I recently took a 5 hour tour of San Quentin, sponsored by the Northern California chapter of Sisters-in-Crime of which I’m a member. As a police psychologist, most of the time, you’ll find me working the other side of the aisle; writing about cops, teaching cops, holding workshops for police families, and working as a clinician for the First Responders Support Network. I joined the tour because I’m also a mystery writer. Who knows when my protagonist, Dr. Dot Meyerhoff, might find herself inside prison treating a correctional officer? When you write mysteries, everything is grist for the mill.

As we waited in the parking lot, San Quentin loomed over us, massive and medieval. We’d already been told what not to wear and what not to carry; no colors that might be confused with the sea of blue denim worn by the inmates, no jewelry, no purses, no food, no cigarettes, no weapons, no phones. Now we were hearing a list of what we should do: Should we be taken hostage, we should not expect to be traded for a prisoner’s release; should a siren blare or a whistle blow we should remain standing while the inmates sit down. Unless, of course, there’s gunfire and then we should “hit the deck.”

At the main entrance, we were “wanded” for hidden metals and stamped with an invisible mark, so that when the laborious process of getting into the prison reverses, the guards will know to let us out. Once inside, we found ourselves in a large sunny plaza, amidst colorful flowerbeds marking the borders of a memorial garden to the correctional officers who have died in the line of duty. Inmates in denim blues, freely wandered about, singly or in groups. Our guide, the ebullient Lt. Sam Robinson, starts our tour with stories about the inmates who are housed in segregation. Men so violent, they must be shackled and separated from the general population. Correctional officers working in this unit face a daily barrage of danger and disgust, dodging packets of urine and feces. Let these men into the “gen pop” and they create what Lt. Robinson euphemistically calls “drama.” We won’t be touring this section or meeting these men.Instead, we are invited to sit in the Catholic chapel with ten blue-clad inmates, mostly men of color, who have volunteered to tell us their stories and answer any and all of our questions, no holds barred. Their crimes are serious, their sentences decades long. Their paths to prison a familiar cocktail of poverty, poor or abusive parenting, racism, and drugs. For some, prison is only a microcosm of their life on the streets, rife with what they diplomatically describe as “prison politics,” meaning gang warfare, racial segregation, and survival of the fittest. There is also humor and apologies for the pain they’ve inflicted on their victims, their victim’s families, their own families, and—my ears perk up—the first responders whose lives intersected with theirs.

We see a lot of cages on this tour. “Home” for the general population is a two-person windowless cell measuring less than 5 feet across and 11 feet in length. There are cages for exercise and cages for group therapy (That’s me in a therapy cage. I’m smiling but I’m not happy). What really bowls me over are the cages without walls or locks. The exercise yard, for example, a huge expanse of playing fields, divided into self-defined kingdoms, each “belonging” to a different racial group.

Weeks after, cages are what sticks in my mind, more than the death chamber, more than the tattooes or the elderly convicts hobbling about the yard. San Quentin offers more opportunities for work, education and therapy than any other California prison. A man could change his life around in this environment, if only he could escape his own psychological cage.

All of us have many identities. Fluid identities that change, sometimes several times a day. I am a psychologist. A writer. A friend, A wife, a younger sister, an aunt, an older woman. Each identity comes with a set of unwritten rules about behavior, relationship, point of view. I try to keep my identities straight and use them in the appropriate contexts. When I act the psychologist with my husband, he doesn’t like it anymore than I like to be mothered or given unsolicited advice that make me feel like a child. I try to hold these identities lightly. People can call me names—lazy, sloppy, bitchy, selfish, conceited, naïve and so on. All of them are true of me but none of them is me—or that constellation of changing particles I call me.

I’ve thought about this a lot. Those ten earnest men who told us their stories, were each locked into a cage of their own making. Following unwritten rules, fighting an assumed destiny, trying to sort themselves from their peers, seeking to see beyond the limitations of their own, often damaged, beliefs about themselves and the world. I’m left with questions. Will they change? Can they change? What is the context that makes change possible?

In San Quentin, identities are literally tattooed on skin. Black, white, Native American, Hispanic. Bad boy, throwaway child, criminal, convict, macho male, victim, fighter, tough guy, addict, murderer, gangbanger. The route to change, it seems to me, demands they lose these welded identities, or at least to see them for what they are— fictions they have imposed upon themselves or have been imposed on them by others. How will they find the courage to shed these long held identities and dare to feel lost in familiar places? What will is take for them to create enough psychic space, so something new can arise.

Here’s what the inmates told us they need to change how they see themselves and the world. Programs that teach useable skills. Meaningful prison jobs that simulate what will be asked of them on the outside. Programs that ease the transition back to a world that, for many, has forgotten them. Therapy programs, without years long waiting lists, to help them deal with rage and impulse control. A safe place to serve time so they have the psychic energy to think about more than staying alive. And people like Lt. Robinson who treat them firmly but fairly see something in them they may have never seen, our common humanity.