Back outside in the bright sunshine after attending the meditation group at San Quentin late in April, we sat on a low wall to eat our bag lunches and walked through the main yard to a classroom where Jacques Verduin teaches the GRIP class: Growing Rage into Power. As we made our way there, I thought, “I’m walking through the yard at San Quentin.” Per instructions from Jacques, when inmates greeted us, we politely said hello in return and moved on. We sat in a circle with the members of the GRIP class, which includes 28 inmates, who collectively had killed 23 people. Thus, it is almost certain that I was sitting between two murderers.
At the first class session, they added up the minutes and seconds elapsed between the time violence could have been avoided and the time the crime was committed, and it was cumulatively 69 minutes, or an average of 2.46 minutes per class member. Jacques said the longest such period for anyone in the room was 20 minutes; the shortest was four seconds. The man sitting to my right said it had been seven seconds in his case.
A primary aim of the class is to learn to recognize the moment of imminent danger and respond in a way that avoids violence. This, you will not be surprised to learn, is done by mindfulness of the body.
One class member told us in detail about killing his girlfriend of two years. (His imminent danger period was seven seconds, he said, after which he stabbed his girlfriend in the chest.) Did he look like a horrible monster? No, he did not. He looked precisely like most everyone else we ever see, like a regular person. He passed around some photos of his victim, of whom he spoke with love and tenderness, saying she had been a light in the world. He also told us about meeting with her sister and cousin, and being forgiven by both of them.
Another class member asked, the longing evident in his voice, “After they said they forgave you, did you feel free?” I don’t think the person telling the story spoke of feeling free as such, but he said over and over how grateful he was to be offered such a huge gift, and he said that very few inmates in California have the opportunity for this kind of meeting with the loved ones of their victims.
Then other class members asked him questions, and we meditated together a bit, with one of the students offering instructions, and Jacques had each of us visitors say a couple of sentences about our experience of being there. “Honored” was used more than once; one of us said she felt privileged to be able to have this experience. Finally, we stood in a circle and held hands.
I’ve been thinking ever since then about how practically every one of us acts impulsively multiple times per day: Before the thought of having a sip of water has left my head, my hand is around the glass. Thought and emotion, followed instantly by action, but not usually then by life in prison. How amazing to contemplate how someone’s entire life, perhaps decades of life, can become about an act that took a few seconds to conceive and perhaps just a few more seconds to carry out. That person is thereafter seen as nothing more than the person who did that terrible thing, irremediable garbage.
The last thing we did at San Quentin was to go into a cafeteria building, I think for staff, and debrief with Jacques and a woman who is interning as an interfaith chaplain there. She deeply impressed me. Her presence was profoundly tender and open. Because I’m susceptible to this kind of thing, I asked this chaplain what she does when she feels attracted to a prisoner. “It’s never happened,” she told me. This was confounding: never? Well, then, what about when a prisoner is attracted to her? She said that behavior is forbidden and that the one time an inmate said something suggestive to her, she thought the three nearest inmates were going to beat him up.
(In our next chaplaincy class, we did a segment on sexual attraction in caregiving relationships. One of our teachers said it will absolutely arise; the question is how to avoid acting on it where prohibited by ethics or where there is the possibility of causing harm. I reported what the San Quentin chaplain said about never feeling this, and my teacher was skeptical. She suggested that maybe the chaplain just didn’t feel like talking about it with a stranger. It also occurs to me that perhaps her sexual orientation simply is otherwise.)
I’ve also been thinking about how the San Quentin chaplain intern clearly is not there to be nice, or to fix anyone, or to provide love in a personal sense, let alone romance. I’m sure she is very nice indeed, and that she does love the inmates she works with, but her service is obviously about manifesting the powerful but impersonal forms of love, generosity and kindness that connect us all, every last being, whether our worst act was eating the last piece of tofu jerky or murdering our girlfriend. And she was doing that. I could see it when she looked at me, and I would like to be able to do that myself, whether I work as a chaplain or not.
She and Jacques talked about ways not to internalize trauma and violence. They hear such ghastly stories about horrific crimes and somehow must not let themselves be scarred. Jacques said human touch is helpful, and both he and the chaplain intern find immersion in water, or doing activities on the water (e.g., boating) restorative.