I was fortunate earlier this year to visit San Quentin Prison’s Guiding Rage into Power (GRIP) program with around 35 men holding 900 years or so of life behind bars. Many of the participants are lifers, including for murder convictions. Inside-Out’s Jacques Verduin invited me to speak to and hear from the men during a recent visit to the San Francisco Bay Area. Jacques has been doing fantastic work with San Quentin prisoners for fifteen years. I’ve done other poetry readings and talks through Jacques’ former program, Insight Prison Project. I have also visited SQ with other programs about half a dozen times over the past ten years – once reading poetry with a saxophone player, drummer, and other poets in the maximum security yard (with a positive response from prisoners). This particular time was special, especially with older men who are learning how to turn their rages, their traumas, their violent acts and crimes, into dignity and nobility. GRIP helps formerly violent men become peacekeepers. It’s possible – I’ve seen this over and over again in my close to thirty five years of visiting prisons and juvenile lockups throughout California. I started in Chino Prison in 1980 and have done this in other states such as New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Oregon, Illinois, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and more. I’ve also visited some stark and even inhumane prisons in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Argentina. And in Europe I did poetry workshops with Italian juvenile offenders as well as spent three days talking to prisoners in a facility in southern England. The “official” narrative from government, law enforcement, and the mass media is that these men are unredeemable, great manipulators, and a danger to society. On the other hand, I contend a vast majority of prisoners have great capacity for learning, healing and transforming. There are countless writers, poets, artists, musicians, intellectuals, and more among them. Although I was a gang member and drug addict in my youth some forty years ago – having been behind bars in various East L.A./Southeast L.A.-area jails as well as juvenile hall and two adult facilities, I avoided the state prison terms that most of my homies were given. My way of giving back was to facilitate writing workshops in prisons under the mentorship of the late Manuel “Manazar” Gamboa, who himself spent seventeen years incarcerated and twenty years as a heroin addict. He changed his life and in turn helped changed others, including me. I have been crime and drug free for forty years. Today I try to help those men and women who have been caught up in the madness. I’ve also published poetry and other writings from prisoners, and continue to assist former prisoners whenever possible. One book to seek is "Honor Comes Hard: Writings from California State Prison's Honor Yard," edited by Lucinda Thomas and myself (from Tia Chucha Press and available online as well as from from Tia Chucha's Bookstore or Northwestern University Press). I also have family – brothers-in-law and cousins – that have been imprisoned. And as most people know my oldest son Ramiro did a total of fifteen years in the Illinois Department of Corrections. Ramiro has been out for almost three years and doing well, also now free of gangs, crimes and drugs, and working as a gang prevention and intervention specialist. To learn more about GRIP please go to this website: http://www.insight-out.org/ c/s
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