A self-help group aimed at unearthing the harm caused by crime has returned to San Quentin after a 26-month lull.
The program, called Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG, pronounced “vogue”), is looking to train new residents as facilitators, according to the Insight Prison Project.
VOEG was originally for adult incarcerated men, but it has expanded to youth, women, Spanish speakers, and parolees. It has been duplicated in Colorado, Massachusetts, and Nebraska, staff of the Project has said.
In March 2020, Covid restrictions halted VOEG’s 52-week course just five months into the program. San Quentin’s continuing medical restrictions may mean that the current program will take longer than normal to complete, said VOEG participant Jereal Lafrance Nelson.
“We’re happy to bring the VOEG program back. Now that we have a group on Tuesday and Thursday, we want to bring back our Monday group as well,” said Executive Director Leonard Rubio. “If you want to learn the tools to live your daily life—in prison or on parole—in this program you will address things the Board of Prison Hearings wants to hear about,” said Rubio.
Rubio became the project leader in 2018. He was incarcerated at San Quentin from 1994 until he paroled in 2010. During his time inside, Rubio was involved in numerous San Quentin programs. He started the Restorative Justice Interfaith Roundtable, and was an early participant in the prison yoga class.
VOEG began at San Quentin in 2004, originally developed by Rochelle Edwards. The foundation of the course was based on the work of David Doerfler’s program Concentric Journeys, incorporating elements of restorative justice and healing from trauma. The program’s activities are facilitated by peer support.
After it was initially developed, VOEG graduates assisted in expanding the curriculum. The goal is to gain deeper insight into the harm inflicted by incarcerated people, and assist healing and restoring lives.
The program seeks to support people who have survived crimes that are similar to the ones that the group’s participants have committed. It also seeks to create a space where the family members of people who were murdered can share their experiences.
“Qualifications for new facilitators include: they must be accountable for their crime, and [have] a desire to give back just what they received from the program. They need to have the skill to guide new participants in accountability and empathy on their journey to understanding insight,” said John Gillies, a group facilitator.
Gillies says he is excited about the program starting back up, so the students can continue to do the hard work that VOEG offers.
The program is a guide and not a strict set of principles that participants are obligated to. It invites individuals to trust the process, according to the Insight Prison Project.
“Most self-help groups have 25 to 30 participants. VOEG is a smaller and more intimate program with about 18-19 incarcerated people, but [due to] prison medical modifications participation is close to 10 per class,” said Nelson.
The project is now looking for a Spanish-speaking outside volunteer staff, and an inside facilitator, or a person who is willing to be trained as one. The project is also looking for a resident coordinator to help with the group.