Men, Violence and Healing in San Quentin Prison

Noise is loud and harsh at San Quentin Prison. Gates clang; buzzers attack the air and our ears. Antiquated heating systems complain with knocks and pings, and electric fans emit insistent dragon hums in the classrooms. There’s no quiet here. In order to have quiet in prison, one must learn to be quiet.

San Quentin is a caged man’s world. As a volunteer Peace Education teacher, I am a foreigner — because I can freely walk out past those immense gates, and also because I’m a woman. During my monthly visits, men crowd the yard as I walk through. Most are busy with their primary occupation: building muscle. They huff and puff into their push-ups for hours each day, biding their time until they are released. A precious few greet me with an eager desire to learn. It’s these men I come here to know, to teach and to learn from. It is this tiny percentage who want to find the long buried goodness within them, no matter what, no matter where they are or what they’ve done.

Like all California prisons, San Quentin is now at 170% capacity or higher. According to some accounts, there will be no beds available in California prisons at all by June, 2007. One employee tells me that inmates are “stacked and packed”. Correctional officials are clearly worried about this prospect, and have begun plans to move inmates to other states to relieve the pressures of overcrowding.

In most California prisons, there are a miniscule number of rehabilitative programs. Usually there are some academic support classes, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, but not much more. Most prisoners are not ready for a constructive life when they leave prison. This is a dangerous situation for the inmates, for their families and for all of us who live in their neighborhoods when they return home.

Long-term inmates in San Quentin have usually spent years at other prisons before arriving here. Lodging at San Quentin is their reward for maintaining years of good behavior in other, more dangerous penitentiaries. Perhaps because it’s located in the San Francisco Bay Area, San Quentin has more volunteers than all other California prisons combined, and boasts the richest abundance of rehabilitative programs. The Insight Prison Project (IPP), my sponsor organization, provides some of the best and most innovative classes. In addition to the Violence Prevention/Anger Management class in which I participate, IPP offers substance abuse counseling, yoga, meditation, and restorative justice.

An inmate once said that most of the men spend at least 10 years being angry, violent and belligerent before they mature and become ready to learn. Since there’s no regulation in California that requires inmates to enroll in rehabilitation programs, the students volunteer to come. They are usually enthusiastic and grateful for this opportunity to increase their skills and knowledge.

There is a great diversity of ethnicity, age, religion, and socioeconomic status among the students in my class, taught each week by master Peace Education teacher, Peter Van Dyk. Black, White, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian men come together to learn violence education and prevention, to increase their emotional intelligence and to set themselves upon the path to peace. What the men have in common is their violent crime, and the heartbreak that comes from letting their anger get out of control.

During the class, a balance is kept between lecture, discussion and practical techniques. The goal is to assist the men in changing their life long patterns of male superiority over women (often leading to domestic violence), angry outbursts, and the underlying fears and pain of their earliest memories. Peter and I teach anger management techniques, such as the relaxing breath, softening, time outs, and understanding mental and physical triggers. We also emphasize the importance of gender, equality between men and women, and the possibility that the men can transform themselves from violent, angry “hitmen” into loving, compassionate peacemakers.

I have been blessed to witness many class participants as they come to deep revelations about themselves. As one man mentioned recently, he realized that in each person’s core, “there ain’t nothin’ wrong wit’ choo!” Many students ask agonizing questions, particularly those who have already served their time and must appeal to the governor over and over again for their release. “What if I don’t get out?” they ask. “What if I die in prison?”

Sometimes they speak of the guilt and shame they carry, of their remorse over taking someone’s life and the sorrow they feel when they think of their victim’s families. Some tell of their longing for their wives and children who live “on the outside,” and others admit their fear that they’ll never be able to have a partner or raise children. A lot of the hardships the inmates face surface in our conversations, because this class is one of the few safe places to explore them.

One class member is a writer. His street name was Warlock, but he is Warlock no more. He explains, “I…find myself sitting here now with a life sentence for attempted murder. It would seem that my entire life has been…nothing but disastrous…, but truth be told, it has been my failures that have matured me, as well as…the many self-help groups I’ve obtained. I’ve gotten closure to what I call not a perfect life…It has taken me over twenty five years…to find myself, my Lord and a peace of mind! Today I treasure all I’ve experienced. I’m a free-thinking Man. Not a boy pretending to be such!”

I’ve become close with the inmates; we often share a communion on human and spiritual levels that enlivens and touches our hearts. It is a poignant connection, because we all know that I could leave them at any time and not look back…and many of the men who are “lifers” will still be there, doing their time.

Yet I think the students can feel how deeply I care about them, as human beings and as fellow travelers on the mysterious path of life.  As convicted criminals, they’ve made tremendous mistakes.  We’ve all made mistakes, but theirs have had a more dramatic and painful impact on the world. Their desire to learn how to dig their way out of this dilemma is a testament to the power of human determination. Sometimes, in the classroom, it is the inmates’ raw sincerity that illuminates and uplifts the universal troubles of our species. At other times, it is the tools and skills they are given that help them to find their way back to the sanity of empathy and compassion.

Inside San Quentin, my students’ quest for redemption is, in truth, also my deep desire; their craving for profound, inner quiet is also my own. So we sit together to receive the peace that is possible for every person, no matter what has happened, no matter what we’ve done.

Ana Holub, M.A. is a peace educator who specializes in reconciliation and forgiveness for individuals, couples and groups. She can be reached at www.anaholub.com or 530-926-4639. For information about prison reform and volunteer opportunities, check the Insight Prison Project: www.insightprisonproject.org.