What’s On Your Ballot?: Adnan Khan, Incarcerated Peoples' Advocate

Adnan Khan spent 16 years in prison, and was released from San Quentin under a new law he researched and helped get passed. (Courtesy Adnan Khan)

In 2020, the United States faces an election like no other. Citizens will vote in the midst of a global pandemic, severe climate change, an uprising for racial justice and an administration that has eroded the norms of democracy. In ‘What’s on Your Ballot,’ KQED checks in with ten different artists, activists and cultural figures about the issues on their minds and their hopes for the country.

Adnan Khan is the executive director of Re:Store Justice, a nonprofit that he co-founded in 2017 while incarcerated in San Quentin State Prison. The organization offers resources to survivors of violent crimes, leads transformative justice workshops to those who’ve committed crimes and holds restorative justice discussions between offenders and survivors of violent crimes.

At the time of the organization's inception, Khan was serving a sentence of 25 years to life under California’s felony murder rule, after participating in a robbery in which his accomplice killed a person. While behind bars, Khan researched and contributed to the efforts that led to the passing of Senate Bill 1437, which allows people charged under the felony murder rule, like himself, to have their cases revisited.

Khan was the first person re-sentenced under the new law, and subsequently released that day. Out of San Quentin for just over 18 months, Khan now lives in Los Angeles with his partner and newborn child, Aidan.

While Aidan took a nap, Khan recently took time to answer questions about this fall’s election, national politics and how to make a difference in a country where most people feel as if they have no say.—Pendarvis Harshaw

Coming from your background, how do you look at the two presidential candidates that we have now, and say, ‘One of them might benefit me and the community that I come from?’

You know, I think that a lot of focus can go to the presidential election, and I believe that there is a huge importance there. But as many of us do know, mass incarceration is a systemic problem, it’s a new form of slavery... And what I’ve learned is that when it comes to mass incarceration or prison, 90% of the people are in state prisons and local jails.

So, when it comes to this voting cycle, it’s really important to know who your governor is, who your state senators are, who your state assembly members are, who your mayor is, who elects the police chief, and who’s your city council, who are your people who can defund the police and reallocate that money. Once I started learning more of the process, I learned that [those] can be very important pieces to focus on the larger pictures.

Now, when it comes to the big debate of the lesser of two evils: Kamala Harris, what she’s done toward the contribution of mass incarceration, and Joe Biden, the ’94 crime bill, and what he’s done with the contribution to mass incarceration is horrible. So a lot of people, morally, feel like they can't vote for them. But not picking the lesser of two evils, and just settling with the larger evil? I personally can’t do that.

The last thing I want to add to this—I’ve constantly reflected on this a lot—is as a person who has experienced many losses, and done 16 years in prison, and starting at a maximum security prison as a young adult, I lived in losses. So, we learn how to maneuver around loss, and what that looks like, how to survive another day, if not a moment, with the correctional staff. I lived under an authoritarian state for 16 years, I lived in autocracy for 16 years. And I’m seeing the parallels with the Trump administration. For me, I can’t see voting for Trump.

Adnan Khan, pictured here while incarcerated at San Quentin.
Adnan Khan, pictured here while incarcerated at San Quentin. 'My amends now would be incomplete if it was only telling someone that I’m sorry,' Khan says, 'without preventing a child from committing the same harm that I did.' (Courtesy Adnan Khan)

How did you get inspired enough to do something to change your situation?

First, I took the steps to educate myself. As you know, in prison, access to information and knowledge is very limited, and it’s done intentionally. I think that gave me more of a hunger, more than anything. Early on in my incarceration, I wanted to investigate my conditions. And as I started to investigate my conditions, I learned that, whoa, there’s a whole systemic thing going on here. And as I kept digging and digging, while living what I’m reading, it was just enlightening. Not in a good way, but in a frustrating way.

Another thing that’s very personal to me, as we talk about agency, is that I take full responsibility for my crime and for the harm that I’ve caused. And in order for me to take full responsibility, one, I have to acknowledge what I did, and then two, I have to make a living amends. Which means, how do I repair the damage that I’ve caused? But then, in order for me to even do that, I have to understand: how did I go from an eight-year-old little league baseball player to an 18-year-old with a life sentence?

And once I learned how that happened, my amends now would be incomplete if it was only telling someone that I’m sorry, without preventing a child from committing the same harm that I did. And that is rooted in policy, and how our society is structured, and how marginalized children are criminalized in schools. So my amends and my remorse can be there, but it’s incomplete unless I learn about the conditions that led me to commit my crime in the first place.

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That’s tight—it’s like, looking at yourself, and taking agency within your own path and your own experience, and also seeing how society failed you. And then seeing that no one else falls through that same crack.

I think it’s very misleading to society for someone to take 100% responsibility for the wrong that they’ve done. There are, as you know, societal factors, contributing factors. Like I said, I was 17 years-old. Parentless, homeless, high school dropout. The police showed up after I committed a crime. And so, school: nothing there. Parents: didn’t have any. Didn’t have literally any place to stay. I slept in cars and parks and friends’ houses for like a year. I can take full responsibility—which, I do take full responsibility, for me—but public safety is still at risk if we don’t change conditions.

To people who feel removed, people that don’t see themselves represented right now by this two-party system, or by local politics, or people who just feel disenfranchised, and don’t have agency—to my young homies who are 18 years-old and have that mindset like, ‘America ain’t mine’—what do you tell them? How do you tell them to get involved?

Well, I feel like America wasn’t mine either, right? It’s true. The inception of this country is built on property, wealth, and land. Built quite literally over bodies, on genocide. And then enslaving people and then bringing them here. When the constitution was written, they didn’t think about abolishing slavery at that time. So everything they built was to protect themselves, or to protect property. And policing was to protect the property-owning people.

Adnan Khan stands in the Re:Store Justice transitional home in Oakland shortly after his release from San Quentin.
Adnan Khan stands in the Re:Store Justice transitional home in Oakland shortly after his release from San Quentin. (Hope McKenney/KQED)

To the young people, I want to say that this is your time. Because more young people are starting to think like you, and are activating. Activation is physical, it’s a verb. You gotta do. Doing, not meaning talking, but going and doing. And more people are doing.

What country do you want to live in the next 20 years? Next 15 years? I’ve got a little boy here, and what happens in the next four to eight years is going to be his future. We can set that. You want it, it’s yours. There’s a commercial with an athlete saying that “Greatness isn’t given, it’s taken—you gotta go get it.” Don’t feel like power comes from not participating. Because once you give power away, then you let someone control you, and that’s what’s been happening forever.

Building off of that, after the election, no matter how it goes, what are your hopes and goals for the future of the country?

The most important thing to me is strategy. And as we organize and mobilize, it’s important to educate people on what to do and how to do it. A lot of people’s advocacy is what they read on the 280-character tweet. There’s a lot of people who are more interested in abolition, new systems, or whatever, that have come out in the past six or seven months than there have been in my entire life. To organize means to collect people, and then make sure the mobilizing is mobilizing toward a direction. So the next few years is going to be rooted in strategy for me.

If we choose to go through what we have, the democratic process, let’s start electing our own. I truly feel like, based on QAnon and all this nonsense that’s happening, this is probably the end of the Republican party. And the Democratic party is more like center-right. Meanwhile there’s this entire party that’s emerging—or has always been around, but it’s being added to, as we’re seeing across the nation—what people are calling the progressive party. There is a third party whose needs are not fully represented, whose ideas are not implemented in society. And so, that’s going to be an interesting political party. I feel like that’s going to be emerging, and fast.

Learn more about Adnan Khan's work by visiting Re:Store Justice.

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