Dutch Social Psychologist Impressed by Prisoners

By Joost van Imhoff

My time in San Quentin has evoked the following question in me: “How can it be that I, safely raised in Holland, have never felt so understood, accepted and heard as I have in a group of violent offenders?”

Although the stories of drugs, violence and even murder were far from what I’ve experienced and new to me, it was not what had surprised or gripped me.

I was highly surprised and impressed by the integrity, emotional intelligence and authority of a group of men that society labeled as “monsters.” Prison has not only taught me a lot as a psychologist, but I’ve mainly had an inspiring experience as a human being.

For five months, I have been an intern for Jacques Verduin in San Quentin State Prison in California. For my internship, I have attended and supported five different classes: Violence, Prevention, The Work, VOEG, Yoga and Meditation.

Most of the students in these classes are lifers.

Eventually, I was given the opportunity to prepare my own class and facilitate two different groups. This was a wonderful opportunity and humbling experience for me. I had the feeling it went well. I easily bonded and befriended a lot of the men, and it was sometimes hard for me to distance myself from their traumatic stories. I realized that I took these stories with me to the outside world and into my own life.

Apart from the professional skills I have gained, this experience has touched and affected me deeply.

San Quentin has given me a new perspective on my future. The traumatic stories I was told weren’t necessarily what was so special in this prison. It was the way they were told and accepted by the rest of the class.

Jacques Verduin and Kathy Harris create an environment in which the group feels comfortable and safe to share and learn from each other. This is exceptional in an environment where usually nothing is shared because of safety, status and honor. Nevertheless, the men speak out about what they have been through, bad decisions they have made and moreover know what they need, never to make them again. At the same time the rest of men listen actively.

The men show a lot of genuine empathy and use each others stories to learn from each other. Shy men are encouraged to speak and tears are welcomed as proof of the hard emotional work they are doing. I have to be honest and tell you that I have never seen such freedom, openness and authenticity outside of these walls. This is why I want to take this dialogue into the “free world” and into my life. I want to help people to listen and talk openly when they are in conflict. Furthermore, I would like to train people in how to facilitate this dialogue.

Because of this experience and my dreams for the future, earning a master’s degree in social psychology is still exactly what I wish to do. The things I will learn next year will help me continue what I’ve found in San Quentin.

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