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Lt. Sam Robinson/ San Quentin State Prison

“I’m at the age now where I realize what I’ve been doing is not working, and I have three (preadolescent) sons that I need to be a father to.”
 Trent Hillman

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Faith lights the way for San Quentin inmates
July 26th, 2011
By Lidia Wasowicz

They started out from different ethnic, educational and economic origins, lost their moral compass along the way and found religion where their paths converged -- San Quentin State Prison in Marin County.

The inmates interviewed for this article followed divergent directions on their spiritual journey: one detoured to atheism, another headed straight for conversion, and the rest got lost in uncertainty for a while.

All found their bearings behind bars and steered to the Catholic faith for comfort, courage and consolation.

Here are their stories of how they arrived on common ground.

Michael Villanueva, who has spent half of his 40 years serving a 15-to-life sentence for conspiracy to commit second-degree murder and assault with a deadly weapon, came from sturdy Catholic stock. His grandfather fought against federal forces persecuting Catholics in Mexico in the 1920s before arriving in the United States under the Bracero Program initiated to fill a farm labor shortage. His father, a migrant worker who returned to his homeland to find a wife and start a family, kept a checklist to ensure his seven children received the sacraments.

Michael, the first-born, began secretly questioning his faith in high school. By junior college, he had turned away from God and toward the bottle. One night, inebriated, he tried to stab a man who had insulted his friend but missed. His friend did not.

“I started to get in trouble at 16, coinciding with my progression to secularism,” said Villanueva, leaning against the pew in San Quentin’s Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Chapel. “At the time of the arrest at age 20, I was a full-blown atheist -- but the first thing I did was grab a Bible.”

In 1998, he strived to emulate the Prodigal Son but failed to receive the reception he expected.

“I was a mess,” said Villanueva, who arrived at San Quentin seven years ago and hopes his next parole hearing, scheduled for December 2012, will set him free. “But something in me told me if I kept going, there would be a reward.”

It came on May 13, 2008, on the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima and the tenth anniversary of his decision to return to his faith with a daily recitation of the rosary.

“All the weight was lifted,” he sighed. “‘Thank you, God,’ I said. ‘I’m still in prison, but I’m not suffering any more.’”

Reconnected to his roots, Villanueva wants to branch out, studying advanced calculus, working toward a college degree and hoping for an engineering career.

“My faith is my rock that keeps me grounded,” he said.

A single act forever changed the life of Ed Ballenger, 59, a once happily married carpenter. It landed him in prison with a 15-to-life sentence, of which he’s served 19 years, the past five at San Quentin. The jury found him guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting death of his wife’s paramour, a tragedy for which he now takes full responsibility.

“Prison has been a good experience for me,” Ballenger admitted. “As much as it’s been difficult, it’s been a growing experience.”

His introspection laid bare the “egotistical” side he blames for his troubles and opened his heart to others because, as he came to recognize, “Christ is in everybody.”

He felt at home the minute he stepped into the Catholic chapel in 2007.

“I liked the feel of this church,” recalled Ballenger, who was baptized in April. “The people were friendly. It was peaceful. They had pretty good songs.”

The homily messages of service, forgiveness, non-judgment and redemption erased his fear, eased his pain and earned his trust.

“Jesus is my bedrock,” said Ballenger, who dreams of being released in two years, putting the machinist and computer skills he’s honed at San Quentin to use and, perhaps, reconnecting with the two grown sons he hasn’t seen since they were tots. “When I struggle with things, I turn to Him.”

With a rap sheet stretching back 27 years, Trent Hillman, 40, started drinking, smoking pot and getting “sticky fingers” at age 13.

He thinks his incarceration for receiving stolen property will finally break the musty mold.

“I’m at the age now where I realize what I’ve been doing is not working, and I have three (preadolescent) sons that I need to be a father to,” Hillman said.

The rosary and the Eucharist have brought him solace needed to turn his life around.

“It’s a comfort to know that if I’m open to God’s will, there’ll be good out of this,” he said.

Ambitious, articulate, analytical, Kevin Daniel Driscoll, 38, has used his prison time to earn a Juris doctorate, seek missing evidence he says would show he fatally shot his fiancé the night before her wedding shower in the heat of passion and work on self-improvement.

Sentenced to 40 years to life for second-degree murder with a gun enhancement, Driscoll has spent the last two of the 12 years served in San Quentin.

As a scientist with a degree in environmental studies, he questioned his faith and God’s existence.

“Since I’ve been incarcerated, I’m much richer realizing what’s really important,” he said. “There’s a lot to the saying there are no atheists in fox holes because we’re in one now.”

Born into a military Catholic family, educated by Carmelite sisters and Jesuit brothers, Christopher R. Marshall Sr., 44, had one fatal flaw they could not help him overcome: greed.

A landscape contractor pulling in six figures, Marshall nonetheless gave into the temptation of pulling a fast one that has cost him more than 10 years of his life.

His conviction on six counts of forgery and 38-to-life punishment capped a life of crime that started with selling drugs at age 19.

“The idiotic things I did were totally out of character of my family and what they stood for,” Marshall said. “I had a good life, I chose to ruin it for pure greed.”

His transfer to San Quentin Feb. 3, 2010, opened his eyes.

“I’ve changed; the greed is done,” said Marshall, who currently is not eligible for release until 2037. “It was a godsend I was sent here.”

Unlike most prisons, where “you wake up, go to breakfast and lock up in your cell,” he said, San Quentin offers numerous programs, attracts hordes of volunteers and, of special spiritual significance, has its own Catholic chapel.

“It’s a place of safety where peace prevails when you cross the threshold,” said Lt. Sam Robinson, a 15-year veteran of San Quentin. “You can’t help but be a different individual when you leave.”

From the July 29, 2011 issue of Catholic San Francisco.


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