San Quentin's self-rehab: healing on the inside

A self-rehab prison program aims to distinguish between the person and the crime.

Robert Gumpert
Remembering who we are: Jacques Verduin, founder of the San Quentin Insight Prison Project works with prisoners to distinguish between themselves as people and the few moments of behavior that put them behind bars.
Robert Gumpert
Darrell Hartley, a participant in the San Quentin Insight Prison Project works with Jacques Verduin to distinguish between himself as a person and the frem moments of behavior that put him behind bars.

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."

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.

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.

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?"

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