It’s been 10 years since George Luna was behind bars, but he still goes back to correctional facilities on a regular basis. He has spent most of his life cycling in and out of the justice system in Northern California. Now, he says he’s out for good and he’s looking to help other inmates do the same.
The former inmate is a facilitator of a prison rehabilitation program that teaches men about gender roles and how ingrained ideas of masculinity have contributed to their violent crimes. GRIP, or Guiding Rage into Power, started at San Quentin State Prison in 2013 and has expanded to five state prisons across California.
“First and foremost, we can cry,” Luna said to inmates gathered for a training in May at Avenal State Prison. “We can show emotion, and I’ll be honest with you, that’s a courageous motherfucker who’s willing to stand up and show his emotions and, through tears and all, be courageous and tell his story.”
Luna lives in Hollister, California, but sometimes travels up to six hours to facilitate the trainings.
“When I leave, I probably cry maybe two, three times, thinking about the day, about things that happened,” Luna told HuffPost after arriving at his motel near the prison. “It’s just — I got to compartmentalize while I’m there. But when I get out, some things hit me hard when I hear some of these guys’ stories.”
During the trainings, inmates open up about their traumatic experiences, such as sexual assault, abandonment by their family and domestic violence inflicted by loved ones. Revisiting what they call this “original trauma” is an integral part of their work. It’s the experiences they had as young boys that formed the basis of their coping mechanisms and survival tactics.
“I’ve been a vicious person most of my life, my young and adult life, and in and out of prison,” said Harold “Happy” Miller, a GRIP member and former member of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. “And in sentencing, the judge deemed me an extreme menace to society and a cyst growing on the spine of life. I made my mother scared of me.”
The trainings at Avenal take place once a month over 12 months. Throughout the program, inmates learn about the “male role belief system.” They learn that when men live “inside the box,” they’re only allowed a narrow field of emotions ranging from anger to indifference. It’s what many might recognize as some of the basic tenets of feminism.
“I’m gonna act tough and in charge. That was me,” said Michael Cabral, a current inmate and facilitator at Avenal. “Now look at me. Thirty-two years old and I went to shit because I’m doing fucking 16 years to life in prison. All because what? I didn’t want to be loving? But that’s who I truly am.”
Luna said learning these lessons transformed his life. He recalled seeing family members assault their wives and how it warped his perception of the world.
“Society says the male dominates,” Luna said. “They try to breed it in you that you can’t be anything else, except [a] masculine, hardcore, callous person, but men can be loving and have compassion.”
Most of the inmates have gone through other prison rehabilitation programs. But GRIP is different, they said, because the work they do inside the training goes deeper than other programs.
“What this has done for me in here this past year, it’s giving me back, once again, my humanity,” Miller said. “I gained my empathy back towards people. And my emotional intelligence is right now over-the-top for me. And it’s restored my faith that my mother used to have in me today and my children.”
The inmates largely attribute the program’s effectiveness to two factors. The first is GRIP’s authenticity. Most of the people leading the trainings are former or current inmates. It’s what made the program stand out to Luna when he first signed up for it in 2007.
“If they haven’t walked in my shoes, how will they help me?” Luna said, referring to other programs’ facilitators.
This aspect is something the warden of Avenal State Prison, Rosemary Ndoh, sees as vital to its success.
“If you’ve done time, you have credibility,” Ndoh said. “I’m saying to inmates, ‘You can make it.’ I’ve never done time. But when somebody else who’s done time comes back and says to them, ‘Look at me, I was there with you, but look at me now,’ then you build up hope. Hope is something everybody needs.”
The program’s emphasis on self-acceptance instead of self-improvement, like many other rehabilitation programs, is another reason why inmates say it works.
“Self-improvement says that you don’t have what it takes yet, but we’re going to try and get you there,” Cabral said. “Self-acceptance says that I know you’re hurt and I know you’re hurting, but underneath that is still that good, decent, pure human being who deserves to live, who deserves to love, who deserves to be free.”
Nearly one-third of the program’s graduates have gotten out on parole and, according to GRIP, only one inmate has returned. These numbers are in stark contrast to California’s average recidivism rate. About 65% of people who were released from custody in the state were either convicted of a crime or violated their parole within three years, according to a 2012 state report by the California Department of Corrections And Rehabilitation.
Though California realigned its priorities to focus on rehabilitation in that year, the state’s recidivism rate hasn’t improved much. It raises the question of whether the majority of programs are achieving what they’ve set out to do.
“Something about that term ‘rehabilitation’ for an individual, to me, suggests that an individual is broken, like something that’s innately inside of themselves,” said Alicia Virani, associate director of UCLA School of Law’s Criminal Justice Program. “I think that can be really condescending.”
She added that rehabilitation programs often put too much emphasis on the individual instead of the bigger issues at hand.
“Our society needs to be rehabilitated,” Virani said. “It’s a systemic problem that leads to most situations in which people are overpoliced, surveilled, criminalized, and end up in the criminal justice system.”
Jacques Verduin, the founder of GRIP, said he based the curriculum on 23 years of work inside prisons, “as opposed to someone sitting in Sacramento deciding what to do.”
“Anger is a second emotion,” he said. “Fear, shame or sadness are underneath it. Violence is learned. No one is born armed and dangerous. We can unlearn it.”
Uncovering these layers in the hope of transforming their lives is precisely what drives inmates to sign up for the program.
“There’s a hopelessness that I felt,” said Anthony Hansen, an inmate at Avenal and a GRIP participant. “I needed to rediscover who I am — who I truly am — who I was as a kid and not who I taught myself to become.”