Felons, Monks and Mystics at San Quentin

San QuentinIf someone told you that there was a prison in America that had a feel of a monastery about it, would you buy that? I sure as heck wouldn’t — not before last Wednesday, April 16th, anyway.

That was the day JoAnn, Dinny Evans and I were given special clearance to enter San Quentin State Prison in California.

As we were leaving the prison after six hours, JoAnn said to me, “This feels more like a monastery than a prison.” She was right. It did. Seeing is believing.

In fact, the minute we got inside the gates, all my preconceived notions of how it would be and what it would feel like were totally smashed.

I’d had visions of Alcatraz and Shawshank in my mind and expected the energy to be dark and foreboding, and I presumed the prisoners would be angry, surly, resentful and unfriendly.

It was the exact opposite. Everyone was friendly and welcoming. They were genuinely pleased to see us. Whether they were playing ball, shooting hoops or going about their tasks, they stopped to say “Hi,” and waved.

I can honestly say the energy in that part of the prison, where most of the prisoners congregated, was as high as any place I have experienced in my life. And I include all the churches I have ever been in. I was blown away by it. Shocked!

(Note: We did not see Death Row or the ‘Hole,’ or even ordinary cells which apparently have been judged and condemned by international human rights organizations as way below international norms, but I was assured that the general atmosphere we were experiencing was very typical.)

I soon learned why the energy was so high. While there are 6,000 prisoners incarcerated in San Quentin, there are 3,000 volunteers who come in and provide real mind/body/spirit support for the prisoners, most of whom are there for life.

A non-profit organization called the Insight Prison Project provides year long programs for personal and spiritual growth. One of them is the Victim/Offender Education Group (VOEG), and you can find more information at http://www.insightprisonproject.org.

This is where victims and offenders mix and come to understand each other by listening and sharing. Victims try to find forgiveness while the offenders become accountable and mindful of the pain they have caused others.

A very high proportion of the guys undertake to enter into these extremely challenging programs that are as transformational as any I have seen on the outside.

They do it with as much courage and commitment as anyone I have known anywhere.

As it happened, our day to visit was the day the latest cohort of 25-30 guys going through the program were to graduate, so we got to be at their graduation ceremony.

It was a very moving experience for us. The love in the room was palpable. Guys got up to speak and said things that blew me away. One guy even shed tears.

Can you imagine a prison where it would be safe for a man to cry in front of several hundred other male prisoners and not be seen as a wimp? He got a standing ovation.

Towards the end, I was asked to say a few words. At one point during my speech I addressed one prisoner who was due for release the next day after 25 years of incarceration.

I admitted I felt some trepidation for him. “It’s not like this on the outside,” I told him. “People out there are less likely to give you the same level of love and support you’ve received from all your buddies in here for the last 25 years. Be prepared.”

Before that graduation ceremony, we were privileged enough to be invited to sit in with a group who met regularly to discuss issues related to their crimes. Most members of this group were in for committing murder and would be in prison for life.

There was a facilitator from the outside and another who was himself a prisoner.

Each of the guys was given the task of constructing a time-line of his life, right up to when they had committed the crime and beyond, and then each presented it to the group during a single session.

We witnessed one of these presentations. Once complete, the others commented and asked questions. It was amazing.

I do the exact same thing with people who come to my workshops, but what I witnessed here was as much courage and authenticity in his sharing and loving compassion and empathy from the other guys as I have ever experienced in any of my workshops.

Now let me explain the purpose for our being there.

I was invited by Rochelle Edwards, the Senior Restorative Justice Consultant and Victim Offender Mediator, to discuss the possibility of training prisoners to become certified facilitators of Radical Forgiveness. Once trained, they would be able to teach Radical Forgiveness as an element of one of their more advanced courses.

My book Radical Forgiveness had been circulating amongst the prisoners, and several came up to me and said it had so changed their lives they wanted to do the training so they could help others.

It seems there are about 50 guys who want to do it. I am very excited about that possibility and we will find a way to do it.

Obviously, they don’t have access to the internet but they can watch DVDs and I still have those. Dinny lives within a three hour drive from there and will be able to teach some classes live.

Now, please don’t imagine I was blinded to all that is utterly shameful and unjust about the justice system in this country, and how it seems to apply only to a certain section of the population.

One guy was in for a total of 67 years under the arbitrary ‘3 strikes and you’re out’ rule, having committed three burglaries. That rule was created by politicians who wanted to appear tough on crime in order to improve their image.

Yet the criminals up there on Wall Street who knowingly swindle millions of people out of billions of dollars go completely free and continue with their criminal activity with impunity. Prison is not for them apparently.

I also realize that, regrettably, there are very few prisons like this one. I heard a lot of people say, if you have to do time, there’s no better place than San Quentin to do it.

One reason for that is that it is near a big city, San Francisco — one that is very liberal in its outlook and more inclined to think that the purpose of prison is not just to punish but to help offenders heal the hurt that caused them to hurt others so they can become good citizens again.

The people of San Francisco are probably more inclined to want to help prisoners than in other cities where a more conservative, ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key,’ attitude prevails.

Prisons that are totally isolated have no chance of getting this kind of support at all, and if they come under the jurisdiction of a hard line, right wing government, there is little likelihood of anything like we witnessed here happening.

My only hope for them and this country is that people in authority will come to realize what a difference a little bit of caring and humanity can do to people, not to mention how much money it would save. They only have to look to San Quentin for the model.

I met one man who had been a gang leader and had taken the lives of a few people in his time, but he had become fully human again, now able to give and receive love from others.

But it was clear to me that he was able to transform to this degree only because he had been given the chance to heal what was eating him on the inside and causing him to hurt others.

That’s true for all of us. Have you not hurt people by projecting your own unhealed hurt out onto them? Of course you have. We all have. Only when you heal your own pain will you stop inflicting it onto others.

That’s why Radical Forgiveness is so important. While you hold onto your hurt, you are in a prison of your own making. You are not free.

The prisoners I met realized that to be free, whether they were in prison or outside on the street, they had to heal their hurts in order to be whole and accepting of themselves.

That’s why they want to learn Radical Forgiveness and I am keen to find a way to give it to them.



P.S. How about you? Wouldn’t you like to stop hurting those you love by healing your own pain? You can take the first step in my free webinar later today on the Radical Forgiveness Worksheet. Join me and set yourself free.

32 thoughts on “Felons, Monks and Mystics at San Quentin

  1. Pavel Kaiser

    Dear Colin, thank you for the article, this is really amazing. I am happy that you could be there. I will share the article on our facebook page.

    Thank you again! Your former student, Pavel.

  2. Michael Fragnito

    Dear Colin,
    Bringing hope to those in a seemingly hopeless situation is so important, and you are to be commended for that. It’s hard enough convincing someone who is in a prison of their own making that hope is available, but if someone actually, physically is in prison, and will be for a long time (if not for the rest of their life), then it’s so clear that your program is one of the few means of providing help.

  3. Felicia

    Impressive! I have heard that some Scandinavian countries have a more rehabilitative approach to offenders and jail time . This is so important, this work. We must spread this concept and what good work is being done.

  4. Lola

    Thank you so much for sharing this amazing, enlightening and strong experience with us. Let’s keep working on converting Radical Forgiveness into the blessing Pandemia the World need! Love

  5. Tanya

    It is wonderful to see you working with San Quentin! I work at Folsom State Prison, a few hours from there, and I was surprised to see a message from you in my inbox about prison. It would be wonderful if after you trained SQ, they could train some people at Folsom. You are right, there is a lot that is shameful about the way we incarcerate our citizens that you don’t realize until you are inside. To the extent that we can provide rehabilitative services (RF, yoga, meditation, 12-steps, etc.), we should. It behoove a us all. Thanks for raising awareness about prisons and inmates!

  6. Nathalie Sorrell

    My cofounder of Truth be Told sent this to me to read-what a joy to hear about what’s happened in San Quentin in the years since Mike Kelly brought centering prayer there.
    We have learned so much as you describe since starting at Lockhart Geo prison in Texas
    Teaching women there to do a lifeline about the things they experienced & decisions they made that they believe brought them to prison …and giving them speaking, writing & performance art skills to tell their stories to each other in respectful, safe communities. Then we bring in an audience from outside to hear …and hopefully our graduates will gradually be able to re-enter a slightly more awake, compassionate & receptive community when they are released. It seems easier to see the influence of this life affirming work in the prison where the inmates are starved for anything inspiring & loving & interesting than to see how to change the communities we all live in that still dread the idea of a former convict living near us. Thanks for your work to build a better world for all of us. We humans have each experienced some form of self Incarceration, and inability to forgive is a hard life sentence!

  7. Sharon Rae Paquette

    For ten years I taught theatre and created a theatre group at the NH State Prison for Men. I have witnessed much of what you talked about in your article Colin and believe as you said, that if those who are incarcerated had the opportunities to heal and change, our prisons would shrink and our world evolve and heal. During the end of my time of teaching and facilitating at the prison my marriage was crisis. My then husband and I went to counseling and our counselors recommended Radical Forgiveness to read. I read it and began the journey of using it to heal my life…doing (and still doing) worksheets on a regular basis. My then husband, chose to begin but never finished the book. While all this was happening I recommended the book to one of my students/theatre group members on the inside. In fact we read (I for the second time) it together and had a correspondence course through letters about the book. Eric had been incarcerated for 20 years (starting at 17) and was soon to re-enter society. Although he had done many things inside to heal and prepare for release, I felt in my bones he needed more. I cannot speak for Eric about what the book did for him…but I credit the book, theory, work (or whatever you call it) with saving my life. And I am thankful for every day, painful (as some were) and joyous, since then. I do know that Eric and I, who now share our journey as partners, talk about Radical Forgiveness at least weekly, if not more. We know what to do if we need to and we recommend the book to anyone we feel will hear the message its beautiful pages hold. Thank you for the post…for creating a space for America’s “forgotten”…and for just being you. The men at San Quentin are blessed to have you in their lives. Namaste…Sharon Rae Paquette

  8. maire-ros

    Wonderful Colin – your sharing is so touching. There is so much hope for the world when we see all the willingness and courage of those who are healing. Thank you x

  9. Dawn

    Dear Colin.
    I was very touched by this posting as I have a son in prison. I am thrilled to know about this work. I am a follower of radical forgiveness and Love. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  10. Debbie Klose

    (Chills and tears)
    Thank you for sharing your experience. Very very moving to say the least.
    Thank you Colin and Joann. You are both forever tattooed on my heart!

  11. Darcy Richardson

    Great work Colin, I am not surprised, one of my friends from my childhood was incarcerated for 10 years and he says it is the best thing that ever happened to him. He choose to grow and quietly take a deep look inside. Thank you

  12. Eileen Travell

    This is so wonderful Colin, thank you for your endless generosity. I appreciate and use your work every single day! xei

  13. Oman

    Colin your experience with these prisoners serves as the answer to an age old question: Is it nature or nurture? The evidence is more than clear, that given exposure to quality information and a supportive environment, anything is possible! Therefore, all of us must be made from the same essence; it is our individual growth environments that nurture our ultimate nature.

  14. Sabine

    Wow, Colin, this is breath-taking!!! Thanks so much for sharing this amazing experience and for your intention and willingness to bring Radical Forgiveness to those who are in extreme need of it. I love, love, love the idea and ask all Good Forces in the Universe to support it for the highest good of all.
    Hugs and Blessings @};-

  15. Tim Prentiss

    It was fantastic to hear about the progress the prisoners were making, Colin. But what about the victims and their families? Was there any willingness to see the possibility that there was perfection in whatever occurred, in spite of the pain for all involved? As you told that prisoner being released, it’s not the same out here. Were the “victims” able to see the love in the situations that motivated them to visit San Quentin?

  16. The Happy Forgiver

    Colin–What a beautiful story. I often drive by San Quentin and, of course, it is so stunning situated on the water. I have always wondered if being so close to nature affected the inmates. What you have conveyed here just goes to show that no-one need be lost. Each and every one of us is capable of finding love in our hearts and coming home to our real truth.

  17. Sarah Veronique

    Hi Colin,

    I’m about to join you on tonight’s webinar.
    I just wanted to say that your story is a very clear synchronicity for me. I have this “idea” in my mind for a couple of days : “Sarah you should bring the Radical forgiveness in prison”.
    Since I’m was a kid I never succeeded to consider “bad guys” as truly bad. I feel I have to be friendly and comforting and helpful with the ones that the whole society wants to get rid of. The bad pupil, the troublemaker… I just feel like they need hugs of something like that. The same way, I can’t consider prisoners as “bad people” or “evil” or whatever of this kind. Even the ones who had committed the “worst” crimes. However I am not blind. I am careful. I know about their humanness. I know that their “perfect imperfection” serving a spiritual and mysterious purpose, could be harmful for me.
    What I’m saying is, even if you remain lucid, you can feel compassion and love for the criminals.
    An old schoolmate of mine, one of the “troublemaker” type, which I always liked much, finally committed a murder a few years ago and ended up in prison, one-hour drive from my home. I don’t deny the crime, but I still feel full of sympathy for him.
    Maybe it’s time to get in touch ?

    Thank you so much Colin 🙂
    Peace and love (haha)

  18. Ellen Barry, Executive Director, Insight Prison Project

    Colin…it was wonderful to have you as our guest at Insight Prison Project’s Next Step Graduation at San Quentin Prison on April 16th…your words were truly inspiring and you brought a beautiful perspective to an already uplifting evening! We are excited about the possibility of working further with you in the future. I read all of the comments and am so grateful that you took the time to write such a detailed report of your experience at San Quentin. Not only were we honoring the Graduates of Next Step (and these are men who have spent several years of their lives doing deep work around taking accountability for their crimes, responsibility for their actions and developing compassion and empathy for their victims, other people, and, ultimately, for themselves) but we were also paying tribute to Rochelle Edwards, a long-time IPP staff member who created the original VOEG (“Victim Offender Education Group”) Curriculum at San Quentin. Rochelle is now a Consultant with IPP and she is developing the “Victim Offender Dialogue” program for IPP throughout California. I noticed that a few people were interested in how victims (or, as we call them ” crime survivors”) fit in to the work that IPP does. As you witnessed at the Next Step Graduation, crime survivors are central to our work and strong advocates for IPP. “Surrogate” crime survivors come in to every VOEG Group and IPP Facilitation Training to talk about their experiences as survivors of violent crime. This is always a profound experience both for the prisoners and for the crime survivors, and provides a pathway to healing that few other experiences trigger. One of IPP’s key staff members, Sonya Shah, is a crime survivor. And, at the Next Step Graduation, you heard one of our first “surrogate” crime survivors, Peggy O’Reilly, speak of her experience coming in the San Quentin and meeting the men who were working hard to account for their behavior and their crimes. Another speaker, Dionne Wilson, is the wife of a police officer who was killed in the line of duty. Dionne, a member of IPP’s Board, is a brilliant and charismatic speaker who talks eloquently about the power of forgiveness and healing. Thank you for suggesting that folks check out our website, Colin (www.insightprisonproject.org) and please let me know what we can do to further the work with you and your wonderful supporters!

    1. Colin

      Hi Ellen,
      We are still integrating our experience. It was truly amazing. We were so glad that we came on the day to experience the graduation ceremony and to witness the love and appreciation for Rochelle. We look forward to discussing ways to participate further in the programs.


  19. Céline Roy

    What a great step this is for humanity!
    Thank you Colin and JoAnn for this breakthrough!

  20. Ana Holub

    Hi Colin, I’m so glad you had the opportunity to visit San Quentin and to attend Rochelle Edward’s wonderful Victim-Offender class. As an Insight Prison Project guest facilitator for eight years, I had the great blessing to get to know some of the men incarcerated there. I learned as much from them (if not more) than they learned from me.

    When I first began teaching at SQ, I was not allowed to teach about forgiveness. There was a fear from administration of the non-profit that teaching the men to feel and be healed by forgiveness would be seen as “too soft” or “not tough love” enough. It took quite a few years of teaching Violence Prevention to be able to begin slipping some forgiveness themes into the curriculum. What a change I’ve seen in the past 12 years! The fact that you’ve been invited to SQ shows us all how far we’ve come as peacemakers.

    And by the way, a Radical Forgiveness coach named Peter Van Dyk was responsible for bringing the qualities of love, mercy, deep honesty and compassion to the prison many years ago. His wisdom profoundly impacted how the Insight Prison Project programs are taught there today. Anyone who attended his classes there would surely be grateful for his contribution. He is facing major health challenges now, yet his spirit is still alive in SQ.

    Here’s a link to an article I wrote about my experience of teaching inside San Quentin: http://www.anaholub.com/resources/writing/articles/men-violence-and-healing-in-san-quentin-prison/.

    All the best to you and our peacemaking community,

    1. Colin

      Hi Ana,

      You and Peter ploughed the ground so well that now forgiveness is accepted. Thank you. You were right about Rochelle. A real sweetheart.

  21. Karen

    Hi Colin,
    I would love to see you share this on NPR, so that as many people as possible can learn what is happening so that programs like yours and others at San Quentin and elsewhere can get focus. Truly, this is the way we will change our world and bring peace and harmony. I speak from experience in working with troubled and at risk teens. Not everyone responds, but many, many do, and it makes all the difference.
    Thank you so much for sharing this!
    Much love and gratitude,

  22. N. J. Pyles

    Dear Mr. Colin, this was forwarded to me by my minister Reverend Alice J. Brown of The Living Truth Center for Better Living in Cleveland, Ohio. I was very impressed with the concept of forgiveness, which as you stated we all need to some degree. I am happy to read that you mentioned the criminals of Wall Street and other white collar crimes that go unpunished due to money and connections. I will put you in my prayer book and hold you in consciousness to continue your good works. God bless you and thank you on behalf of every prisoner you have touched their hearts, mind, and soul to make that transformation. My prayer will be that the program will continue and spread among all prisons they catch the forgiveness and rehabilitative concept.

  23. Robert Strickler

    Colin, I am profoundly impressed by and grateful for the enlightened gift you are bringing to a people who have been rejected and expelled by our punitive culture. I recognize the need for segregation of some incorrigible beings, but I am unimpressed by the results of punishment as opposed to real rehabilitation. I truly hope that these innovations will be embraced and nurtured throughout our penal system.
    Blessings to you and upon this sacred work.

  24. Jodie Skibinski

    Awesome!!! Did you meet Charles Manson? I hope to have that kind of forgiveness and love someday for myself. Thank you for the work you do.

  25. Pingback: Inmates Find Radical Freedom in San Quentin - Forgive Coach

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