The song “Lean on Me” set the tone for the 2016 graduating class of San Quentin’s Victim Offender Education Group program.
Executive Director Billie Mizell and Michael Adams harmonized the 1980s classic oldie by Bill Withers before nearly 125 people in the Protestant Chapel.
Mizell said she wanted the audience to remember, “No one can fill those of your needs that you won’t let show.”
To honor the 2016 graduates who completed 18 to 24 months of what they called “sitting in the fire,” Mizell invited former participants and graduates Tommy “Shakur” Ross, Manuel Murillo and Arthur Robinson to share stories of how VOEG affected and impacted their lives.
Shakur spoke about his unique experience of sharing a circle with other prisoners and outside facilitators for over a year and ahalf.
“This circle of friends helped me develop intimate friendships and positive relationships; however, the most impactful exercise for me was the timeline curriculum. This exercise helped me identify the events, the feelings behind these events and the behavior as a result of those feelings.”
Manuel talked about the pressures of masculinity in Mexican culture that prevented him from sharing his story before participating in the program.
“For 50 years I wanted to cry again because of my grandmother’s death. I finally could cry, after I did the timeline. After that day, I cry for everything. I go for my GED next. I promised my mother.”
Arthur Robinson has been incarcerated 38 years for murder. For 35 years he went from group to group, seeking to impress the parole board with certificates.
“When I learned about empathy, I learned how to feel another person’s pain,” Robinson said. “VOEG helped me learn insight into my criminal thinking. It allowed me to sit in a victim’s panel. When I learned the monster I’d been, my healing began. There’s nothing more that I’d like to do with my time than to bear witness to the courage you men have shown.”
Director Mizell told the audience the men graduating voluntarily signed up for hard work and the discomfort of sitting in the fire.
Mizell said, “This room is filled with people who have life sentences and still chose to say, ‘OK, there’s always tomorrow. I can be a better version of myself tomorrow, even though that is not what is expected of me. I can put in hours and hours of hard work into my personal transformation today and do it again tomorrow. I can believe that there is a tomorrow even though I have been told my tomorrows no longer belong to me. I will get up tomorrow and put on my blues, eat my peanut butter jelly sandwich, care about a better future for myself, my family, and my community. And I will do that in the face of the most arduous obstacles.’ That is wisdom.”
This year’s graduates were Miguel Moreira-Alfardo, Eric Boles, Eduardo Delapena, Eddie DeWeaver, Andrew Gazzeny, Eddie Herena, Derrick Holloway, Forrest Jones, Nguyenly Nguyen, Alexei Ruiz, Phillip Senegal and Darrell Williams.
DeWeaver said, “Silence perpetrates pain, and all programs that break this tradition of silence promote growth, healing and positive change. I’m immensely blessed to have been able to participate in VOEG and The Next Step.”
Andrew Gazzeny said, “VOEG is chemistry. Your attitude toward the facilitators and other members and their attitude toward you have a definite effect on your overall experience. It has a healing effect on your existing traumas.”
Derrick Holloway added, “Thank God for the opportunity to have been a part of VOEG and The Next Step.”
The year Herena spent in VOEG provided him with “the space and place for me to tell the story of my incarceration. Through this process, I was able to see and understand the impact my crime had on my victims and community. It ultimately showed me the ripple effects one decision can make.”
Forrest Jones’ year-long participation in the program has provided effective tools in helping him discover the underlying causes of his criminal behavior.
These stories of transformation are the core of VOEG’s success. To make them even more poignant to the new graduates, the director introduced Robert “Red” Frye, who spent 25 years incarcerated.
This former inmate struggled with the elements of his crime until he met survivor Bonnie Wills. He talked about the impact she had on him while he was in prison. Bonnie was able to share with him the pain of losing her murdered son. They both wore a lizard pin on their collars because her son liked reptiles.
This year’s program achievements were highlighted by Program Director Karena Montag. Mizell called her an assiduous and indefatigable humanitarian, a real “genius and a delight.”
“This is all really impossible to put into words,” Montag said. “You have to be there. Thank you for what all of you do to support Insight Prison Project.” She added a special thanks to Phoeun “Sane” You for being the lead inmate IPP facilitator.
The evening’s closing ceremonies belonged to “White Eagle,” who reflected that “man did not weave the web; he is but a strand in it,” and then offered a solo flute performance.