Restorative justice program GRIP continues its legacy of healing with its newest grads
After examining their lives, past traumas, their crimes and taking account- ability of it all, nearly 150 incarcerated men underwent a “rite of passage” in San Quentin’s visiting room that ended with the men pledging to live as peacemakers.
Guiding Rage Into Power (GRIP), the 52-week offender accountability program, held graduations on the last two Fridays of June. Incarcerated men, their families, and guest from San Francisco Bay area communities where all in attendance.
“GRIP takes participants on a healing journey deep inside themselves to come back out transformed and ready to serve others,” said Jacques Verduin, the restorative justice pioneer that founded GRIP over 20 years ago.
GRIP participants learn how to recognize and manage emotions that lead to violent behavior, how to deal with the difficulties of daily life, and how their offenses impacted their survivors and the community. Weekly sessions are co-facilitated by those , who have completed the program and been recommended by other facilitators.
During the June 28 ceremony, graduate John “Yayah” Johnson spoke about the group’s mission to become peacemakers, learn emotional intelligence, be mindful and understand how their decisions and actions affect others.
“We learn to be responsive and not reactive. We found the ability to sit in the fire, we learn how to power with, not power over.” Johnson said.
Graduate John “Red” Drew said GRIP taught him how to deal with anger, abandonment, fear, shame, and physical and verbal abuse.
“These emotions are not mine,” he said. “These emotions belong to my pain and trauma that was implanted into my life,” Drew said.
Each group of around thirty people is identified as a ‘tribe,’ which is based primarily on the cumulative number of years the members have served. Graduate Lorenzo Romero talked about key insights he gained, and bonds he formed within his tribe, Tribe 842.
“We were so authentic and honest,” Romero said. “We were able to recognize dam- age and pain that we caused our victims, ourselves, our families, and our children. We are hurting humans who are able to begin the healing process.”
At each graduation survivors of crimes talked about their experiences bringing tears to some in the audience.
During the June 21 graduation, Patty O’Reilly, whose husband was killed by a drunk driver, shared how her daughter Siobhan—8 years old at the time—asked to meet her father’s killer. Patty initially refused. But the determined Siobhan (also at the graduation), made a greeting card to send the prisoner.
Patty said the request felt like divine intervention so she did what was necessary to meet the offender. She said the meeting was “a moment of grace” that led to forgiveness. Now Patty volunteers as a surrogate victim – someone
Jose Luis Velazquez and Facilitator Lucia de La Fuente who tells their story to of- fenders and engages in dialogue with them – which she describes as a “spiritual journey” from God.
“I get hope with programs like GRIP,” Patty concluded.
During the June 28 graduation, Elle O’Dowd talked about how she began to recover after her daughter, Emily, was killed by a drunk driver in 2009.
“She was amazing, snorted when she laughed, she was beautiful and… she was gone — my life fell apart,” O’Dowd said of Emily. “It came down to ‘how do I want to live my life?’ I saw a bumper sticker that said, ‘Love Wins.’”
She went on to share how she had a conversation with the offender and how he was able to take responsibility.
“He had the courage to face me. I realize the courage that it took to stand in front of the woman whose daughter he killed. At that moment, he became Alan to me, not the person who killed Emily. He became human, to me,” said O’Dowd.
After congratulating the graduates and thanking them for their work, O’Dowd ended her presentation to a standing ovation, repeating the words, “Love wins—love wins—love wins.”
Veronica Jackson, wife of graduate Arthur Williams, told a story about a fly that was bothering them during a visit. She said she tried to kill the fly until Arthur questioned her motivation and commented it was just a fly doing what flies do. She said her husband’s con- cern about the “little things” made her see his transformation into caring about the“bigger things.”
Anthony Denard graduated on June 21 with his wife there to see him.
“It’s a big accomplishment having family here to see this progress in my life,” Denard said.“It’s a way to teach them to make better choices in life so they don’t make the mistakes that I did,” he said, referring to his two young stepsons.
Both sons looked up at their stepfather with pride.
“I’m proud of him. I’m amazed that he made it this far,” said stepson, Zabien Fortenbery.
Denard’s other step-son, Zyvhon Fortenbery, added, “I’m glad that he’s doing this hard work and that he’s not doing more bad stuff so that he can be back with us. I’m glad that all men are doing work to get out.”
There were frowns and quiet shaking of heads June 28 when Susan Shannon, a founding facilitator for GRIP, talked about the new direction her life is taking and how that will limit her future involvement with San Quentin GRIP.
“I’m just changing my base. I’m not leaving GRIP,” Shannon said. “We have unpacked the hardest parts, the most vulnerable parts. We’ve sat in that fire together.”
Xavier Issac Delgadillo from the Consulate General of Mexico in San Francisco, one of the outside guest speakers for the June 28 graduation, spoke about the consulate’s concerns and services for Mexican citizens who are incarcerated.
“We contact them frequently,” Delgadillo said. “We try to facilitate tools to make their release easier. We are proud that our community is involved in this program. This kind of teaching will help them to find an answer.”
Spanish speaking graduate Angel Villafan talked about what it meant to be a peace- maker.
“Due to language barriers, a lot of people lose their voice,” Villafan said. “I want to be that voice that could translate how important the GRIP curriculum is. For the rest of my life, I want to make sure that my past does not become someone else’s future.”
Formally incarcerated men, Bernard Moss, Miguel Quezada, Kenneth Hartman and Vaughn Miles were allowed back into the prison to talk about how GRIP helped their transition back to the community.
“There’s opportunity out there,” Miles said surrounded by inmates he once did time with.
Now working with youth in the city of Richmond, California, Miles said the skills he learned in prison enabled him to use active listening and non-judgmental, validating communication with youth—even when he doesn’t agree with what they’re say- ing.
“What I do is share a piece of my story when I was in the same lifestyle that the youth is in,” Miles said. “Then they’re more inclined to listen. Then there’s the fact that I’ve been in prison, to them that gives me ‘street creed.’”
GRIP Co-director Kim G. Moore shared her insights about GRIP graduates.
“In my experience, GRIP graduates are the most emotionally intelligent people I’ve ever met,” Moore said. “I want GRIP graduates in my neighborhood. I want my 11-year-old daughter to know men like you, men who can understand their emotions.”
Siobhan O’Reilly, the for- mer 8-year-old girl who asked to visit the man who killed her father, echoed similar sentiment. When asked about what message she would send those incarcerated, she said “Always remember you’re human with the capability of loving and being loved.”