San Quentin's self-rehab: healing on the inside
A self-rehab prison program aims to distinguish between the person and the crime.
San Quentin, Calif.
When he stands, Gerry Harris towers over everyone in the room. He's bald, with a salt-and-pepper beard that climbs to his temples and big, almost square glasses. His presence is gentle, even when he's agitated, which he is now. "Three minutes," he tells the men in the room. "I can't account for three minutes. I might never get them back."Skip to next paragraph
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They are the three minutes between when Mr. Harris, an elementary school teacher, caught a man molesting a 6-year-old boy, and when he shot the molester. He's lost those three minutes, and, without them, it's difficult to come to terms with San Quentin State Prison, where Harris is serving five and a half years.
Jacques Verduin calls this the moment of imminent danger. Identifying this point between anger and violence is one of the things he's trying to teach this room of 12 men, all dressed in blue shirts and dark blue pants that say "PRISONER" in yellow letters on the right leg.
Prison, Mr. Verduin says, treats men as failures whose violent behavior nullifies their right to make decisions. That model leaves them ill-equipped to do anything but repeat that behavior outside, he thinks, so he started the Insight Prison Project, which run 18 programs for 300 men at one of America's most notorious prisons. His goal is to introduce a more productive kind of rehabilitation – one he believes in so deeply that he continues to run the programs at no cost to the prison. "We're saying we're going to welcome you in as somebody who forgot who he was when he did what he did," says Verduin, "and we're going to help each other remind ourselves of who we are ... because a lot of us don't know."
Verduin remembers a class of men serving life terms. Between the 18 of them they'd served 403 years. Then they added up the lengths of their moments of imminent danger. "Forty-three minutes," he says. "That's all.... To then call everybody who's not successfully negotiated that moment a monster – not to distinguish between the person and his behavior – that's a huge price to pay as a culture."
It's the cultural question that got Verduin into this business in the first place. He's fond of saying he was born and raised in Haarlem – Holland – and grew up studying dance. He moved to California 25 years ago; he stayed because he fell in love. He left behind his private practice in somatic psychology to teach in prisons largely, he says, because of a dream he had.
"There was this buffalo bull on a prairie, with dust and things blowing by, and this bull was pawing the earth," he says. The bull turned four times, once in each direction "like the Native Americans do," and dug at the ground. Verduin isn't a guy who thinks much of dreams – "I'm too much of a Dutch peasant," he says – but this image stuck with him. "This bull didn't know where to go, and there was no herd left," he says. "And I thought, 'That's what's happened in this country.' We've killed the buffalo, the herd is gone, and psychically nobody knows how to belong and connect.... And nowhere else is that more clear than in our prisons.
"I want to make a bumper sticker that says, 'Save the Males,' " Verduin says. "There's compassion for everybody, except for an adult male that's made a mistake in his life." It's a lesson he says he's learned since he started working in San Quentin 10 years ago, "when it was as hard to get in as it was to get out." He was mentored by the prison's correctional counselor, Louis Wright, who started a class Verduin incorporated into IPP.
Verduin is adamant about sharing credit for IPP's work. He says the combined expertise on his staff makes a diversity of programs possible: James Fox teaches yoga courses and cofacilitates classes with Verduin; Peter van Dyk does violence prevention; and Rochelle Edwards, whom Verduin calls "a tigress," developed a victim-offender dialogue.