A group of men learned how to abandon their history of violence in an intensive workshop in San Quentin Prison.
“It’s been a long journey but we finally got here,” said Maurice Reed, one of the group’s facilitators. “Class of 2020! No more guns, no more violence, no more hiding, no more tears!” he shouted.
Two years ago, 80 participants embarked on what was supposed to be 12 weeks of “No More Tears” (NMT) workshops. Sixteen made it through the pandemic and emerged as graduates.
NMT is a violence-prevention program founded in 2002 by incarcerated men at San Quentin State Prison and concerned citizens. It conducts workshops to help men examine their belief systems, learn de-escalation tactics, and develop alternatives to a life of violence and crime.
Reed has been incarcerated for 12 years. He graduated in 2015. He has been a part of the group ever since. He is also scheduled to be paroled soon.
“This group taught me to stay calm during potentially violent situations, not to overreact, and to give people the benefit of the doubt,” he said.
Working with the organization in San Quentin upon his release. “Definitely coming back to help the program. It’s not just group work, it’s a lifestyle. The work we do is needed at schools, jobs, everywhere.”
It was the height of a hot afternoon in a program trailer on the Lower Yard. The atmosphere was vibrant and welcoming. There was an opening invocation and prayer, some spoken words, poetry, and words of wisdom.
Mia Ritzenberg-Crary, one of the group’s sponsors, asked the crowd for a moment of silence for all the members and non-members who passed away from COVID-19.
“I’m proud of you guys for doing the work every day in here,” she said. “It’s not happening on the outside as much as in here.” She reminded the participants that violence is taking place in outside communities and that they now have the tools to help stop it.
“I never thought about being a part of my community,” said graduate Edwin E. Chavez. “I never thought of myself as terrorizing my community before I took this group. This class took me from being a perpetrator to a peacemaker, able to be of service to my community.”
Anthony Pier graduated from the group in 2015. He decided to take it again in 2019 to remind himself of things he may have forgotten. “What really stuck out the most to me were the words ‘Thingify’ and ‘personify,’” he said. “I learned to stop treating people like they’re objects and start treating them like human beings.”
Robert Lee also started participating in the group in 2019, but he received a Penal Code Section 1170 recall of sentence before the graduation took place. He sent this message to his group members: “There is value in change. Don’t give up your faith.”
Sponsor Cori Thomas delayed a plane trip when she heard the graduation was going to take place. “What I’ve witnessed here since I’ve been coming is true strength and bravery. The rough and tough exterior comes off. I learned something. I leave here better stronger, and braver because of these workshops,” she said.
Cofounder Lonnie Morris served more than 40 years in prison before he was paroled. This is the first graduation in which he is no longer incarcerated. But he continues to do the work from the outside.
Thousands have graduated from the NMT workshops over the years. Eighty-five percent have not returned to prison, according to group facilitators.
“I am so proud of each and every one of you,” guest speaker Anthony Williams said. “I have never witnessed this type of honesty, vulnerability, and kindness from men in my entire life.”
Sponsor Cheri McNaulty is anticipating starting a domestic violence prevention program at SQ. McNaulty often shares her story as a survivor of domestic violence with the group’s participants. She hopes her new program will help supplement the NMT curriculum.
There were smiles, laughter, hugs and cheers as the participants heard their names being called and they walked down a line of facilitators and sponsors to receive their certificates.
Three additional certificates were awarded to those who stood out during the workshops. Satnam Singh was awarded for his perseverance despite having a language barrier. Reggie Thorpe received an additional certificate for being an outstanding student.
James Humphrey received his additional certificate for being a standout participant, actively asking questions, providing insight, and supporting others during the workshops.
“This group helped me understand how my violence affected the victim. It also helped me become more aware of who I am as a person,” said Humphrey. “Now I am able to put myself in other people’s shoes — to stop and think.”
Graduates will be invited to attend future healing circles and restorative justice circles. They’ll have the opportunity to be trained as facilitators and youth mentors with the leadership skills to help rebuild their communities.
“We’re committed to stopping the violence! We’re committed to stopping the tears!” the graduates shouted during a ceremonial chant.