Comedian W. Kamau Bell speaks to prisoners after a screening of his CNN show. Photo: Lance Knobel
Comedian W. Kamau Bell speaks to prisoners after a screening of his CNN show. Photo: Lance Knobel

When Berkeley-based comedian W. Kamau Bell went to San Quentin State Prison last fall he expected a tough dystopia, thanks to the images accumulated through what he calls “prison porn.” Bell found something very different.

He went to prison to make an episode of his new CNN series, “United Shades of America” (broadcast on Sundays at 7 p.m.). In “United Shades,” Bell “explores the far corners of our country and its various groups and subcultures.” In the first episode, he seeks out and speaks to Ku Klux Klan members, encounters that veer from frightening to hilarious to disquieting. The San Quentin episode first aired on May 1.

But before the Sunday broadcast, Bell and a small CNN crew went back to San Quentin for a special preview screening for prisoners, many of whom appear in the show. Berkeleyside was the only media invited to the preview.

“I walked in here afraid, and you all made fun of me,” Bell, who lives in Berkeley, told about 200 prisoners who came to the screening.

Rahsaan Thomas, editor of the San Quentin News, with comedian W. Kamau Bell. Photo: Lance Knobel
Rahsaan Thomas, editor of the San Quentin News, with comedian W. Kamau Bell. Photo: Lance Knobel

Most of the prisoners in the episode are serving life terms and have little prospect of parole. However, what Bell discovers at San Quentin, through talking with prisoners, is that many of the men have found ways to build meaning and purpose in their confinement.

“My voice is the only thing still free,” said Rahsaan Thomas, who was previously sports editor and is now the editor of the San Quentin News.

Thomas is serving a 15-to-life sentence for second-degree murder, with a 35-year enhancement for using a firearm. He shot and killed two men who he says were stealing property from him.

Before the screening, Thomas told Berkeleyside about the many helpful programs inside San Quentin that help with both rehabilitation and education. These include literacy classes, high-school diploma classes, technical education and producing the award-winning newspaper which has a circulation of 17,000 and is distributed within San Quentin as well as several other California prisons.

The obligatory selfie
The obligatory selfie: Bell with some of the prisoners who attended the screening and CNN staff. Photo: Lance Knobel

In the episode of “United Shades,” Thomas tells Bell, “Once you’re rehabilitated you should get a chance to make a contribution to society.”

On Sunday evening prisoners gathered in the chapel and watched the screening intently, bursting into laughter at Bell’s occasional discomfort (particularly at eating the prison’s unappealing chow), and his occasional humorous jibes.

The powerful film — which Bell says is his favorite episode from the “United Shades” series — provides some insight into the personalities and dispositions of the imprisoned men, and avoids the usual sensational sketches. But it also raises crucial questions about racism in the criminal justice system and the impact of what some call the prison industrial complex.

“As long as I sit here, it’s a paycheck for a whole lot of people,” one prisoner tells Bell in the episode.

Bell wrote a piece for CNN with the title “I had a great time in prison.” He concluded about the men he met: “They were all funny, smart, remorseful, resourceful, skilled and self-reflective in ways that most people that I meet on the outside are not.”

Following the screening, Bell did a lengthy question-and-answer session with the prisoners, before chatting individually with the many men who wanted to speak to him.

“I hope [the show] opens the dialogue and changes the conversation,” Bell said. “I don’t really care what the ratings are, as long as you think I do you right.”

One of the funnier moments in the episode comes when Bell sits down to play pinochle with some of the men.

“How you going to grow up black in America and not know how to play pinochle?” one asks Bell incredulously. “Go home and Google pinochle.”

In the post-screening question session, one man raised his hand.

“Did you ever Google pinochle?”

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...