San Quentin: Starting a Prison Revolution?

In the '60s Johnny Cash famously described San Quentin's negative reputation as a prison. As a criminologist doing my post-doc at UC Berkeley, I had to visit San Quentin.

*Sytske Besemer [2008] has just finished a PhD in Criminology at the University of Cambridge. Picture credit: Wiki Commons and Jitze Couperus.

"San Quentin, what good do you think you do?

Do you think that I'll be different when you're through?

You bend my heart and mind and you warp my soul,

your stone walls turn my blood a little cold."

In the '60s Johnny Cash famously described San Quentin's negative reputation as a prison. As a criminologist doing my post-doc at UC Berkeley, I had to visit San Quentin. My visit was depressing and positive at the same time. Depressing because it hurts to see how many lives have been traumatised by violence, crime and by life in prison. Positive because I visited a special programme called GRIP - Guiding Rage Into Power. GRIP seems to fit with Cash's words about bending "my heart and mind" and warping "my soul", but in the opposite way than he intended almost 50 years ago.

San Quentin, beautifully located on the San Francisco Bay, is a special prison in a country characterised by mass incarceration with a focus on punishing instead of rehabilitating offenders. Contrary to most US prisons, San Quentin offers several programmes to inmates. Around 4,000 volunteers work with inmates who can take undergraduate college courses, produce their own newspaper, create theatre productions and so on.

The critical reader will wonder why prisoners should be allowed to take all these courses? Aren't they in prison for a reason?

The central aim of incarceration is punishment in the form of deprivation of liberty. People should go to prison as punishment, not for punishment. Isn't it horrendous enough to have lost the ability to decide what you do when you want? Another aim of imprisonment is to reduce crime. The hope is that people learn from their sentence and will not reoffend when they return to society. In the current prison system, around 60% of people reoffend within three years of their release so the system does not work very effectively in helping people to stop committing crime.

Prisons appear to be universities of crime. When someone leaves prison he has had many opportunities to acquire criminal skills, has probably lost many pro-social relationships and has trouble finding a job and a home. In the current prison system, it is almost a miracle if a prisoner stops offending after his sentence. We currently live in a punitive society where people want to lock up offenders for as long as possible. This is clearly visible in the US, where one in 100 Americans are currently in prison. Among African American men between 18 and 35 years old, one in eight are in prison. This is more than the number of African American men who go to college.... One year in a Californian prison costs $50,000 (or $10,000 more than studying at Stanford, all costs included).

Emotional intelligence

GRIP and San Quentin are a welcome change from this situation. Before I visited GRIP, I was afraid that the participants would feel like I was an intruder, someone wanting to observe or spy on them. There was I, this privileged person going to UC Berkeley. Boy, was I wrong! When Jacques Verduin, the director, asked whether someone could explain what GRIP means, the men were eager to tell us: they were taking responsibility for their crimes - almost all of them had committed serious violent offences, had learned how to change rage into something other than violence, had developed emotional intelligence by recognising physical sensations and emotions and had stopped using violence. After half an hour Jacques had to interrupt them because otherwise there would have been no time for the rest of the programme. These men were grateful and extremely motivated about the opportunity they got to learn about their own emotions and violence: something they all wished they had learned when they were younger.

US prisons are strange places. They are riven with racial segregation: whites live, sleep and eat together with whites, African Americans with African Americans, Asians with Asians, etcetera. You can trust nobody in prison and have to be on guard constantly. Within GRIP, however, 34 men from all backgrounds talk about their emotions and their youth. The community sense is strong and the men collaborate to change their behaviour. Each group has a name; the one I saw was tribe 928. This name is the total number of years that these men have been incarcerated. Yes, these men have been incarcerated for on average 27 years each...

I was impressed by how well the programme impacted on the men. Jacques challenges them. We were discussing quotes. I had to read this one a couple of times before understanding it well:

"Whoever survives a test, whatever it may be, must tell the story. That is his duty. I don't want my past to become anyone else's future. Suffering confers neither priviliges nor rights. It all depends on how one uses it. If you use it to increase the anguish of others or yourself, you are degrading, even betraying it. And yet the day will come when we shall understand that suffering can elevate human beings. God help us to bear our sufferings well." Elie Wiesel

The men, however, immediately began to relate the quote to their own lives. Recently, I visited GRIP with five undergraduate students. One of them said that she didn't think she could be as open and honest about her emotions as this group of men and that she didn't know anyone else who was so emotionally intelligent. I agree with her. San Quentin and GRIP are a great example for the rest of the US. Hopefully, they are contagious and lead to a revolution in prison life around the US so prisons will more positively bend prisoners' hearts and minds while turning their blood warm instead of cold.

Because images can tell so much more than just words, here's a video about GRIP made by PBS.

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