journalism Project.
“What is remarkable is that he ascended to Executive Editor very quickly. It’s a tough job, and he did it very well,” says Kane, who is a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal.
That ascension to Executive Editor spoke volumes about Vasquez’s potential as a leader, but he was far from an overnight success. Vasquez had to endure nearly 16 years of prison gang warfare, bloody territorial battles, stabbings, drug rings and racial warfare spread across several maximum-security facilities throughout the California penal system before being granted his request to transfer to San Quentin. Overlooking the San Francisco Bay, prison life was more integrated, progressive and open – relatively speaking – compared to the various other prisons Vasquez had survived. After all, it had a real newspaper that told stories about issues that affected fellow inmates in 35 California State Department of Corrections prisons, and beyond.
As Vasquez wrote in a story he published in the Washington Post in 2018, “On the yard, I stood guard at concrete benches next to toilets that reeked of urine, out of ‘an obligation’ to hold what we had designated as our ground. I would sit around a light pole in our area that cast the only shade on the yard because it was prime real estate, at least by prison standards. The racist language of the older Mexicans who had fought in the prison’s gang and race wars became my own.”
It was a long road out of a system that he first entered off-and-on as a 13-year-old juvenile before ultimately receiving sentences at age 17 that seemed to put him away for good. His life inside was arduous, life-threatening and emotionally draining long before even getting a whiff of the possibility of parole. However, not unlike his meteoric rise at the SQN, his parole came swiftly about 3 years after his arrival at San Quentin when then-Governor Jerry Brown facilitated his release by commuting his sentences in 2019.
“I felt a huge sense of relief and a huge sense of fear. It was a whole new world,” Vasquez says, 19 years after he entered the prison system. Vasquez’s new life is not lost on the former prisoner. When he emerged through the gates in 2019, he was poised to take on a role with the umbrella group supporting the newspaper. Little did he know, he would soon be leading it.
As Executive Director of the Pollen Initiative (PI), whose new name was unveiled on September 19, 2023, he is steward of the organization that played a significant role in his fateful turn. Inspiration for the organization’s rebranding was driven by Vasquez’s broader vision to spread the success of PI-funded initiatives across California and eventually across the country.
The Pollen Initiative, among other things, funds SQN and Forward This – the first film and television job training program in a U.S. prison. It also supports the development and updating of a “playbook” that guides others on how to develop and grow similar media centers inside other prisons, Vasquez says. The expansion of Pollen is expected to spawn more incarcerated writers, editors and producers to publish more accurate narratives for audiences both inside and outside prisons. In the process, Pollen Initiative supporters hope that some of the negative stigma attached to incarceration can be altered. .
“One of the things I hope for with the addition of more (prison) publications is a more inclusive society, a more democratic society and less judgmental society,” Vasquez says.
In addition to his day job, Vazquez practices what he preaches in his daily life. He is very active in the community through roles as an advisor and instructor with Oakland Unified School District, where he teaches a full week of classes. He speaks at the University of California, Berkeley and volunteers at local food banks when needed. Most importantly, he works closely with former prisoners as they make the difficult transition to life outside after incarceration. And that is just a sample of his various responsibilities outside of work, which includes being appointed by Governor Gavin Newsom to the San Quentin Transformation Advisory Council. Vasquez admits that his role of administrator can be wrought with performance metrics tied to financial grants, business objectives and management goals. But, in the end, the organization’s most important outputs to prisoners are intangible and impossible to quantify – and have been wildly successful.
“When I was on the inside, what I needed was hope and a purpose,” he says.