Jacques Verduin has a unique understanding of the profound meaning of criminal activity. As the Director of Insight-Out, a California-based program that offers a deep transformational rehabilitation program to prisoners and provides opportunities for them to serve their communities before and after release, he sees crime “as an inarticulate plea for help.” “Yes, it is a maddeningly inarticulate plea,” he says, “but a plea nonetheless.”
“Yes, it is a maddeningly inarticulate plea” he says, “but a plea nonetheless.”
“Next to being an indication of a lack of responsibility,” Verduin continues, “a crime is also a symptom of a greater societal breakdown, one in which the individual does not feel validated and worthy as a bonded member of a community.”
At the core of this breakdown, says Verduin, is a lack of social cohesion and a collective failure to truly care for each other. “Culturally, we do not teach about contributing to the life of our community,” he says. “So we are losing the spirit of kindness and compassion that are the marks of a well-bonded society.” Instead we become increasingly alienated and not accountable to each other, Verduin explains. He points out that this phenomenon is most strongly reflected by the way our prisons function and by our norms and attitudes about crime and justice.
The GRIP (Guiding Rage Into Power) Program that Verduin has pioneered responds to prisoners’ pleas for help by providing them with practical tools that heal wounds originating in often violent and fractured lives; tools that create ways to feel connected, responsible to others, and part of a world beyond their own needs—and beyond their past mistakes. “The GRIP Program is really pulled from a lot of what has been found to be effective,” explains Elizabeth Siggins, Senior Policy Advisor for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “The program integrates the latest research about the brain, creating something that certainly seems to be engaging offenders in a way that many traditional programs do not.”
Prison administrators understand that motivating prisoners is critical to rehabilitation, and they use “responsivity” as a measure of how much a program inspires a willingness to change and draws in new participants.1
Currently at San Quentin, over 400 men are waiting to participate in the GRIP Program, and hundreds more are on waiting lists in two other state prisons. “This is not an easy program,” continues Siggins. “I’ve sat in with these men and they really have to come to terms with their offense and the impact on their victims, their family, and their community. The waiting list for the GRIP Program indicates that it’s really motivating folks to want to begin that process of change.”
One of the strongest draws of the program is that it offers a genuine sense of belonging that inspires the men to give back to their communities. This includes a youth program where ex-cons mentor at-risk youth, and a domestic violence training program through which prisoners become certified to educate others about domestic violence, both while in prison and post-release.
While the organization’s title, Insight-Out, reflects the power of inner work to support outer change, and the potential for prisoners to participate in life on the outside, it is just as true that the program leads inmates from the outside, in. Through its unique emphasis on helping prisoners find ways to contribute, the program guides participants from living on the outside of society to genuine connection and belonging, illustrating the paradox that, as Verduin says,
“Only through caring for each other can we find our own human dignity.”
“It costs the state of California over $60,000 to keep one person in prison for a year,” says Verduin. “And 64% come back within 3 years.”
Originally from Holland, Verduin is a trained somatic psychologist who has been bringing emotional intelligence and mindfulness-based practices into California’s most renowned prison since 1997, when he founded the Insight Prison Project. Out of that effort grew the Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG) Program, the Prison Yoga Project, and the Prison Garden Project. Through the GRIP Program, Verduin brought together his years of experience into a single methodology, which includes stopping and transforming violence, developing emotional intelligence, cultivating mindfulness, and understanding victim impact.
Over 4 years, GRIP has graduated 182 mostly life-sentenced violent offenders with parole. Forty-one have been released and none of them have returned, creating a savings of almost $2.5 million in tax dollars each year (and growing…) while improving public safety and preventing re-victimization.
Verduin’s programming aims to help men stay out of prison after release and help at-risk youth avoid incarceration in the first place. “I felt inspired by the many life-sentenced prisoners who had come out of my program and who were now functioning in leadership positions in the community,” explains Verduin. “I wanted to support those efforts through a new structure and direct what was learned to the other side of the pipeline, to prevent more victimization and incarceration.”
As part of the restorative justice movement, Insight-Out engages victims, prison administrators, community members, as well as inmates to advocate for and implement new ways of “doing prison” that are more humane and effective than the current punitive model. “It costs the state of California over $60,000 to keep one person in prison for a year,” says Verduin.2 “And 64% come back within 3 years.”3
The GRIP Program employs a 52-week curriculum called Leaving Prison Before You Get Out. Verduin calls it “a technology of transformation that has been developed to successfully turn the experience of pain, violence and shame into gateways for healing and learning.”
All learning takes place in a group, called the “GRIP Tribe,” inviting prisoners to practice being a member of a community and develop a sense of responsibility. The group identity is a “powerful incentive to bond in a positive way rather than a destructive way, as happens in gangs,” explains Verduin. To guide the year-long work, participants sign an extensive “pledge” that commits them to stop their violence, helps develop positive behaviors and habits, and holds the men accountable to themselves and each other. For example, there is the commitment “to challenge my own belief systems, understanding that there is always another perspective,” or “to seek to understand and communicate the needs underneath my anger or frustration and to become someone who seeks to understand rather than someone that seeks just to be understood.”
The pledge can be broken, says Verduin, because mistakes are part of life, “but one of the pledges is to share with the class if they have not kept their commitments, so we can all learn from that.”
The emphasis on community identity is critical to help prisoners practice their increasing sense of relatedness. Verduin explains, “The Navajo Indians call someone who has committed a crime he or she who acts as if they have no relatives. Accountability is evoked through meaningful relationships. It’s not a standard you can keep without being bonded.”4 The tight container of the GRIP community holds the prisoners as they proceed through intense psycho-spiritual exercises aimed at developing self-awareness and accountability.
The work includes mapping cycles of “original pain” (traumatic experiences of boundary abuses, loss and violence, often as a young person) and “secondary pain” (caused by avoiding, medicating or otherwise not processing the original pain). The prisoners help each other heal this deep wounding. “They learn that you either heal that pain or add your drama to ‘The Drama,’” Verduin explains. “We do a practice called ‘Sitting in the Fire.’ You are taught to go into, through and out of facing the suffering inside that reactivity, one bit at a time. This is a meditation the group practices together. Through this radical practice we learn patience and tolerance. We learn to understand that the causes and conditions of how this pain affects us lie within ourselves, by virtue of how we choose to respond to it.”
One prisoner described this new capacity for impulse control: “I grew up in a violent atmosphere,” he says. “And [this program is] teaching me how to be aware of my feelings and to know when I’m triggered, when I begin to lose it and get out of control … when everything speeds up and intensifies. I’ve learned to track my body signals and so I’m able to catch it now before I get too far.”
GRIP classes include exercises designed to continually widen the prisoners’ sense of community and responsibility, like one in which the men engage in role plays through which they speak to their victims or members of victims’ families. They also write and read aloud “letters of unfinished business” (not to be sent) to people they have hurt or family members who have passed during their incarceration. This kind of work helps expand the prisoners’ growing sense of self to include those who seem distant or “other.” Breaking down this “me and other” dynamic is a long process but eventually creates the connections and sense of responsibility that “leads from being an offender to being a servant,” says Verduin.
“One day a prisoner came to our tribe and begged for help. He said, ‘My daughter attempted suicide and is in a coma. She left a note: If I can’t have my father, they can’t have me either…’ Intuitively, I asked him if he had ever been in a coma. ‘Twice,’ he said. ‘How come?’ I asked. ‘Through violence,’ he said. ‘I was in a gang.’ I asked him if he could see that his daughter was carrying the pain in his family system and that now was the time for him to take responsibility for his violence. He dedicated himself to the program, he did his forgiveness practices, called folks to apologize, and together we prayed for his daughter. When his daughter awoke from the coma after a month, the whole tribe cheered upon hearing the news.
“He was in prison for beating up a cop, and so part of his forgiveness practice was to write a letter of remorse (never to be sent) to that cop. On the very first day of his release, a set of wildly unrelated circumstances coincidentally brought the ex-con and the cop together in a non-crime related situation. The cop didn’t seem to recognize him, so he asked, ‘Do you remember who I am? I’m the guy who beat you up and sent you to the hospital. I signed a pledge of nonviolence and would like to ask if I could apologize to you.’
"The two men then sat together and reconciled on the spot."
“I look back at the letter he wrote,” continues Verduin, “and the last two lines say, ‘Well officer, if ever our paths would cross again, I hope we could sit down as two men, make our peace and put this behind us.’
“Currently he’s running a ‘gang anonymous’ group and teaching the GRIP curriculum to others. He is also helping his daughter learn how to walk again.”
To support the men as they leave the tight container of the year-long program, Verduin arranges a graduation ceremony open to families and to people who have visited the program over the year (victims, law and chaplaincy students, politicians, former prisoners and the at-risk youth they are working with on the outside). At the ceremony, the men take the same pledge they signed at the beginning of class—this time it’s forever.
“This is our gift to the community,” says Verduin, “the gift of returning safe men, men that also know how to resolve conflict. That represents a huge gift right now to places like Richmond and Oakland. It is through this giving back to the places that we took from that we publicly state our new identity.”
This “giving back” has become institutionalized by Insight-Out through a domestic violence facilitator program certified by the Marin Probation Department.5 “Now we have the first life-sentenced prisoners in the country who have been professionally trained in preventing violence in their communities,” says Verduin. “Some who have been released are giving back to communities with this job skill, and the ones still in prison work with fellow prisoners. In the GRIP Program, this stage is called ‘Turning the Stigma into a Badge.’
“Over the years many of the prisoners kept saying, ‘I wish I had known this information when I was younger; it would have made all the difference,’” says Verduin. “Finally I got tired of hearing that and said, ‘Why then don’t we go tell those youth, teach them what was learned on this side of the pipeline and implement it there, to prevent all this mess!’
“Thus our youth program was born, to go to work on the other side of the pipeline, where a disproportionately high number of youth are feeling alienated and rebellious to a world that fails to see them, appreciate them or understand their struggles. Insight-Out has hired former prisoners trained by the GRIP Program to work with kids on probation, in schools, and in youth centers. There is a posse of about three regular guys who are involved in the effort.
“And for many of the released prisoners, working with challenged youth is a way to gain back their dignity and a means to give back. It is their deepest wish, a dream come true.”
“The youngsters often feel that the Elders have come back to reconnect with them,” continues Verduin. “And for many of the released prisoners, working with challenged youth is a way to gain back their dignity and a means to give back. It is their deepest wish, a dream come true.”
In some ways, Insight-Out models what many in our society long for—a way to break down barriers and reveal genuine connections, to work together on collective challenges, and to feel genuinely part of a community that cares, watches over and supports its members. Insight-Out makes this possibility real with perhaps the most alienated and abandoned members of our collective, reflecting through their example how social responsibility is born through connecting to oneself, and how truly knowing oneself happens through learning how to be of service.
“I think love is being able to recognize who you are, and being able to deal with yourself and come to like and accept yourself as who you are,” says one GRIP participant, “and with that comes the ability to love others. In GRIP we learn that love is not just a feeling—it’s a way of being present.”
“At the heart of Insight-Out’s teachings is the actual experience of how each person’s freedom is intricately interwoven with our own liberation,” explains Verduin. It is this utter interdependency of individual and community, the obviousness of real belonging and the clarity of seeing how one person impacts the whole that informs the GRIP Program.
“Every time a kid spits his/her destructive impulses into a poem that makes that anguish sing and teaches others, the community wins,” says Verduin. “Every time a victim feels their pain honored by a heartfelt apology, we all grow a little taller. Every time a prisoner returns to his or her community as a safe person, it reaffirms the life of that community.
“Together we learn that being free isn’t just a geographical fact, it’s not just the other side of the gate. At the heart of being free is not knowing where you are, but knowing who you are and not ever forgetting that again, as you did in committing your crime. That’s what this program is all about.”