Our new group has a name. Tribe 586.
This is the first GRIP class being held at the Deuel Vocational Institution, a level 2 prison in Tracy, California, and I am the lead facilitator. GRIP (Guiding Rage Into Power) is a 52 week long, mindfulness-based emotional intelligence program, and is a journey towards full-person healing and transformation.
As we settle in for our first class, we are just getting to know each other. Building trust. Who are we? Who are these 28 men now settling themselves into their seats in this circle? And who, these men are surely wondering, are these 2 facilitators, one male and one female, coming into this prison which lies a dusty hour and a half drive from the Bay Area? Like stew that hasn’t begun to boil, we are the raw ingredients thrown together in a small, hot, nearly airless prison chapel, all together but not yet broken down, not yet fused. Prior to being seasoned with heat and time, we are like all raw ingredients, still protected, within sheaths, individualized, separate – wanting to open and merge, wanting our flavors to enrich each other, wanting to come together to create an experience larger than our individualities, but needing time to arrive there.
We settle into our hard-backed plastic chairs, wedged nearly shoulder to shoulder in the back of this small catholic chapel. Papers shuffling, lunch sacks being stashed away, laughter and conversations continuing from breakfast in the chow hall are echoing around the rest of the chapel. A few men are switching on the various fans, as even by 8:00 am the room is getting warm. I look across at Kim, my co-facilitator, to catch her eye before we start for the day. Because of the distance of this prison from the Bay, we are doing our yearlong GRIP program in monthly gatherings that are 8 hours long. While meeting once a week for 52 weeks is a great way for the men to stay connected, diving deep for 8 hours at a time also has its benefits of bonding. It’s a new format for me, as well as Kim, so we are both learning as we go.
In our first meeting we come up with our Tribe name, 586. This is, without fail, an incredibly bonding and provocative exercise. Even the prisoners who are facilitators of other self-help programs in the prison (we have a good 6-8 men who are clearly experienced in both self-exploration as well as facilitation), some of whom I noticed at first leaning back and observing with a watchful eye, got pulled into the activity of naming our tribe. Jacques Verduin, the man who started the GRIP program, was spot on in creating this ritual I found myself thinking, as it is a pro-active and participatory ritual. Getting buy-in, as he says, requires a sharing of power and invitation to participate fully. For men who have often served decades of time in the prison system, institutionalization is not to be underestimated, and absolutely any opportunity to be empowered, to be listened to, to be invited into mutuality, is deeply healing and therefore treasured.
To begin, we go around the room, one by one, each man naming aloud how many years of incarceration he has served in his lifetime. It is not just the number of years served for his commitment offence (the crime he was currently serving time for) but for any other conviction, including time at juvenile facilities, county jails, etc., A quietness begins to settle into the room, as all eyes turn to each man as they speak single phrases. 14, 22, 31, 19, 11… One elderly gentleman said he has been incarcerated for over 45 years. I discover later that the Latino guy sitting next to me has just recently gotten out after being locked in solitary confinement for over 10 years. Every one of the 28 men in our circle have navigated a subterranean labyrinth of the underworld of the prison system for many years, arriving here and now in our group with his own chiseled temperament and character. All arriving here by different routes, but all are here for the same reason.
After the last man speaks, Kim is at the whiteboard writing the numbers down, while different men, brows furrowed over their papers, yell out the totals they are calculating. After some back and forth and several re-counts – including moments of laughter over the shared bond of being mathematically challenged – we finally arrive at 586, the total number of years the men have served all together. Nearly 6 centuries worth of time amongst us. The men grow quiet again, several with surprise in their eyes and on their faces, looking from the board to each other, to me and Kim. I notice a sense of spaciousness in my belly, and also in the room, as we formalize and ritualize this statistical inquiry.
Next, we announce, we are going to count the amount of time it took for each man to cross the threshold of what we call Imminent Danger. It takes quite a while for us to explain what that is – a tricky concept that inevitably requires a lot of time, a lot of questions, and use of men’s examples, to get a general consensus on its definition. The moment of Imminent Danger, as we define it, is that often fleeting moment of crossing the threshold between anger and violence, another example being the threshold moment between craving and using. Basically, for most of the men who are serving time for violent crimes, it is that split second between being triggered, being filled with rage, and actually using the weapon or deciding to use it to harm another human being. When all the men understand the concept, we go around the room: 2 seconds, 5 seconds, 1 minute, 1 second, .5 seconds… We add up the numbers together on the whiteboard, the solemn quiet punctuated with men calling out their added totals, disagreeing and then agreeing with each other like boisterous boys in a classroom.
The collective time for the men’s moments of Imminent Danger is 23 minutes and 48.75 seconds. We then put the two numbers next to each other on the board: 586 years and 23 minutes and 48.75 seconds. The looks on the men’s faces shift, at first imperceptibly, but slowly eyes narrow and brows widen as their minds but more importantly, I’ve discovered, their bodies, take it in. One man spoke up, “this is unreal, to actually see these numbers, to see that we’ve lost so many hundreds of years, man, almost 600 years, because of a few minutes of bad decision making. That’s really sad. I simply can’t believe it.” Its always a poignant moment, and I felt myself moved, felt emotional, seeing men wrestling with the fact that mere seconds of a sudden, impulsive reaction has resulted in them losing decades of their precious lives. For so many of them they can’t be faulted entirely for these impulsive reactions – as the complex roles of race, class, education, not to mention systemic racism, poverty, and oppression that operate for anyone of black or brown skin undoubtedly contribute to such momentary lapses in judgment and ensuing violence. After 3 years of working in groups like this in prison, I’ve come to understand that its privilege (of class or skin color) that helps young children learn basic things such as impulse control, self-regulation, and emotional intelligence. Without these core skills (skills which need nurturance and attention) young men coming up in dangerous neighborhoods that are run by gangs have a greatly diminished chance of avoiding violence.
We continue our exercise, now going around the room, each man naming how many victims lost their life through their crime. Most of the men have 1 victim whose life was ended because of their violence. A man who spoke towards the end said, “1… wait you mean in our commitment offence or all together in our life? All together? Oh, well, 3 then.” Again silence, as we added them up. 25 is the total. 25 human beings lost their life through these men’s acts of violence. We then continue, going around to gain new information for our tribe of men. We discovered that 13 men felt they had not had a consistent, positive male role model growing up, that about half had been intoxicated with drugs or alcohol when they committed their crime, and that 26 out of the 28 had experience at least one significant trauma in their childhood. We all wrote these numbers down, as testaments to the defining edges of our group, clarifying why it was that we were coming together, what commonalities shaped our past, and what we were here to do.
I had become aware of a man sitting near me, a Hispanic man roughly my age, mid-thirties I guessed, who was clearly charismatic and who had an intriguing tattoo across his hand. When he had spoken earlier in the day, in a small group, he had mentioned having been a shot-caller (leader) of his gang for many years, and had now decided it was time to change his life and contribute positive things to the world. He said this was one of his first groups, and that he decided to join because he has always been nervous to speak in front of groups of people, but now that his parole hearing had been suddenly moved up (to 8 years hence – I found my eyes fill up as I realized he felt 8 years to be incredibly soon) he decided he needed to start practicing speaking in front of others. He was shy, had preferred staying hidden behind viciousness and violence as many of these men had, until something mysterious coaxed them into the more challenging journey of revealing vulnerability and practicing relational intimacy.
As we all sat, after our exercise, looking quietly at the numbers we had written on the whiteboard, this man’s tattooed hand slowly found itself in the air, his eyes glancing away from the whiteboard and looking towards me. I nodded, and he began, haltingly at first, to put words to the feelings he was having. He was expressing his shock, his feeling of heaviness seeing these numbers, in particular the 25 men and women who had lost their lives. “Each one of these lives,” he said, his eyes still on mine, “was someone who had brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, friends, who all loved him. I know how much damage and destruction I caused to the family of my victim because of what I did. And to think about how little time, how few seconds, it took to wreak so much destruction. Its pretty heavy to take in.” He looked around the room, and I could see other men nodding. There was a pregnant silence for a few moments, before another man, a muscular but stiff looking white man with a serious face, spoke up, saying simply, “25 souls lost. I pray that those 25 individuals, wherever they are, are sitting in a circle, just as we are.” There were murmurs in the group, some men looking at each other, some staring into the center of the room, as if somehow the weight they felt inside themselves was coming from a point of gravity outside of themselves, in between us all, in the center of the room. After the morning, the afternoon was filled with sharing, teaching, exercises to discover who was sitting in the circle. It was a very first full day, and as it went on, I felt myself being filled with awe, and with gratitude.
I was struck as I often am by the aliveness in these groups. Despite the loss, the grief, the depression that permeate many of these men, there is often an equal proportion of energy mobilized towards doing something to right these wrongs – and this energy shows up as tremendous commitment to do right, to heal, to change, and to be of service. For every man whose feet drag coming into the room, who’s heads are hanging forward or shoulders drooping down with an invisible weight of trauma and shame, of anger or numbness, there are men who inevitably appear in the circle, eyes clear and full, shining with engagement, with intensity, and with intention to awaken. It feels like a law that someone will someday feel the need to name (perhaps as Murphy’s 2nd cousin’s law?) in which those who fall down fastest and hardest into the rock bottom of human bleakness can very often be catalyzed and transmuted into the brightest shining lights of human dignity and awakening.
Its as if there is an unspoken intelligence operating in these groups, undetected by most of us, but felt by all in different ways. I explain to them that I come to this group, and this circle, because I need it. That because of my own violence, my own grief, my own disconnection, I come to participate fully in this group and to learn from the wisdom and experience and light that these men have. Despite being white, and having grown up on a different side of the systems of institutionalized racism and classism that society as a whole (and the criminal justice system in particular) has enacted, both Kim and I are hoping to participate and facilitate this group, this tribe, so that it can bring at least some sense of healing, some form of repair, to these men, and to ourselves. Kim and I are under no illusions about the power dynamics that operate in prison. Race, gender, and title of ‘free person’ within a group of incarcerated and imprisoned men is loaded, to say the least. Institutionalized racism and inter-generational trauma are very real and very powerful things, and everyone is impacted, and in some cases implicated, by their existence and the systems that keep them in existence. But we are believers that speaking to shadows and dynamics, naming them, and then naming the intention to change them, are the first steps to de-activating them as potential barriers.
We spent a long time on this day, our second meeting, building trust and building our container for the work ahead. For no one would sail into rocky seas without first tightening the bulkhead of one’s ship. And as a teacher of mine in San Quentin, a native American elder in blue, is fond of saying, GRIP is a program that works with emotions, and therefore we must build the container first, strengthen the ship, before sailing out into stormy seas and work with healing and transforming emotions that have laid dormant for a long time. For many of these men, its often the first time they are directly working with their pent-up feelings. And it was their feelings, and inability to hold them, that caused them to harm others in the first place. And for those of us who have already begun this work, it never seems to end, there is only increasing our tolerance and capacity to work skillfully with them.
As we said our closing circle prayer, backs sore but spirits high from our 8-hour day in this cramped, now hot chapel room, our crockpot I mused, I looked around at these men and thought of them each holding a light of intention for healing and transformation that will ripple out into their networks of friends, families and ancestor as well as the friends, families, and ancestors of their victims, and god willing out into the world at large, where there is so much violence being waged. The world is groaning under the weight of anger, hatred, dogmatism, and violence, and I pray that the grace of peace and the of light of transformation these courageous men, locked behind bars in barren parts of the country, are generating may somehow, in someway, help the rest of us in the “free world.”
Walking out into the fresh air and hot sun, I felt honored to be a part of Tribe 586. And by writing about them, sharing the stories of these mostly unknown men and reporting on our journey together, feels like one small way to get their voices out. One small way to re-humanize men who have been stripped of humanity by our prison culture, and told they no longer matter. One small effort to allow them to be felt and seen and heard, if not physically in the flesh, then at least through storytelling. For I am convinced that without the inclusion of these men and women, and their stories of healing and change, we as a culture can never be whole.