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San Quentin Prisoners Learn to Find Peace and Power Through Personal Exploration

July 24, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Inside the walls that hold many of California's offenders, some inmates are learning to find peace. Prisoners at San Quentin can take part in a year-long initiative where they practice tactics to address the root causes of their violent behavior. Special correspondent Katie Olsen shows us who is benefiting from the program.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, the third story in our series on air and online about efforts to reduce gun violence — tonight, a California program that gives violent offenders the tools to resolve conflicts inside and outside prison walls.

Special correspondent Kate Olson reports. A version of this story aired on the PBS program Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.

KATE OLSON: For most of its 160-year history, San Quentin has been known as a tough place to do hard time. But, over the past two decades, this has begun to change.

Although only a tiny portion of state funds goes toward rehabilitation, contributions from citizens support innovative programs aimed at reducing violence and recidivism. One program making a difference was started by Jacques Verduin.

JACQUES VERDUIN, psychologist: There’s a growing alienation and a lack of sense of belonging for most people in society. And it seemed that nowhere else stronger than in our prison system had we turned our backs on each other.

KATE OLSON: A psychologist who has practiced meditation for many years, Verduin created a program called GRIP, Guiding Rage Into Power. The yearlong initiative seeks to help prisoners address the root causes of their violent behavior and make the journey of transformation from violent offender to peacemaker, from the inside out.

JACQUES VERDUIN: Is home just four walls and a roof on the outside? Or is it a state of mind as well? Can you go home before you leave? Can you leave prison before you get out?

ELIZABETH SIGGINS, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation: The reality is that the parole board does not grant parole very easily. So for many of them they don’t actually know when they will get out of prison.

And I think what the GRIP program has done is offered them a way to not be trapped by that, to realize that they’re living their lives now, that they’re still part of a community. It’s not the community outside the prison, but it’s the community inside the prison.

WOMAN: Hope.

MAN: Solidarity

KATE OLSON: Elizabeth Siggins, who visited San Quentin the day we were there, is a senior policy adviser in the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for the state of California.

ELIZABETH SIGGINS: When you work in a prison system, you don’t think that you’re going to go sit in a group of offenders and close your eyes. And when I was sitting there today I thought, I feel safe.

KATE OLSON: Creating this safe environment is the responsibility of the prisoners, who understand that the program belongs to them.

ROBIN GUILLEN, inmate: My name is Robin. I’m a peacemaker.

KATE OLSON: Fellow inmates, like Robin Guillen, who are graduates of the program, guide the weekly sessions.

ROBIN GUILLEN: See. And that’s part of what we explore here and discover about ourselves on why we acted violently.

KATE OLSON: Guillen has served 40 years in prison — 20 of them here at San Quentin — for a murder he committed at age 17. After witnessing a stabbing outside his cell, he made a decision to turn his life around beginning with facing his painful past.

MAN: Can you go back to the very first time, the very first time that you witnessed trauma or pain in your life?

ROBIN GUILLEN: My father and my cousin were in a fight in the living room. My father stabbed the cousin in the living room many times. And I’m sitting there, crying, blood-curdling cries. Well, this was sheer — out of sheer fear, terror. That was the first experience of original pain.

KATE OLSON: To help the new class of prisoners understand how pain and suffering from their past can trigger violent behavior, Robin prompted others to share their experience.

ROBIN GUILLEN: How many suffered from trauma early on in life, as far back as you can remember, as an adolescent, as a little one?

BYRON HIBBERT, inmate: Early on in my life, you know, everything you do, you get hit. It was just something to me that happened just normal. If you go to school late, you get a whipping. You know what I mean? If you come home late, you get a whipping. Those things taught me how to be aggressive and how to be hurtful towards another human being.

JACQUES VERDUIN: See if you can connect the emotional feeling with some sensation in your body.

KATE OLSON: Through a practice called sitting in the fire, the inmates learn to face painful emotions from their past.

JACQUES VERDUIN: So, breathing in, I welcome this feeling. I feel this fear, this grief, this anxiety.

In my experience in working in San Quentin, I saw that it was often difficult, strong emotion that propelled people in a life of crime and addiction and trying to medicate what you could otherwise process. Sitting in the fire, in essence, basically is a movement of responsibility, where you say, the causes and the origins of this feeling lie within me, so you can stop blaming.

ROBIN GUILLEN: And see that’s the whole peace is to be able to feel what’s going on, to be able to really address, internally, what is this feeling? Where is it coming from, and how I’m going to respond vs. react.

KATE OLSON: Making amends to families of their victims is also part of the journey in GRIP, and to the experience of inner freedom for Guillen.

ROBIN GUILLEN: I have character defects, flaws, and I’m imperfect. But I have a walk and I have a commitment to honor and to honor those people that I’ve hurt. And I have something to give. And I could either give it in here, or I can give it out there.

ELIZABETH SIGGINS: This is 52 weeks of very difficult self-exploration. Not only do the facilitators hold the men accountable. They do hold each other accountable. And, ultimately, the success of the program is whether or not, after they’re done, they really do stick to that commitment of non-violence.

JACQUES VERDUIN: I think that it’s an enormous gift to a community to bring back groups of men that have been imprisoned and the gift is to say, these are safe men. Not only will they not create conflict and violence in your community; they can help resolve it and de-escalate it.

MAN: So, I want to welcome you.

KATE OLSON: This gift was evident in the testimonies at the graduation ceremony of last year’s GRIP class.

VAUGHAN MILES, inmate: My name is Vaughan. I’ve been incarcerated for 18 years for taking the life of Kneeck.

And through all that hurt, and you accept that responsibility for that, they got a part in there where it’s called sitting in the fire, OK? So you sit through all them emotions and I got to see all the ugly that I did. Also, what it helped me do is to look back and find my authentic self, to look back at that kid that was — used to cry if his hamster died, and allow that person right there to come forth and shine and guide me.

And if I can stop another Kneeck from being murdered and another Vaughan from murdering somebody, then I did my job.

KATE OLSON: In a closing ritual, supporters welcomed the graduates into the community as peacemakers, ready to give back.