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Prayer behind the walls

Clinging to hope, culture in San Quentin State Prison

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. - Behind these old fortified stone walls built more than a century ago on land named after a Coast Miwok warrior, some Native prisoners cling to hope. But it's not easy.

Seagulls skim the San Francisco Bay waters along San Quentin State Prison and caw above its baseball field. Sunsets peek above the mountain range visible from the compound. They're reminders of the life prisoners left outside, ''on the street,'' which for many has been full of bad choices and bad luck.

''When you get sentenced to life and you know your chance of getting out is zip - you make this your world,'' said lifer Jasper Alford, 47, a Kuruk from Siskiyou County near the Oregon border.

It's a tough world, structured around strict routine that includes work and school inside the state's oldest prison. A federal law also requires state prisons to provide access to religious programs.

In San Quentin, officials allow Natives more than a dozen Sweatlodge ceremonies a month in a serene gated oasis next to the ball field and an annual pow wow, which this year was held April 27.

''Anything that draws a man to his god and becoming a better person, we're supportive of that,'' said Lt. Sam Robinson, the prison spokesman.

For the 200 or so Natives here, San Quentin is the latest or the last stop on a hard road. About 50 sit on the state's male death row here, with the state's only gas chamber.

Sweatlodge ceremonies and the pow wow offer a spiritual escape from the harsh reality of prison life.

''It keeps me in balance; I'm not out there getting crazy with the rest of the yard,'' Alford said.

The prison visiting room was turned into pow wow grounds, where 35 Native prisoners, volunteers and dancers were escorted past the gated room where visitors usually strip for a full-body search before seeing a prisoner.

Instead, they were smudged down with sage by lifer Homer McWilliams, 50.

McWilliams is Cherokee and Dine'. His family moved to Lancaster in 1972, he said, because ''they wanted us to have a better life.''

A decade later, McWilliams was sentenced to 15 to life for second-degree murder after shooting his friend during an argument over drugs, he said.

''I'm not the same person that I was,'' he said. ''I've been clean 24 years. I've graduated college. I teach Narcotics Anonymous. I try to show by example - there's plenty of drugs in prison.''

But during his 26 years here, he's been denied parole twice. He goes before the board again this July.

His future plans: getting a bachelor's in business and a job on the outside, getting married again, ''and this time, be a father for my children.'' His daughter and son were raised by their mother and her husband.

''We can't change what we did; I can't change the past as much as I'd like to,'' he said. ''I'm here.''

As are many other California Indians. Lifer Henry Frank, 34, a Yurok/Point Area Pomo from the northern town of Yreka, rattles them off: ''We've got Hoopa, Yurok, Pomo, Wiyott, Maidu, Miwoks.''

It's sadly ironic. Punta de Quintin, the land on which San Quentin sits, is named after a hard-fighting Coast Miwok warrior named Quintin, who was taken prisoner by Spanish soldiers at the site.

Frank was sentenced to 29 to life for conspiracy to commit murder. He doesn't go before the parole board until 2013. In the meantime, he's doing ''everything I can'' to show he's reformed.

He participated in a Sweatlodge ceremony for the first time in San Quentin and joined the drum at the pow wow.

''I kind of live for the moment,'' he said. ''I can't change the past, but I can plan for the future.''

When the singers opened the ceremony, a line of powder blue shirts and navy pants joined the dancers in a Round Dance. Some California Indians accustomed to traditional Brush dances or ''big time'' celebrations tapped their feet awkwardly.

A few, like Hoopa Kenny Pratt Jr., 34, lifted their arms to the ceiling.

''When you're from the river, you pack the flint, and you lift it up like that, we're raising it to the Creator,'' he said. ''Just because it's not in my hands doesn't mean it doesn't exist; it's in your heart.''

Pratt lived ''out town,'' or off his reservation, for the second half of his life and landed in San Quentin 19 months ago for a domestic violence conviction.

''I went to pow wows out on the street, but I never danced; I just got caught up in my ways - being from the river it was fishing, camping, fighting, partying, sex and more fighting,'' he said.

He danced in heavy state-issued brown boots. In San Quentin, he poured water for the sweat lodge for the first time and quit drinking.

''In here, you don't really show your feelings, you don't wear them, you just kind of shut yourself down,'' he said. ''During this time, you get to be in touch with your Creator. That's when you're truly free. They don't show it, but everyone's happy.''

The prisoners did show it by the time lunch was called, cracking jokes in line.

It was a feast compared to prison meals of mystery meat and fish, said Gus Donahue, 43, a Kuruk from the Klamath reservation serving seven years for his third DUI arrest and not turning himself in to county jail. He cooked the salmon, buffalo and ribs.

He was addicted to heroin and his oldest son is now addicted to meth. ''I'm a proud Indian,'' he said. ''It's hard for me because my mom raised me to know I can do anything in the world I want.''

Inside the prison, he uses the sweat lodge and tends to the fire.

''I think Grandfather sent me back here so I can gather strength and get right with him again. I feel good. This is one of the best days I've ever had since being locked up.''