Guiding Rage into Power: On Leaving Prison Before You Get Out

At the heart of what I have learned from working with prisoners at San Quentin is what I call ‘the experience of being entrusted with someone’s pain.’ It’s a deeply human and intimate experience to discover how pain levels all status between us and teaches us how much we need each other as humans. Don’t be fooled about the roles; when two people enter that space of truth speaking—whether you are the teller or the listener—both are altered. 

I’ve found it’s a true privilege to be given a person’s despair. That includes witnessing some of the most horrible things human beings can do to each other. In listening to these disclosures, many of which are barely whispered after years of being held inside, I have come to discover something about the medicine of truth. The truth of relating a story or action is stronger than the fact of it. When it comes to hearing someone come clean about a rape or a murder or when a victim shares her suffering or loss, it is that truth—beyond the facts of the incident—that brings the medicine and initiates the healing journey.

Latest brain research informs program
Guiding Rage Into Power (GRIP) is a trauma treatment-based model that Insight-Out has developed in San Quentin State Prison for over 17 years. Incorporating the latest brain research, the program is a best-practices model that integrates understanding and “stopping my violence,” developing emotional intelligence, cultivating mindfulness, and realizing victim impact.

From the courtroom to the classroom
At the beginning of the program we engage in what we call “moving from the courtroom to the classroom;” it’s about shifting from judgment and shame to learning and healing and it takes a concerted effort to establish that new atmosphere in a maximum security prison for violent offenders. I ask guys to raise their hands if they think they’re in San Quentin because of what they have done. Most do. I then ask them to consider if it could be true that more precisely they are here because they believed the thoughts that justified what they did. If so, I ask them for their willingness to re-examine those belief systems and to dedicate themselves to learning from those mistakes as if life depends on it. For it does; many are in for murder. I also ask them to shift from “being a bad person that got caught” to considering that “they forgot who they truly are when they did what they did.” I suggest to them that we’re here together to remind each other of our authentic self, and to gain the skills to help us to not forget again who we truly are.                           

An inventory of unfinished business
One of our goals is to map and heal the unprocessed pain from which people lash out. Participants create an inventory of “unfinished business” that relates to traumatic experiences that have triggered defense mechanisms. Violence is taught. That also means we can unlearn it. The participants create a personal history of “violence suffered” and “violence perpetrated” to gain insight into origins and patterns of behavior. We anchor those new insights into durable behaviors through embodied practices like yoga, breathing and mindfulness. Engaging with victims allows a whole new door to open; it’s an amazing and often sacred experience to witness how deep those meetings are for both parties and how much healing emerges from these conversations.                   

Hurt people hurt people
The program is best described by two of the students themselves. A Crips gang member and shot-caller called Warlock sat in class for a while, not saying much. Then we paired him up with another prisoner, a younger guy named Brother G. who was there for domestic violence. The two guys knew each other from the same neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles. Warlock came alive in his new role and the two of them began to work the curriculum. After a long time of not having said a word in class, Warlock raised his arm and said “I got something…” I asked him, “What did you get?” “Hurt people hurt people,” he said. “And I know because I was six-years-old when my mother shot my alcoholic father who was beating her up. The police, who did not know what the situation was inside the house, surrounded the house for 12 hours before they dared enter the house. I remember my mother weeping, my father bleeding and sitting there as a wide-eyed kid. I never knew how that pain and other pain had colored me, how it made me want to hurt others—often as an inarticulate effort to express my own pain. All throughout my life, I have lashed out from that pain and other pain; not knowing how to process it…. Today I understand.”

“I got something too,” said Brother G, raising his arm. “What did you get?” I asked. “Healed people heal people,” he said. “And I know because this brother here is teaching me how to live.” Then both men hugged each other and wept. And so did the rest of us in that room. A door had opened that would never close again. These eight words: “Hurt people hurt people; healed people heal people” have become our trademarked way to explain the GRIP program and our work.

Leaving prison before you get out
We trademarked another description of the GRIP Program: “Leaving prison before you get out.” It signals a journey in which the role of the offender changes into the role of servant and peacemaker. It is about realizing that it’s never circumstance; it’s always my stance that determines my experience. They have your body and your movement in prison, but they don’t have your spirit. But do you? Have you cultivated your relationship with spirit? Ultimately, as GRIP students, it is the ability to confront our own pain that leads us to have greater empathy and compassion for others. That ability and the conviction that we choose our response in every situation, no matter what, sets us free.

Together we learn that being free isn’t just a geographic fact; it’s not just the other side of the gate. At the heart of being free is not knowing where you are, but knowing who you are. That identity is sustained by building a tribe or community that helps remind you how and where you belong.

Disclosing their traumas and crimes to one another and meeting with victims creates empathy. Understanding the pain they lashed out from, and learning how to track and process that suffering when it is triggered, instills confidence and hope. Having others witness our suffering in an empathic manner and truly belonging to a tribe helps transcend shame and fosters compassion. Through their participation in the program, prisoners learn how to validate themselves from the inside out. Vulnerability and authenticity become the new virtues and signs of progress. Elders and other guests from the outside community affirm and encourage the tribe’s progress. At the heart of our teachings is the actual experience of how each person’s freedom is intricately interwoven with the liberation of others. It is this mutuality, the experience of truly belonging to one another, both spiritually and as a community, which informs the GRIP Program and its participants. 

Giving back and helping youth
The final stage of the program selects prisoners to be trained as facilitators to give back to the people and places they once took from. They start inside of the prison by mentoring others. Upon release, we seek to employ them to work with either challenged youth or with their brothers and sisters who are still incarcerated. Over the years many of the prisoners said, “I wish I had known this stuff when I was younger; it would have made all the difference.” As that became a repeated mantra, we resolved to start a GRIP Youth Program. We took what was learned on our side of the pipeline to implement it on the other side, to prevent incarceration and victimization. There, we work on the other side of the pipeline, where a disproportionately high number of youth are feeling alienated and rebellious to a world that fails to see them, appreciate them, or understand their struggles. Insight-Out hires “GRIP Change Agents,” former prisoners trained as GRIP program facilitators, to work with youths on probation, in schools, and in youth centers to prevent both re-victimization and incarceration. For many of the released prisoners, working with challenged youth is a way to gain back their dignity and a means to give back. It is their deepest wish, a dream come true. 

Jacques Verduin, MA Somatic Psychology, is a father, community organizer, teacher, and a subject matter expert on mindfulness, restorative justice, emotional intelligence and transforming violence. He directs ‘Insight-Out’ which organizes initiatives for prisoners and challenged youth that create the personal and systemic change to transform violence and suffering into opportunities for learning and healing.

© Jacques Verduin. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in whole or part without the express written permission of the author.

Watch a video of Jacques, at a plenary session at our Global Gathering, discussing GRIP and sharing a film depicting the program. For a description of what goes on in the initial sessions of a GRIP program, follow this link.