“I won’t do it. I got a right to speak up when something is bullshit.”
Sunny didn’t have a problem firing those words across the principal’s desk when he demanded that she “come back and behave” after he had kicked her out of school (again). And it didn’t bother her that her father was sitting right there.
Sunny hated school. She always had. She felt dumb and out of place. Wise ass, a fighter from the beginning, she didn’t take anybody’s crap and was always in trouble.
So nobody who knew her from those days would be surprised to hear that she ended up in the San Francisco county lock up; that she’d been there for 20 years, and was still there.
But she didn’t get there the way you’d think.
She did it her way, the way she did everything.
Sunny Schwartz became a lawyer, and after doing a notable job working with inmates in the San Francisco Prisoner Legal Service Unit she was asked to head all prisoner programs in the San Francisco county jails. As top administrator, she would revamp a pretty moribund institution, change how things were done, and start new programs.
Dreams from the Monster Factory, Sunny’s book about her prison experiences, describes the successes and the (amazingly few) failures of that transformation and her own personal and professional journey.
Sunny hit one of those rare times in a penal system when a few administrators, in this case two men, are able to acknowledge the system’s breakdowns, and have a vision of how to fix and make it better.
It was a pretty heart-thumping vision at that, especially for those of us who have worked in jails: Change, any change there, is glacial. Nothing gets done, no matter who says they want it done. And even those officials who make modifications end up, in some perverse logic of corrections, sabotaging their own efforts.
But the vision was there in San Francisco in 1990 along with the will and determination to see it through.
“Pull the jail culture down…so it might actually help prisoners,” was the way the prison director put it to Sunny.
“We need someone with your courage to do this,” another corrections official said.
It was a daunting job, but they knew they had her. Only somebody as feisty as that teenager who spit those words across the principal’s desk would take on a challenge like that.
Sunny had always been an advocate for the underdog. But that didn’t make her an easy mark. Dreams From the Monster Factory is filled with stories of Sunny going toe to toe with the toughest thugs—thieves, wife beaters, gangbangers, murders; what she describes as the “scrap heap;” and what, in the jail where I worked, a warden called “human garbage.”
She confronted their behavior and demanded—that’s right, demanded—that they change, that they look at their actions, then take responsibility for them. And they did, because she gave them the message that they were capable of changing.
For some of these men, mean, hard-bitten and cynical, it was the first time anyone had shown that kind of faith in them. The jail culture didn’t believe that they could be any different. Society certainly didn’t. Their families and friends had long given up expecting anything good from them, if they ever had.
But Sunny and the rest of her staff didn’t just set out their demands. They gave inmates the tools they needed to meet them. During the day the TV was turned off (perhaps her most courageous act, considering that TV is the one drug inmates could still get—legitimately), and everybody was required to be in some sort of educational, vocational or therapeutic program. Over time jail life for both inmates and correctional staff improved.
But Sunny wasn’t satisfied. While she recognized that the men’s in-jail behavior had gotten better, she was disturbed by the violence of the inmates’ crimes. It was a violence that tore apart not only their victims’ lives, but also their own lives as well as the lives of the people they loved and the communities in which they lived.
In response to the vast net of suffering she saw, Sunny came up with her boldest plan of all: Put the most violent men in one dorm and start a violence prevention program. RSVP (Resolve to Stop the Violence Program) would be based on the tenets of restorative justice. Through a variety of groups, it would teach the men to forgive themselves for their crimes; to forgive others for the harm done to them (Sunny found that most of the men in RSVP had been victims of childhood trauma); and to seek forgiveness.
Dreams from the Monster Factory tells the heartbreaking, yet heartwarming struggles many of the men went through in RSVP.
One of the most affecting transformations was Ben, a tough, recalcitrant white supremacist/Neo-Nazi. He refused to participate in the program, to examine his hateful and violent behavior. Until finally, through the slow water-on-rock patience of the staff, the other inmates, and RSVP itself, he began to crack open and amend his ways. His final act of reconciliation, and it is a very moving one, came when he volunteered to speak about himself and the program to a synagogue congregation, some of whose members are Holocaust survivors.
What makes Dreams from the Monster Factory so engrossing, however, isn’t just watching a spirited reformer take on the criminal justice system. We are captivated by Sunny’s honesty. She doesn’t shy away from her own process of reconciliation and transformation. She’s right in there with the worst of the worst, grappling with her own monsters—inner and outer—as she learns to forgive herself and others. This combination of personal and public struggle is what gives this book its the strength and beauty.
Early in the book, teenaged Sunny warned that she didn’t put up with anybody’s bullshit—her own, the system’s or society’s. Dreams from the Monster Factory shows her true to her word.