San Quentin's self-rehab: healing on the inside
A self-rehab prison program aims to distinguish between the person and the crime.
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The classes teach men to do things Verduin thinks American culture discourages, like sharing feelings. And his teaching vocabulary draws as much from his personal life as it does from psychological theories.Skip to next paragraph
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Verduin isn't a religious guy – "I'm hopelessly not into any of the -isms," he says – but he became serious about Buddhist meditation, because it demanded that he "kind of drop the story and just be there for what's passing through." That idea became a cornerstone of his prison work, where he teaches "sitting in the fire." It's shorthand for stopping to acknowledge and experience an emotion, whatever it is. In his classes, the men talk about moments of regret as times they weren't sitting in the fire; one young man, about to be released, says he sits in his bunk, asks his roommate to hassle him, and then practices sitting in the fire. As he describes his nervousness about leaving, he says "I'm really just sitting here sweating. It's like I'm sitting in a real fire."
The phrase comes from a song Verduin wrote to deal with a challenging stage in his marriage. He felt lonely, abandoned, and doubtful, he says, all "feelings that really make you understand wanting to act out.... But you've been given these cards. How you gonna hold them? A lot of that suffering pales by what I witness on a daily basis, so I said, 'OK, I'll show up for this, I'll hold it.' "
The men in his class are often vague about their struggles; most aren't things they want to, or safely can, share with the world. But the issues they do raise in a San Quentin classroom aren't so different than what a therapist might hear on Manhattan's Upper West Side. There are mommy issues and daddy issues. There's loneliness and fear. Gilbert Vega talks about how he feels knowing he'll miss his mother's funeral; Harris talks about feeling like he let his grandmother down by being incarcerated while she was dying. The room heaves with stinging regret. At the end of a two-hour class, the men whose clothes are branded property of the state don't sound all that different than friends meeting for a heart-to-heart in a coffee shop.
So what sets the guys on the inside apart from the guys on the outside?
"They snap," says Verduin. "And they get caught." Once they're caught, it's difficult to get out – not only because these men struggle to break old patterns of behavior, but also because the state of California is notoriously hard on ex-cons. Its prison population nearly tripled between 1986 and 2006, and its 70 percent recidivism is the nation's highest, according to state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation data. Most of those returnees are guilty of technical parole violations, not new crimes.
Robert Ayers Jr., the warden at San Quentin, says these statistics demand a new look at the very concept of rehabilitation. "All of this is about public safety," he says of the IPP classes, of which he's an active supporter. "Most of these guys have obvious gaps in their personal lives that drew them to prison in the first place, so if you can do some intervention while you have them in here, so they don't create more victims when they go back out, now you've achieved something."
Though there are no hard numbers on IPP's success yet, Mr. Ayers says IPP attendees are less violent inside the prison, and Verduin says they are more successful outside. Until last month, he says, not a single man from his program had ended up back in prison. When it did happen, for a crime so horrible he won't give the details, he says it shocked his staff and the men at San Quentin who knew the offender.
The tragedy gave Verduin a chance to broach another lesson. "We talked about the ability to be thoroughly, thoroughly disappointed. Because if you can't, then you have to lash out.... And then where does it stop?"