Do emotions like empathy, love, and compassion exist in prisons?

This is a question that was presented to men in The Last Mile program at San Quentin. This response is from Darnell Hill.

My first response to this question is: where there are humans: empathy, love, and compassion exist. This being my first time in prison, I too came in with the notion or assumption that prison is not the place to display the characteristics or emotions like trust, love, empathy, and compassion. I am 44 years young and have spent half of my life incarcerated, therefore I have the experience and insight as to why emotions like love, trust, empathy, and compassion are necessary emotional stimulants to overcome persecution, guilt, shame, and emotional abuse.

A young man in the entertainment and fashion industry known by the name of Scott McKenzie wrote a book called “Great Scott”. Scott defines “love is giving somebody the power to destroy you & trusting them not to.” With love comes trust and you can’t have one without the other. A criminal may continue to display distrustful behavior and yet strive for love and acceptance from their peers and family. I don’t know anybody who likes the feeling of being unloved or unaccepted.

I have seen the worst gangs in prison display sincere love and compassion for one another through their loyalty to die for one another over the most trivial circumstances. Looking from the outside in, a person would say that’s crazy! But parents sacrifice their lives for destructive children all the time but can’t understand a criminal seeking unconditional love in a destructive manner. Most men and women end up in prison when we grow up believing that no one loves or cares for us so we end up looking for love in a way we can get it; gangs, drugs, alcohol, and in many cases supporting family or friends in violent behavior.

The best example of love in prison is when we realize what love means and who our true friends and family are in healthy relationships. True friends and family don’t continue to support you in destructive behavior harmful to yourself, family and community. The value of love begins to be the emotional stimulant to overcome the guilt, shame and emotional abuse that comes with the realization of the harm caused from violence and hate.

The media plays a major role in portraying prison as a place of nothing but violence, hate and emotionless criminals. When a man dies in prison for any reason in San Quentin, the men behind bars pray and draw cards for everyone to sign to express sympathy to the family. Birthday acknowledgements are very big here because you find that some men have never had a birthday celebration in their life or even received a card. If that’s not empathy or compassion I don’t know what is? Last but not least we have classes such as VOEG (Victim Offender Education Group), IMPACT (Incarcerated Men Putting Away With Childish Things), TRUST (Teaching Responsibility Utilizing Sociological Training) and non-violent communication just to name a few, that help me to learn how to express my feelings, needs, and request with an empathetic, compassionate connection with my own emotions to express it to others.

While in prison I work with young men from the age of 17 to 25 concerning issues with gangs, drugs, alcohol, violence, and the consequences of bad attitudes through to groups R.E.A.L Choices and S.Q.U.I.R.E.S. We mentor these young men from destructive behavior patterns and how to identify and value the love of supportive family members and positive role models. Now that’s compassion to its fullest.

Most Importantly, no one can survive imprisonment without expressing the need for love, trust, empathy, or compassion. Prison is not the walls that contain the person, it’s the state of mind that embraces guilt without forgiveness, shame without remorse, persecution without redemption, and emotional abuse without giving one self time to mourn. Prison is a place full of love, compassion, and empathy in the midst of a lot of emotional confusion. The good thing is you don’t have to look for love, trust, empathy and compassion if you decide to live it in spite of the physical circumstances.

Darnell Hill

All communications between inmates and external channels are facilitated by approved volunteers since inmates do not have access to the internet. This program with Quora is part of The Last Mile San Quentin. Twitter: @TLM

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Chris Redlitz is a managing partner at Transmedia Capital, and a founding partner of Kicklabs, a San Francisco based technology accelerator.  Chris is also a serial entrepreneur, avid cyclist and urban farmer living in Marin County. Twitter: @chrisredlitz

  • Jim

    Wow. Very compelling story. 

  • Janelle

    Very articulate and inspiring message from Darnell. This changes my perspective on how men behind bars feel.

    • Ron

       Yes Janelle, a lot of the men that I met while incarcerated were, and are, truly amazing.
       I never would have realize the magnitude of inmate reality had I not experienced it for myself 1st hand.
        – Ron

  • Ron

     I went to prison for keeping the Peace by force & practicing non-violence. (Things were gonna get ugly real fast, but in the end, no one was actually hurt….except my children who lost their dad for 11yrs)
      My story is long, complicated, and very eye opening as to the powers that be, and what is really going on within the “Prison Industrial Complex”
     Truth of the matter is that my Dharmic path led me to prison where I finally found the Inner Peace that I had been seeking…go figure eh ?
     Life really is a play of Cosmic entertainment.

     – namaste

  • Linda

    My best friend is in prison.  I actually met him while dating his best friend, a former correctional officer.  The two couldn’t communicate so I was the go between.  I can tell you that I’ve never met a more exceptional “human being” that is the example of how we all should live.  He is the finest Christian I know and does so much for so many. He is working on his third novel.  I hope and pray each day that one day he will be able to walk in the free world again as he could expand all the good in him to help so many others. 
    So many people have such a misconceived notion of inmates due to the media and the lies told by the Department of Corrections.  They are real people with real feelings that made bad choices.

    • Linda

      The first novel is  “A Thundering Wind” and is available on  The second one is “A Year in a Life Sentence” – which will be available soon on  The third is a collaboration with his victim’s family.  His fourth will be a sequel to “A Thundering Wind”.