Psychologist Helps San Quentin Prisoners Find Freedom Through Self-Reflection Since the mid-1990s Jacques Verduin has been implementing programs that have had a high success rate in helping reform convicts. But the journey isn't easy — and requires courage and vulnerability.
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Psychologist Helps San Quentin Prisoners Find Freedom Through Self-Reflection

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Psychologist Helps San Quentin Prisoners Find Freedom Through Self-Reflection

Psychologist Helps San Quentin Prisoners Find Freedom Through Self-Reflection

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For the past few weeks, NPR has been profiling inspiring people who break through barriers to change the world. We call them boundbreakers. Today, we're going to introduce you to Jacques Verduin. He's trying to make sure that when convicts leave prison they don't come back.

(CROSSTALK)

MARTIN: We went to visit him recently at San Quentin Prison just across the San Francisco Bay in Marin County. Jacques is in his mid-50s, tanned, silver hair. He walks through the prison yard where he knows most of the men by name.

JACQUES VERDUIN: Jawzy (ph) how you doing, man?

MARTIN: And right off the bat, it becomes clear that he is doing something different because you think San Quentin is going to sound like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF GATE CLOSING)

MARTIN: But for the prisoners in Jacques Verduin's rehabilitation program, for one hour a week, life in San Quentin sounds like this.

CHRIS SMITH: Deep breath, think peace, think inner peace.

MARTIN: Chris Smith (ph) is teaching this class. He's a prisoner here. He's also a graduate of Jacques' nonprofit program and now helps teach. Jacques Verduin sits at the front of the class and tells them breathing can help defuse the moments that can turn into violence.

VERDUIN: Life, you know, particularly if you're upset, you know, things happen very quickly. That's when that moment of regret happens afterwards.

MARTIN: Jacques has been running rehabilitation programs inside San Quentin for 20 years. This one is called GRIP, which stands for Guiding Rage into Power. It's a 52-week class, and this is the third session for this group. They had a pretty simple but important homework assignment - write down why you're here and what you want out of this whole thing. One by one, they stand up and read their answers.

DARRELL: My name's Darrell. I'm here in GRIP to receive and gain some insight about myself and the crimes I've committed because...

RASAN: My name is Rasan (ph) and I'm here because I want a better way to deal with rage and society...

NOAH: Why am I here? Because all the cool kids are doing it.

(LAUGHTER)

NOAH: That might mean that there's something to it. If it's helping them, maybe it can help me.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What do I need? I'm not ashamed to say it. I need help.

(APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: Jacques explains to the group that what they're going to discover here is a new kind of emotional muscle.

VERDUIN: So if you are able to witness and build that muscle just like you buff out on the yard, right, when you do your exercise, anger has an anatomy to it, you know, and it gets unbearable enough that, boom, I do something I haven't even thought about, right? I mean, if you can learn to read it then you have some choices. It's like buffing out in the yard. That's the muscle we want to build in this program.

MARTIN: Jacques tries to get the class to think about how their bodies respond when they're angry. He asked them for recent examples. One guy talks about getting into a standoff with a guard. Another got really amped up during a fight with his wife. Their temperature rises, heartbeats speed up - noticing those physical changes can help them diffuse the situation. Now, you'd think these prisoners, many of them convicted murderers, hard guys who've led hard lives, wouldn't so much be into the idea of meditation and self-help, but the waiting list to get into GRIP is 500 names long.

LENNY RIDEOUT: We had to wait three years to get into this group. This is my second week.

MARTIN: This is Lenny Rideout. He's a big guy. He's got a gray stocking cap on his bald head, a wide, gap-toothed smile and glasses perched on the end of his nose.

RIDEOUT: My charges were torture and robbery - torture and robbery.

MARTIN: How old were you?

RIDEOUT: I was 38 when I got arrested on this charge. And, you know, this is not - it's sad to say but I can be honest with you now, this is my third time in the penal system.

MARTIN: Lenny says he's been in at least two other prisons, and he never had access to anything like GRIP.

RIDEOUT: You know, you go do your time, you get out, but you go in there with no self-help, you get out with no self-help. And in here, they have it available for you to get. And once you get it, it's up to you to use it.

MARTIN: So what are you learning about yourself that you didn't know that you think is going to change how you live your life when you're out?

RIDEOUT: I'm accountable for things now, you know what I mean? I know what empathy is. I did not used to feel like that, you know what I mean? But now I've got so many tools in my box, man.

MARTIN: It's clear Lenny and some others in this class already know how to talk the talk. They understand what parole officers want to hear, that they've changed. Lenny Rideout was denied parole a couple years ago. He's got four more years before he gets another chance to show he's different now. The GRIP program seems to be working, and it's expanding throughout California. Fifty-one graduates have been released and none has returned to prison, even though the recidivism rate in the state is 45 percent. Thirty-four-year-old Rafael Cuevas has already been through the GRIP program, and now he thinks about his crime in a new way.

RAFAEL CUEVAS: I can't find words to bring the gravity of, you know, the pain that I feel with what I brought to that situation, and it's a lot of regret and a lot of guilt.

MARTIN: Rafael is currently serving a sentence of 16 years to life, convicted of second-degree murder for stabbing a man to death after getting into a fight over a fender bender.

CUEVAS: It wasn't personal at all. It was me being very aggressive at a very bad spot in life where I just responded to everything with violence.

MARTIN: Rafael is now one of the peer trainers for GRIP. We're sitting in on one of their planning sessions where he and about a dozen other graduates debrief with Jacques about how the last class went.

CUEVAS: I think the part that I noticed about that was I think you went off script right there, and we had it scripted where Upu was going to do the piece.

VERDUIN: So that's on me then.

CUEVAS: Yeah, you changed it.

MARTIN: And they map out what they're going to do for the next class. They throw out ideas and talk about who's going to print the handouts. If you ignore the bars on the windows and the prison uniforms, these men could be college students doing a group project or a corporate team figuring out a presentation. One guy named Upu asks the group if he can use a traditional Polynesian chant in the next class.

UPU: (Chanting in foreign language).

MARTIN: The group loves it. Yes, definitely you should do that, Rafael says. These guys encourage each other. They've learned how to be vulnerable here.

UPU: (Chanting in foreign language).

(APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: When I got a chance to sit down and talk one on one with Jacques about how a Danish guy ended up doing rehab work in one of America's most famous prisons, he told me a story about his father. During World War II, his dad was imprisoned in a labor camp on the border between Germany and Poland.

VERDUIN: We could hear him scream in his sleep at times and, you know, wrestling with trauma that he had experienced. And when the Berlin Wall came down, he said, you know, I want to go back. And we said what? He said I want to go back. I want to find my captors and make my peace.

MARTIN: He did go back, and he found some of the soldiers who had held him captive.

VERDUIN: Some of them had died. Some of them hadn't - with their families, and they sat around in the living room, you know, spoke their pain and apologies were made, forgiveness was given. And that made a big impression on me.

MARTIN: Jacques says it's difficult not to get emotionally invested in his students at San Quentin. He's become a confidant, an advocate for many of them, and he says he has to work on keeping boundaries.

VERDUIN: You know, you don't want to get overfamiliar and if you're 20 years in, that's a real thing to watch because of course, you know, just like on the outside, right, some people you bond with stronger than others, you admire more or you feel connected with deeper.

MARTIN: One of those people is Glenn Hill.

GLENN HILL: My cell was about this long. It had a bathroom in the back, toilet and sink hooked together.

MARTIN: Glenn served more than 40 years on a conviction of first-degree murder, a charge he still denies. He was released from San Quentin this past spring. Jacques found him a subsidized house that he shares with three other former prisoners. He checks in on Glenn every once in a while to make sure life on the outside is going OK and things do seem to be. He works as a janitor at a homeless shelter, and he saved enough money to buy himself an aquarium, which he shows off when we visit.

So how many fish you got in here?

HILL: Well, I had six, and I only got, like, I think, like, four left.

MARTIN: They don't live very long.

HILL: No, well, I didn't know what I was doing (laughter).

MARTIN: Glenn turns the overhead light off so we can see how the aquarium glows blue. He sits in a chair about three feet in front of it and stares into that light.

HILL: I could just sit right here - could sit right here and I just feel so free and alive right here. You know, this right here is my world.

MARTIN: Glenn tells me the first time he was arrested, he was only 8 years old.

HILL: When I met Jacques, he kept saying, man, what made you a criminal? I said, man, you know, it was just the way I was born 'cause I thought I was born to be that way. He said, no, there's more to it than that.

MARTIN: Was there anything you were afraid of or nervous about when you were getting out?

HILL: No.

MARTIN: No.

HILL: No because I had been so much at peace with myself within, you know? I was free before I got out. Even though I was in a cell, I was locked up, I was free. All that anger and frustration and guilt and shame and all that, I got rid of all that.

(CROSSTALK)

MARTIN: The students in Jacques Verduin's newest GRIP class are still on the other side of that freedom. Before the class wraps up, Jacques reminds the prisoners that what they're embarking on is going to be hard.

VERDUIN: It's an intense journey. I'll tell you that. You know, it will require some courage from all of us. But it'll be worth it.

MARTIN: Then they go around the room again, everyone volunteering just one word that captures how they're feeling.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Open.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Thoughtful.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Encouraging.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Enthused.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Woo, relieved.

MARTIN: And then the men gather in a circle and hold hands to close out the session. And in that moment, there is a kind of freedom.

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