San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón took the first step toward establishing a functioning information link between his prosecution team members and the people they send to prison.
About a year ago, Gascón created a Formerly Incarcerated Advisory Board (FIAB), and on June 30, it met in San Quentin for the first time. The meeting brought formerly incarcerated men and women as well as San Quentin inmates together for face-to-face discussions with two dozen staff members from the DA’s office.
Gascón said he hopes that dialog with rehabilitated inmates and formerly incarcerated men and women could be used to help prevent at-risk youth from winding up in prison.
The resulting conversations, which were held in the Protestant Chapel, centered on ways to improve public safety by taking a broader approach to why people come to prison and what happens to them afterward.
“The only way to fix some of these kinds of problems is for us as a society to come together,” Gascón said. “Traditionally, a prosecutor gets convictions, locks them up, and waits for them to do the time and get out. If they mess up again, you lock them up again.”
Gascón said that the cycle does not work, and he wants to break it.
“We have to learn about what happens to people when they are in prison and the struggles they have getting out and address those struggles. That’s what the FIAB is helping us with,” Gascón said.
The visit to the state’s oldest prison was to give his staff a better understanding of the role rehabilitation plays in public safety, Gascón said.
“Nobody wants to be judged by their worst mistake,” Gascón told the inmates. “But people still have to be made accountable while being given a chance for rehabilitation.”
Alex Bastian, the DA’s director of communications, added, “I’m pushing for criminal justice reform, but it takes the entire community. What if we had a forum like this for all the district attorneys in the state so that they could see this kind of emotional intelligence?”
The meeting began with a short film about one of the most successful rehabilitative programs available to inmates, Guiding Rage Into Power (GRIP).
Going into its sixth year of service, GRIP offers a 52-week, comprehensive offender-accountability program that takes participants on a journey deep inside themselves. Offenders concentrate on how to use practical approaches to heal wounds that often result from leading violent and fractured lives.
The goal is to learn how to feel connected, responsible to others, and part of a world beyond their own needs—and beyond their past mistakes, according to psychologist Jacques Verduin, whose Insight-Out organization created GRIP.
The key is understanding that hurt people hurt people, and healed people heal people, says Verduin. “I believe that the public should know that the facilitators are seeking to serve their fellow man,” said inmate Fateen Jackson, a GRIP facilitator. “Teaching these lessons of change to those who need it is a part of my redemption.” He added, “I hope that the public sees GRIP facilitators as change-agents and peacemakers. It’s important that the public see the men who graduate from GRIP so that incarcerated people don’t have to be labeled as criminals for the rest of their lives.”
After the film, the meeting separated into three groups of about 15 each. Within each small circle, participants discussed incarceration, rehabilitation and re-entry.
Gascón sat in the circle with moderator Phoeun You. “The programs taught me how to question what I thought. They also showed me how to connect with my emotions,” Phoeun You said. “I started understanding who I am and what happened in my life. In the programs, I had the chance to listen to survivors of crime tell their stories. That took me to another level of understanding of my impact on the people I harmed. After doing this work and then listening to survivors speak about their hurt, their hurt became mine.”
Several other inmates talked about their upbringing and the criminal thinking that led them to prison.
“Nobody wants to be judged by their worst mistake”
John Hays, another inmate, said rehabilitative programs allowed him to connect the dots between his lifestyle choices and what led up to the crime that sent him to prison. That crime was murder.
“Please don’t mistake my understanding of the factors that led me to killing another person as an excuse to what I did,” Hays said. “I made a choice and am paying for that.”
Hays described the negative effects of drugs and alcohol on his life, how that substance abuse contributed to the downfall of his marriages, disconnected him from reality and reinforced his criminal thinking. Hays said that rehabilitative programs taught him how to stay mindful, identify and process his emotions and get an understanding of how people and communities are impacted by crime.
“Those causative factors that you talk about, what led you to crime, is what I talk about in the DA’s office,” said FIAB member Vandrick Towns. “Once I became honest with myself, I freed myself from the guilt and shame of going from a star athlete to a murderer. I now have a responsibility to myself and to the world. I see you guys as being accountable for your actions.”
Assistant District Attorney Marissa Rodriguez added, “This has been a remarkable journey. We get a useful perspective from the FIAB. I don’t know anywhere else where we can sit down together and get this kind of learning. It’s like we’re all a family and have been impacted.”
Gascón told the inmates that bringing his staff to San Quentin helps them to get grounded and gives them an experience that enables them to make public safety decisions in ways that are more effective.
“Holding people accountable is needed for re-entry,” Gascón said. Speaking to the inmates, he added, “What you are doing here is of incredible value. I think any of you, with the right support, could make a big difference outside of prison.”
FIAB member Troy Williams said, “I always feel awkward coming back inside prison. I’m here to represent what a rehabilitated person looks like to the other side. Sometimes, when I’m talking to people, they are wondering if the change they are seeing in me is real. So, I am overwhelmed with joy that you’re able to articulate what you’re doing—that you have your heads on right.”
FIAB member Kim Carter, executive director of the Time For Change Foundation, told her circle members, “I have women coming out of prison after serving 20-25 years. There’s so much for them to learn, like how to use a phone, and other kinds of technology. Something as simple as how to turn on a microwave—they’re seeing all of these changes in the world.”
Carter added, “To the men in here, there’s family out there for you to get back to. They need you. There’s women out there trying to rebuild a community, and they need people like you to help. We need everyone on the free side of society to understand. It is missing men with the perspective you all have. You owe us to come home and put your footprint in the community.”
Gascón said that these kinds of meetings are an opportunity to educate prosecutors to look beyond prosecuting.
“It’s great if we do this in San Francisco, but greater if it spreads,” Gascón said. “We incarcerate more people in the United States than any other country in the world. Even though there will always be a place for custody, at the rate we are doing it, it’s socially irresponsible and financially unsustainable.
Executive Editor Arnulfo T. Garcia created the San Quentin News Forum after listening to District Court Judge Thelton Henderson’s suggestion that the public needs to come inside San Quentin to observe the vast amount of programs inmates take to advance their rehabilitative efforts.
The first forum brought Assistant District Attorney Marisa Rodriguez, along with several of her colleagues from the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. After relaying what she learned to San Francisco District Attorney, Gascón, he attended the second forum four months later.
Gascón, impressed by the knowledge gained from participating in the forum, created the Formerly Incarcerated Advisory Board.
The June 30 event was the fourth time that members of the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office attended a forum.
Other San Quentin News Forums have brought together judges, teachers and even United States Congresswoman Jackie Speier for interactions with the men of San Quentin.