On the night of March 30, 1974, Watani Stiner and his brother George hugged their mother and stepfather good night, trying to hide the fact that this might be the last time they would ever see each other. In only a few hours’ time, Watani and George would either be free or they would be dead.
The brothers waited until they were sure their visiting parents were asleep, then rolled up their pillows and blankets and stuffed them in large lumps under the sheets of their beds to resemble sleeping bodies. They dropped a brief goodbye note behind before quietly sneaking out a back door into the cool night air.
“Dear Moms and Pops — Sorry we had to do it like this, but circumstances demanded it .?.?.”
Under cover of darkness, the brothers raced 50 yards to an 8-foot-high concrete wall and hopped it quickly. Once on the other side, Watani spotted a cigarette’s red glow in the distance and immediately shoved his brother to the ground. Praying they hadn’t been seen, they waited silently, faces in the grass, hearts racing, until the smoker got into a car and drove off.
It was time to move again — fast.
Conspicuously avoiding guard towers and gun turrets, the brothers made it to a tall chainlink fence, which they were able to scale quietly enough to avoid detection and the subsequent hail of bullets their discovery would bring from any nearby guards. Scampering up a hill on the other side of the fence, they eventually reached a road, where they climbed into an awaiting car and sped off. Still panicked, they turned around to check for the flashing lights of any police cars trailing them. There were none — the plan had gone perfectly.
Watani and George had just escaped from San Quentin Prison.
For the next 20 years, Watani lived the life of a free man, eventually winding up in the South American country of Suriname, where he got married and fathered six children. George was never seen or heard from again — in America, at least — but freedom was not Watani’s fate, and now he’s back in San Quentin again, serving out the same life sentence he escaped 33 years ago.
“I never thought I’d see this place again,” he says, shaking his head with a wan smile.
A former member of the black-nationalist group Us, Kwanzaa founder Maulana Karenga’s radical organization, Watani stands convicted of two counts of second-degree murder as well as conspiracy to commit murder, stemming from the killings of two Black Panthers — John Huggins and Bunchy Carter — during a shootout on the UCLA campus in 1969.
Now 59, tall and lean with a closely trimmed salt-and-pepper Afro that’s thinning in front, Watani isn’t what you would expect of a fiery black revolutionary. The anger of his youth has faded into an almost Zen-like tranquillity — an elegance that stands in marked contrast to his current surroundings.
Dressed in loose-fitting prison blues, he’s sitting opposite me in a room roughly 3 feet by 3 feet — enough space to stand up or sit down, but not much else. Metal bars enclose him from behind, and a concrete wall with a small, television-size window allows him to look out into the visiting room, where I’m sitting. The yells of various guards and the chatter of prisoners come through the intercom system through which we’re supposed to talk. If it sounds like a madhouse back there, the visiting room hardly seems better. The wails of crying children compete with the clanking and crashing of bars for auditory supremacy — making Watani, soft-spoken by nature, that much harder to hear.
Next to me, a prisoner and his wife bicker loudly through the glass: “I take off work to bring your daughter to come see you and you fucking curse me out like this?” she says.
“Bitch!” he replies.
Watani pays it all no mind. I’m the first visitor he’s had in weeks, and any break from the regimented monotony of prison life is a welcome reprieve.
“It’s a pleasure,” he says with a warm smile that I imagine is a rare sight in these parts. Life in San Quentin doesn’t hold much to smile about.
Every morning at 5, Watani and his cellmate awake in their 12-by-4 cell to get ready for breakfast. The cell is so narrow, he says, “there’s only room for one of us to stand up at a time. So I usually get up first to get dressed.”
After breakfast, Watani showers and is then allowed to go to an office, where he spends most of his day working as a clerk for the watch commander. In his moments of downtime, he writes.
“Inside this prison, my writing is all I’ve got,” he says. “It’s what gets me by day after day.”