By Juan Haines
Mexican nationals and other Spanish-speakers imprisoned in California face particularly high barriers to rehabilitation and getting their lives on the right track.
That was the assessment of officials from the Mexican consulate in San Francisco who visited San Quentin Prison recently.
According to Xavier Issac Delgadillo, who works in the Department of Legal Affairs and Protection at the Mexican consulate in San Francisco, U.S. immigration policy calls for the deportation of Mexican nationals and other undocumented immigrants released from prison. In immigration hearings, judges focus on the crime that the person committed, “They pay little attention to the rehabilitative efforts the person has undergone,” Delgadillo said.
Delgadillo, accompanied by three other consulate officials, came to San Quentin on Feb. 4, to listen to Spanish-speaking men, in a program called Guiding Rage Into Power (GRIP), talk about what went wrong in their lives and how they landed in prison.
“I think that if someone is getting out of prison after completing a program like this and is ready to integrate into society and work for his family, then that person deserves a chance to do so, just based on human rights,” said Gemi Gonzalez, Consul General of Mexico, San Francisco.
GRIP is a 52-week comprehensive offender accountability program that takes participants on a healing journey deep inside themselves, so they can transform into change agents. Change agents give back to the communities they once took from, work with at-risk youth and teach those who are still incarcerated.
GRIP is the brainchild of Jacques Verduin, executive director of Insight-Out, the organization that brought the program to San Quentin. It is a first-of-its-kind curriculum, specifically designed for Spanish speaking prisoners. Nearly three dozen men, with a combined 609 years behind bars, are taking the course, translated to Spanish and facilitated by Dr. Lucia de la Fuente.
“It is very important to do this program in Spanish,” de la Fuente said. “It is vital and crucial to hear and learn in your own language. Most incarcerated Hispanics do not speak English. They should have the opportunity to choose, if they want, to take a program to better themselves, not based on the whether the program is in English.”
The session took place in a classroom where the participants sat in a large circle. A large white board has detailed information written in Spanish and shows participants how to connect with their emotions in order to avoid violent tendencies.
Verduin says he believes that Hispanics have a more difficult ordeal in prison because of the language barrier, in addition to many being undocumented and subject to deportation.
“This kind of program should be replicated because it helps them come back to the community as better people”
“So, as a result they stick to each other and that causes gang formation,” Verduin said. “The gangs in Latin America were exported from U.S. prisons. I feel like if our president wants to put a wall around these people, that represents the ultimate other. GRIP will help them tear down the interior walls, and nobody can point a finger at them and diminish their dignity. It’s important in our society to create more dignity for the ones we call the ‘others.’”
With their feet firmly planted on the floor and hands in their laps, they began a meditation exercise. It is about relaxation, Luis Lopez says in Spanish. Pay attention to your body and think pleasant thoughts about your family.
“It is an opportunity for the men to safely look inside of their souls,” said Nadeshda Vargas, attorney for the Mexican consulate. “Programs like this help people realize that they are not the only ones that make mistakes. If the person is able to safely talk about their problems, there can be more support. It comes from the ability to share with each other that you are able to give.”
An inmate stood before the circle and explained how the group found its name, Tribe 609. The number, he said, comes for combining all of the time the men served behind bars and the total amount of time it took to commit the crimes they are incarcerated for.
The inmates spoke confidently and with candor. They were able to be open because they all agreed never to discuss what happens in the circle, outside of the circle.
The confidentiality allows for the disclosure of personal information so emotionally charged that a box of tissues sits on the floor for the tears that flow from the speakers and listeners.
Another inmate gave a brief reminder on how participants could recognize when they are in imminent danger of committing a violent act. Track your body sensations, he says. Know your emotions and thoughts before you respond to any upsetting situation. According to the GRIP curriculum, the exercise slows things down and gives the participant the chance to respond non-violently.
Heads were bowed, others faces expressed concern while listening to a fellow inmate do an exercise called “unfinished business” — a written exercise read aloud while the reader is sitting in the middle of the circle. Chairs are placed across from the reader for an imaginary person to sit in. It is an opportunity to tell mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons or daughters things they never said, things they wished they had said. Listeners held their hands in prayer, or over their mouths, or folded their arms across their chests.
“I learned that programs really help the evolution of people,” said Wilma Gandoy, Consul for Protection and Legal Affairs, who first came to see Tribe 609 two weeks after they began the course. “I can tell from the second time, men are better able to share their experiences and are open to change,” Gandoy said. “This kind of program should be replicated because it helps them come back to the community as better people.”