More than 300 men and women, including family members, filled San Quentin’s Protestant Chapel to witness 75 inmates receive diplomas for completing the Guiding Rage into Power program (GRIP).
The new graduates of the 52-week program, which focuses on examining the root cause of violent tendencies, took a pledge to return to their communities as agents for peace.
“We need to fight to help get these men back into the community—to do the work they want to do,” It Calls You Back author Luis J. Rodriguez told the audience.
Rodriguez spoke about ending his own gang activities and substance abuse. “What helped me is the fact that I changed into someone who helps, instead of someone who hurts.” He added, “My son, who just got out of prison, said to tell the men, ‘I am committed to peace, too.’”
The idea for GRIP originated from its director, Jacques Verduin. He described it as a 17-year journey in seeking the right people and perfecting the curriculum.
GRIP is about taking offenders and graduating them into servants.
Verduin said the Navaho portray someone who’s committed a crime as somebody acting as if he or she has no relatives. In that sense, “A crime is an inarticulate plea for help,” he said. “So part of the solution is to create a context where we relate to each other to heal the pain of feeling alienated. In the process of healing the person not only learns how to rehabilitate, but also becomes someone who’s able to give back to the community.”
“I’m honored to be here today. I’m so proud of these men who decided to complete this program provided by Jacques,” said inmate facilitator Richard Poma, who was instrumental in developing GRIP.
San Quentin Warden Kevin D. Chappell encouraged the graduates to “Live by your pledge of nonviolence. You’ve taken a huge step for transformation. You must continue moving forward,” he said, while thanking the graduates for being peacemakers.
“You are leading the way in California for prison reform,” State Senator, Mark Leno (D) told Warden Chappell.
Each graduate participated in one of three classes, called Tribes. The tribes’ names came about by adding up all the years the inmates had served.
“Each person in the tribe must be accountable to each person much like a gang does,” Verduin said. “I believe people walked out of the event, proud to be human beings.”
Miguel Quezada, of Tribe 552 said, “I had to sit in the fire to learn about my original pain. I come to understand that hurt people hurt people. What GRIP taught me is that healed people heal people. The healing begins by keeping to my pledge that I am ready, willing, and able to maintain a life of nonviolence and peacemaking.”
Several high level officials from Sacramento also attended the graduation. Millicent Tidwell, director of rehabilitative programs for California’s prisons said, “This administration is committed to rehabilitation. I am truly honored to be here. This type of program makes me want to run back to Sacramento and get to work. This program is a model of what we should be doing.”
“The men who are here are taking a risk—the risk of being transparent,” said inmate facilitator Robin Guillen who was also instrumental in developing GRIP. “But that’s where the healing begins. The men have dug deep to understand how to be a peacemaker, to learn empathy, to understand the damage they’ve done to victims. They have worked hard to become peacemakers in our San Quentin community.”
Senator Leno told the audience that for the past decade, there has been a prison crisis in California, which caused the federal courts to come in and force a population reduction. He further commented on the disproportional amount of money spent on prisons compared to schools, saying it “is a red flag as we’re going in the wrong direction.”
Addressing the inmates in the audience, Senator Leno said, “Much more will be allocated for rehabilitation programs. As I return to Sacramento, I will bring the things I’ve learned about the GRIP program. We need to replicate this in other prisons.”
Warden Chappell told the inmates serving life terms and involved in rehabilitative programs to continue their work, because at the recent governor’s meeting in Sacramento, he said Gov. Brown is “taking a close look at each package coming on his desk,” adding, “You guys are taking an important step to making it on the governor’s desk. You guys are the ones he’s looking for.”
“I see these men choosing to be peacemakers, and living a non-violent life,” added Poma.
Retired Chief Deputy Warden Bill Rodriquez told the audience that he has known Poma “at his worse and at his best.”
The relationship between these two unlikely people developed over the time Poma spent in administrative segregation while Rodriguez was a captain at the same prison. Richard Poma said he began to change after he and his brother, Dennis, who was dying of liver cancer, were placed in the same housing unit. A pact was made between the two brothers. The pact was Richard would change his criminal behavior and live a good productive life, and Dennis would quit using drugs. Richard gave Rodriguez credit for keeping him in administrative segregation, which facilitated the interaction with his brother. Richard said Rodriguez’s insight about the power of family was a major impact steering him in the right direction.
Bill Rodriguez went on to say, “There are many obstacles inmates must overcome in order to change their criminal thinking. The inmates need help from facilitators in programs like GRIP. There are all kinds of doctors, but you guys are doctors for change and you guys are saving lives.”
“I learned the courage to humble myself and sometimes I have to readjust so I don’t act on impulse,” said Malcolm Williams of Tribe 928. “I do this so when I leave prison, I won’t leave the same way I came in.”
“Since I was 8-years old, I’ve been in and out of jail,” said Glenn Hill of Tribe 928. “GRIP taught me that my belief system was false. When I looked around to the men in GRIP, I found that they’ve been through the same struggles I’ve been through.”
“There was the fear of change,” said Tribe 936 member, Terry Burton. “In the beginning of my change, I found that my thoughts were wrong. Some of the most meaningful amends from actions of our past is the change we show today.”
One speaker, who works with Tribe 936, was both a crime victim and an ex-police officer. He said he was abused as a child. “How do we, especially those who’ve been harmed, end the cycle of violence?” He said that at some point criminals must be accountable for their actions and that the GRIP program allows the person to do so.
Another survivor of crime tearfully told the audience about how her father killed her mother and is now serving life in a state prison. “What do I want from criminal justice?” Commenting on the $125 million dollars it has taken to keep the 75 graduates behind bars, she asked, “Is it worth it? The only path is inclusion. Moving us forward only has one option, moving the graduates—the change agents—back to the community to help the healing process,” adding. “Working with these guys is a way for me to honor my parents. I feel safe when I sit in the circle with these men, because I trust that they are agents for change.”
“It was very difficult walking back in this place,” said GRIP graduate Alton McSween. McSween was released from San Quentin after the Three-Strikes Reform Act was passed last November. “It was difficult leaving you guys behind. The work you do in here really helps people out there. You don’t believe how important you guys are as change agents for people out there.”
A tearful Jack Kornfield of the Spirit Rock Buddhist center said, “I’m horrified with what we do as a society. It’s never too late to change your life. You are the one who makes the choice for change,” adding. “The stories you tell give hope to the young ones that they don’t have to follow the storyteller’s way to prison.”
L.A. Laker basketball superstar Ron Artest, aka Metta World Peace, gave a video presentation. “You don’t have to be a saint to want to change. We underestimate the power of influence,” he said in the video. “I want to commend you all for getting up. The positive energy will rub off. Continue to do positive things. It’s all about getting up when you fall down.”
Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin gave credit to the Richmond Project, an inmate-run program designed to work as a healing agent for Richmond citizens. “To hear the transformation that you all are going through gives me hope of societal transformation,” she said. “Inequalities in the world must change for our society to move forward. Each of you gives us hope. You all are inspiration.”
Richmond Project Chairman Vaughn Miles spoke to the audience about the strength he gained from graduating from the GRIP program. He informed the audience that on Nov. 18, his brother was murdered on the streets of Camden, New Jersey. “The tools I learned from GRIP have allowed me to use this as a positive,” he said to the quiet audience. “It’s easy to say you’re a peacemaker during peace, but a true peacemaker does it in hard times too.”
Miles then presented Mayor McLaughlin with a certificate of appreciation from GRIP, recognizing her crime reduction efforts, youth empowerment, and prison reform suggestions. “This award is for the mayor of my city, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin,” he said to a cheering audience.
Gullien was awarded the “Generation Ali Robe,” for his commitment to self-help and facilitation to the various groups. After putting on the robe, he said, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, and cry like a man,” to a standing ovation.
Toward the end of the graduation ceremony, the graduates and the men in blue in the audience stood and apologized in unison for the harm caused by their criminal acts.
All 75 graduates then signed their nonviolence pledge.
“We, living on the other side of the walls, take a pledge,” said GRIP facilitator, Susan Shannon. “These men have learned the meaning of interconnectedness of life, learned humility, and truth as peacekeepers and as agents of change regardless of place. They have educated themselves to eliminate stereotypes, to learn how to be in healthy relationships.” Shannon concluded by asking “Will the community meet with them?”
HOW GRIP CHANGED MY LIFE:
“I’ve learned through the Guiding Rage Into Power Program (GRIP). When I stop, think, observe and process any negative situation, I always find another way to deal with the situation without violence. At that time, which gives me the power to control what happens next to me and others that may cause me or them harm,” said Eric Durr.
“GRIP gives me a life without violence by learning how to track my feelings and by knowing anger is a secondary emotion that covers up the primary feelings of fear, hurt and many other feeling,” said Lenny Beyett.
“As for ‘fear’, GRIP Tribe 928 has given me the ability to confront my fears by sharing my past behaviors and hearing others. It allowed me the courage to not only handle ‘mines,’ but to conquer them as a whole,” said Christopher L. Lewis
“GRIP has given me a sense of unity that is seldom seen in prison. I’ve learned that I will never be alone in my struggles, and that my struggles are not mine alone,” said Frankie Smith
“GRIP helped me to recognize my secondary pain was the cause of my destructive behavior. Now I can connect the dots in my life. I’m very grateful,” said Dao.
“GRIP class has given me a full perspective on being responsible, to always have the courage to humble myself and to let life challenges become a pathway to my growth and maturity,” said Malcolm Williams.
“I should have or I shouldn’t have – is in the past. It is time to take responsibility for all the hurt and pain that I caused,” said R. Moore.
“In GRIP, I learned the courage to face my issues objectively and looked into those issues with a hope of correcting them. I have learned that I am a male by nature, but a man through achievement,” said George “Mesro” Coles – Tribe 928.
“You cannot change the fruit without changing the roots. Working on attitude and behavior is like hacking at the leaves. Start from the roots; it’s where everything begins,” said Peter Chhem – Tribe 928.
“GRIP provided me with a sense of brotherhood, where I felt safe, owning up to my past and empowered to reclaim my future,” said Chris Schumacher.
“Speak when you’re moved to speak. Otherwise, listen… Well, I did just that for 12 months as a member of Tribe 928, sharing, and listening to years of incarcerated experiences. Thank y’all,” said Edward “Face” Kennedy.
“GRIP has motivated me to the point of learning how to dig deep inside myself and recognize that this is where change truly begins,” said Wilburt Witkins.
“GRIP, it is where I stood with my hands in another man’s hand. A connection made in sharing, in trust, in love – brotherhood forever there,” said Marco.
“I have learned how to express genuine affection and how to identify my feelings. If they are bad feelings, I don’t run away from the pain as I did in the past. Now I embrace my pain and sit in the fire. I’ve learned from GRIP that the healing is in the pain. I also learned how to stop and listen to my body signals. GRIP has taught me how to be a better man,” said John Johnson (J.J.).
“I’ve learned many things in GRIP, but what stood out to me most was imminent danger. I’d never known what was in-between when I was about to cross the line, such as sweaty palms, butterflies, and stuttering. Recognizing my imminent is important because it will save me from many regrets,” said Nick Lopez
“I stepped into the 52-week GRIP program for continual learning to stop my violence and develop emotional intelligence. I was so motivated by the program that I learned many more techniques the Grip program offered. I learned to be more authentic with myself and to others. Grip taught me how to work with others effectively,” Nicholas Garcia.
“One of the things I learned in the GRIP program is how to recognize some of my childhood experiences as ‘trauma.’ It never occurred to me that the corporal punishments I received as a child were traumatic experiences. Before GRIP, I saw those methods of punishment as normal child rearing techniques,” said Byron Hibbert.
“To stop and process, control my emotions; and not act out on them with violence or drugs, has been paramount to my growth in rehabilitation,” said Terence Alan Burton
“GRIP has taught me Emotional Intelligence by sitting in the fire. This process helped me grow and cultivate mindfulness. It also helped me expose the real me, not some guy that’s pretending to be someone that I’m not. GRIP taught me the nature of responsibility and how I should own up to what I did to those I’ve hurt. I now hold myself accountable for the murder of Mr. Cornelio Segundo. Thank you Jacque for also teaching me to be a peace keeper,” said Seelua Mikaio.
“I’m proud to state that my tribe has helped to re-introduce me to my authentic self and overcome my greatest obstacles in life – me,” said A. Shavers -Tribe 936.
“GRIP has helped open me up in ways that I never thought possible. I now know that I’m not my crime. I am worth loving, and I can love,” said Ronald Cooper.
“A clearer understanding of my own troubles and how my shame and substance abuse distorted my sense of reality,” said D. Collier.
“The GRIP program offered a few essential tools to use to calm the moment of imminent danger. However, the biggest impact of the GRIP program on me was learning about original (trauma) and secondary (karmic) pain. It allows me to recognize and accept the root of my problem, which led to my criminal behavior,” said Cecil Davis.
“This program has given me the ability to not only stop my violence, but it has also enhanced my ‘emotional intelligence’ and ‘mindfulness’ as well,” said Richard “Dino” Dean.
“I came to San Quentin a broken, angry man. I signed up for the GRIP 52-week class. It showed me how to address my pain. I feel like I’m looking at life through a new pair of glasses. I’m truly grateful,” said John McCarthy.
“From inception to graduation, in the Grip program I was convinced to modify the way I dealt with stress and to follow a new life path devoid of violence,” said Kenny Cunha.
The Protestant Choir provided music and song by Albert Flagg on keyboards, vocals by Timothy Warren, Leonard Walker, Ronald James, Anthony Gallo, Michael Adams, Pedro Cruz, Charles King, Fredrick Gaines, and Christopher Harris.
Relating Stories Of Violence
By John Neblett
Are like different kinds of rain: Fire, steel, tears on survivor’s lips, Shared, they land in awareness, Lighting empathic feelings –Welding mutual compassion, And suffering becomes brothers and sisters.