James Houston spent about half of his life living in Richmond. The other half was spent behind the walls, fences and accordion wire in the California State Prison system.
When he was first incarcerated for second-degree murder, Houston, 39, noticed a common ground amongst many inmates from Richmond. “We didn’t welcome outsiders, we didn’t mingle,” he said. “It’s such a small city, and people are just a little tighter to each other.”
This small-town mindset had its downsides, but it also helped Houston organize men inside prison.
From 2007 until 2012, he was chairman of the Richmond Project, a San Quentin-based violence-prevention program connecting incarcerated men from Richmond to elected officials, community groups and residents in the city. “We formed a think tank to help come up with solutions to some of the violence going on in the community,” Houston said.
Through this partnership, the Richmond Project has helped the city better understand what spurs violent crime, and how to stop it, Houston said. He added that it has shown residents that, even under trying circumstances, they can overcome fault lines. “It sparked a movement where people felt that it was okay… to cross those lines that normally they wouldn’t cross, and work with people they wouldn’t normally deal with.”
City government has embraced the effort. Mayor Gayle McLaughlin attends some meetings at San Quentin prison. “She has been extremely supportive,” said Kathleen Jackson, who volunteered at the Richmond Project for five years, but recently began volunteering for its parent program, San Quentin T.R.U.S.T., an acronym for Teaching Responsibility Utilizing Sociological Training. “We’re definitely always on her radar,” she added.
Houston said that during the time he spent as chairman of the program, support from the city helped the group thrive. “A lot of inmates wanted to do something different, but they didn’t feel like the community would believe they were sincere,” he said. “So to have [Mayor McLaughlin] come in, sit there, and attentively listen to what we had to say…that was empowering.”
Participants in the Richmond Project have developed a violence-prevention curriculum, which they teach to Richmond residents who come into San Quentin on visits. They host an annual essay competition, challenging youth to envision a better community. And the city hopes to build a community center in the future, where the Richmond Project can work.
Only three months out of prison, Houston is trying to start an after-school program called Teen Tech Hub, which will teach Richmond youth tech skills. Other “graduates” of the program have gone onto work for the city government, and have become leaders in the community.
“It’s hard to assess what the exact effects of the Richmond Project are,” Jackson said. “But when men from the Richmond Project go back into the community they’re great role models.”