A few days after his daughter’s birthday, Javier Perez Trujillo and his family were celebrating at his in-law’s house, Sebastian Rios. There, Javier’s mind began turning over and over again, thinking of his sister, Norma and the mistreatment by her husband, Enrique Castrejon. He hated hearing about the abuse.
As he downed beer after beer, his happiness shifted to sadness and then anger. Javier was drunk when rage took control.
“I’m going to fuck him up,” he told his brother, Rafael.
Rafael took Javier’s threats seriously and left the party, heading for Norma’s in Exeter, California, to deliver the message to Enrique: “Stop hurting Norma or you’ll have to deal with me.”
But back at the party, Javier’s thoughts returned to what this day was really all about — his daughter, who just turned five. Uplifted, but still tipsy, he did what many Mexicans do in celebration — he took out his pistol and fired some shots in the air.
The sound of gunfire brought his family out of the house. They snatched away the gun and put it in his truck, while someone in the quiet suburbs called the police. When the police confronted Javier, he lied, saying a car drove by and fired some shots.
Relieved watching the police pull away, Javier returned to the party as it was winding down and nearly forgot about what fired him up. Later, he drove his sister to her house, where Norma also lived.
Enrique was there, too. That’s where things went bad.
“What’s this about this message?” Enrique asked him as they stood off outside the house.
“Say to him what you said at the party,” Rafael said as he joined the group. “Tell Enrique to his face.”
At first, Javier couldn’t utter a single word.
But soon, there was yelling, arguing — then a scuffle for the gun everyone knew was in Javier’s truck. Javier snatched it first, when Norma tried to take the gun away, he pistol-whipped her and in the process, shot her in the head. A fragment of the bullet sliced into Rafael’s chest.
In the morning, his mind blurred, he awoke to the sound of knuckles knocking against the window of his car. It was the police.
“Why am I being arrested?” he asked.
“Don’t you remember shooting your sister?”
At the trial, the prosecutor told the jury that everything was premeditated, that Javier planned the murder when he sent the ultimatum to Enrique.
“They said that I pulled my sister down by the hair and shot her in the head because she got between me and Enrique,” Javier said.
When he was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, he felt confused about why his life unfolded this way.
“I was in a lot of fear,” he said. “I thought my life was over. There was a lot of sadness.”
Javier had always wanted desperately to talk about, what he calls, the worst day of his life. But serving a life sentence in maximum-security prisons never provided him with the space.
Every day of his life behind bars, he shouldered the guilt and shame from killing Norma. It wasn’t until he got to the minimum-security environment of San Quentin State Prison and enrolled in the self-help program, GRIP (Guiding Rage Into Power), that he began openly talking about that day.
In a building on San Quentin’s Lower Yard, behind a door with a sign that read “Do not peek in, GRIP in session,” Javier stood before two dozen of his peers, all perched in chairs arranged in a circle, and talked about his sister’s baby boy.
He blamed himself for taking his mother away from him at such a young age. He talked about the decades of silence and the pain that festered underneath. But now, he said, he can speak — safely and without reservation.
GRIP, as the six-year-old program’s known, is a 52-week comprehensive offender-accountability program that takes incarcerated men on a journey deep inside themselves. Participants concentrate on how to use practical approaches to heal wounds that, more often than not, came 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.
The key — says Jacques Verduin, the psychologist who created the program — is to understand that hurt people hurt people, and healed people heal people.
“The program integrates the latest research about the brain, creating something that certainly seems to be engaging offenders in a way that many traditional programs do not,” said Elizabeth Siggins, senior policy advisor for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
“The program helps participants tear down the interior walls, and nobody can point a finger at them and diminish their dignity,” Verduin added. “It’s important in our society to create more dignity for the ones we call the ‘others.’ ”
Lucia de la Fuente, in 2015, culturally adapted and translated the curriculum to Spanish, making GRIP the first program in California prisons exclusively for Spanish-speaking inmates, who make up 41 percent of the state’s inmate population.
Many of them are like Javier, serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole and struggling to make sense of their past and find a way to come to terms with themselves. Even more, he and other Mexican nationals and Spanish-speakers imprisoned in California face particularly high barriers to rehabilitation and getting their lives back on track.
“It is vital and crucial to hear and learn in your own language,” said de la Fuente, who also facilitates the session. “My community should have the opportunity to choose, if they want, to take a program to better themselves, not based on whether the program is in English.”
Every week, 32 Spanish-speaking prisoners, with a combined 609 years behind bars, get a chance to sit together in a course translated into a language they can understand and identify with. In that space, they can address internal struggles, criminal thinking and confront what had gone so wrong in their lives that they landed in prison.
In Spanish, Luis Lopez says words to his fellow inmates that, in any other setting, they’d never hear: “Track your body sensations. Know your emotions and thoughts before you respond to any upsetting situation.”
The men cradle their hands in their laps, closing their eyes as the room falls silent.
“Relax,” Lopez continues in Spanish. “Pay attention to your body and think pleasant thoughts about your family.”
Here, they practice self-control and then self-awareness, learning to do many things that they never mastered on the streets. The exercise both slows down the pace of their lives and offers them a chance to change the way they’ve done things in the past. Instead of reacting quickly and violently, now they must turn inward, pay attention to their body and feelings, and respond thoughtfully to stressful situations.
But this meditation session only prepares them for what’s to come next: the inmates each get a chance to speak, with confidence and candor, about their past transgressions and take ownership of them. Everyone is free to be as open a book as they want, with the shared understanding that what is discussed in the circle stays there. 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.
Javier stands quietly and steps into the center of the circle, then sits in a metal folding chair. Solemn, Javier is hunched over, almost like he’s preparing to pray. Facing him are three empty seats — one for his mother, one for his father, and one for Norma.
Now in front of him is an opportunity to tell them things he never said, things he wished he had said. Unfinished business.
His peers bow their heads, fold their hands in prayer or over their mouths. Others lift their faces up, watching Javier as he begins to speak:
To my sister Norma Elvira I ask that you forgive me for not doing the right thing. I took your life at the age of 25. I brought you to the United States when you were 16 years old, when our dad kicked you out of the house when he discovered your pregnancy of your first child, Vanessa.
I am ashamed of myself for not permitting you to finish breast-feeding your son, who you yet did not put a name. I didn’t allow you to see him grow and make trouble, to not celebrate his first birthday, to not take him to school as you used to with your other two children, Vanessa and Bryant. Today, the baby you left at 40 days after birth is now 21 years old. He is a married man, just like Vanessa and Bryant.
I ask that you forgive me, sister, for not knowing how to help you and save you from that man, so that you would not have to suffer anymore. I was your own executioner. I took your life and filled it with suffering, grief and embarrassment to your children and the whole family. I just want to say to you sister that the 21 years I’ve been in prison I no longer drink alcohol or use drugs. My life has totally changed since the day I destroyed your home. I gave my life to Jesus Christ. He is the One who brought me back to sanity. He helped me find myself. Thanks to him and rehabilitation programs I’ve learned to take full responsibility for all my actions and take control of all of my character defects that I confront day by day, in order to continue my sobriety and to be a better person. I do it for you sister and all the family. I love you sister. I love you dad. I love you mom. I thank you for being here with me in all moments, your son, Javier.
Javier wipes away his tears. So does his audience.
“I hope by sharing my story, I can help others to avoid the same mistake that I’ve made,” Javier said.
That is the power of GRIP. It’s an opportunity for men to share their experiences and begin to open themselves to change.
Members from the Mexican consulate attended this session of GRIP.
To Wilma Gandov, consul for Protection and Legal Affairs at the consulate, the program enables what she called “the evolution of people.”
“It is an opportunity for the men to safely look inside of their souls,” said Nadeshda Vargas, attorney for the consulate. “Programs like this help people realize that they are not the only one that makes 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.”
GRIP’S SOLID RESULTS OUTSIDE THE WALLS
Over the last five years, GRIP has had 63 graduates of the first 300 released from prison, largely through Board of Parole Hearings. None have returned to prison. At a cost of about $75,000 dollars per prisoner per year, that is a tax dollar savings of almost $4 million each year — while improving public safety.
“These men really have come to terms with their offense and their impact on the victims, their family and the community,” said Elizabeth Siggins. “The waiting list for the GRIP program indicates that it’s really motivating folks to want to begin that process of change.”