Inmates Learn How to Set Their Emotions Free

Times Staff Writer

It is a seminar usually crowded with what one of its regular attendees describes as "upper yuppies," those self-improvement junkies who are convinced that resolving inner conflict is one of the fastest tracks to outer success.

But how would this psychological training play here at San Quentin State Prison? How would inmates take to opening up old emotional wounds (viscerally expressing their anger, sadness, fear, guilt and eventually their forgiveness, love and frequently tears) to heal the painful parts of their lives?

In the mind of John Gray, a West Los Angeles counseling psychologist who usually presents his "Heart Seminars" in corporations or to the public in 10 cities around the country, there were no essential differences between the prisoners and his more traditional audiences.

As 33-year-old Gray sees it, anybody who is living on earth is residing in one sort of a prison or another.

"We're all messed up. All of us," Gray told the 30 or so inmates who crowded into a small, prefabricated building on "the Ranch," as the minimum security division at San Quentin is called.

"Everyone I've ever met on this planet is emotionally handicapped because of the way our culture has conditioned us. The way you get out of it is to start communicating your feelings."

Though many of the residents of the minimum security portion of all-male San Quentin are serving short-term sentences for nonviolent and white-collar crimes, the Ranch is also the home of murderers, rapists and others who have previously done time in stricter confines of the prison system. The inmates who enrolled in Gray's seminar on a recent weekend ran the gamut from a prisoner who had shot his stepfather and mother to a small-time dope dealer to a financial counselor who had advised some of the biggest names in show biz.

"You treat yourselves like (expletive). We all do. The evidence of it is the way we treat other people," Gray shouted at the group, intentionally sprinkling his remarks with profanity, speaking the language commonly heard at the prison. "If you hate yourselves, you're not going to be happy . . . This seminar is about the heart. It's about caring. It's about feeling. Emotions. Things some of you probably don't want to touch."

As Gray alternately spoke in angry, harsh terms and gentle, soothing phrases, his words were broadcast over a public address system that inadvertently carried into the yard. More inmates apparently tuned in to what he had to say and decided to join the three-day weekend seminar.

Clearly this meeting was unlike the assorted church services and other educational and vocational programs offered regularly at the Ranch. In no time, the number of enrollees shot to about 50 of the Ranch's 256 inmates.

But Gray knew that not everybody would stay until the seminar concluded. Not everyone would feel up to going along with his efforts to have them re-experience negative experiences (at an emotional, gut level). He would seek to get them to the point where they could re-live their mistakes, feel the feelings they had long suppressed, see the situation from a wiser vantage point and then forgive themselves and others involved.

Training Offered Free

Having paid money was no incentive to stay as the training was offered free--under the auspices of a group that regularly works with San Quentin inmates studying a nondenominational spiritual text called "A Course in Miracles."

(Gray used to charge $300 for his non-prison weekend trainings but now they, too, are offered without specific charge. However, outside of prison, participants must pay a $100 "commitment fee," which is returned when they complete the seminar. At that time they're invited to pay whatever they think the weekend was worth to them and the arrangement apparently returns a reasonable profit.)

"A lot of you ended up here because you haven't learned successful coping mechanisms," emphasized Gray, who spent eight years with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Transcendental Meditation organization before obtaining a Ph.D. in psychology and human sexuality from Columbia Pacific University.

"You don't know how to get your emotional needs satisfied. Nobody does," he went on. "Most of you guys are in here because you couldn't get everything you needed without breaking the rules."

A Tricky Business

But expressing feelings and getting emotional needs satisfied is tricky business--in any setting--as Gray is well aware.

"One guy here told me, 'The way I express my feelings is through my fist,' " said Gray, the author and illustrator of a self-published book titled "What You Feel, You Can Heal."

"You don't have to act out your negative feelings. You can communicate them. You don't have to go out and beat up on all the people who've hurt you," he continued.

"Why is it so important to learn to express your feelings? Because in our culture, it's not safe to get angry. Or cry. A lot of us are emotionally constipated. We can't get those feelings out. The other extreme is emotional diarrhea. We're trying to create some balance here."

Early in the seminar, the inmates were instructed to begin with fairly easy, non-threatening "processes," in which they'd repeatedly fill in the blanks of provided sentences. Working with partners, they'd finish lines such as "Something that I want from this weekend is . . . "; "A way I could ruin this weekend for myself is . . . ", and "This weekend I am willing to . . . "

Everyone was invited to tell the absolute, complete truth, no matter whom it might offend.

As trust and candor began to build among those in the room, participants were instructed to ask each other to repeat again and again answers to somewhat tougher questions: "What did your father do?"; "How did he make you feel?"; "What did you think about your father?"; "What did you want from your father?" (The same questions were asked regarding mothers, or as the situations would warrant, stepparents or foster parents.)

Painful, Joyful Memories

The group was cautioned not to censor their answers, merely to allow them to bubble up out of their unconscious minds. It wasn't long before tears were streaming down cheeks as the exercises stimulated both painful and joyful memories.

Process by process, deeper and deeper feelings were brought up, expressed and released. Frequently, it appeared as if most of the participants were crying.

As an inmate called Pineapple admitted to the group, "I don't like crying. Never have. It's a new experience. I never cried in my life until this seminar. But I know it's helping me to get rid of the hate that I've built up."

In many cases, prisoners were paired with outsiders--people who work with Gray or members of the "Course in Miracles" study group. And as both groups began to reveal themselves to partners and sometimes to the entire room of participants, it appeared that there was little difference between the insiders and the outsiders; pain is pain and just about everyone felt considerable amounts of unresolved emotion, particularly in relation to their parents and other authority figures.

One woman who told of how she had wanted to kill her father because he abused her as a child prompted a few inmates to discuss ways in which they, too, had been abused by their parents--and then unwittingly followed in their parents' footsteps and sometimes abused their wives or children.

As one man, who had been abused and abused others, explained, this was the only way he knew how to express his feelings, including love. "How can you show something you never had?" he asked.

A Strained Relationship

Gray, too, revealed his strained relationship with his father after numerous incidents in his adolescence over his use of drugs. Gray also said that his father had been found stuffed in the trunk of his car four months ago in Texas, but no murderer was found. Ironically, the incident occurred just after Gray had agreed to work at San Quentin.

He told as well of how, for years, he always managed to fall in love with women who lied to him, one of whom he married, only to have her eventually reveal she was in love with another man. He was also willing to add that he and the woman had done precisely the same thing to her previous husband. (Gray is presently remarried under what he described as far happier circumstances.)

Tears streamed down his face as he disclosed even deeper feelings of still-unresolved guilt and pain, the details of which he asked those in the room to keep confidential.

And then, the inmates at San Quentin did the same--first with partners and then in written "love letters," which Gray recommended as another method for safely expressing feelings. (In most cases he advised not mailing the letters, saying, "You don't write love letters to change people. You do it to get the fear out of you. Every time you pull out one layer of anger and fear and guilt, you get more one more layer of love, joy and confidence."

So were there any results? Any visible payoffs for all this emoting?

By Sunday evening, every one of the 25 men of San Quentin who completed the training knew precisely why they'd been willing to go through the awkwardness and embarrassment of re-living and releasing old, suppressed aches and pains. They didn't have to be told. It made them feel better--fast, they agreed.

Living Testimonials

Some of the men were suddenly singing and dancing, living testimonials to Gray's premise that it's more uncomfortable to hold in anger and hurt than to let it out.

Others, like Maurice Harge, from Southern California, turned reflective. "This is the first time in my life I've gone deep down inside and let some of those things out that no one knows are inside of me," he said. 'I've spent nine or 10 years away from my family and I realize that I need to get back in touch with them and be forgiven."

Then there was Cowboy, an inmate who had lived so long in prison that he had come to prefer it to the outside world. In the past, Cowboy volunteered, every time he was released he looked forward to being sent back to prison and had planned to stay as long as he could.

"After this weekend, I'm totally confused about my emotions," Cowboy announced. "But I'm putting a For Sale sign on the house. It's time to move on and find a new home."

Testimonial after testimonial poured forth. As did letters the following week from inmates urging San Quentin warden Dan Vasquez to establish a "Heart Chapter" in the prison so inmates could continue the work they began in the seminar.

Gray as well has indicated he wants to continue this work at San Quentin and other prisons; he and his staff have made inquiries about presenting a similar seminar at the California Institution for Men at Chino and would like to see volunteers assist in the work.

Already, follow-up work is proceeding at San Quentin through the Course in Miracles study group. Its regular Wednesday night meeting after the weekend seminar was used as a "completion" evening for participants and at the meeting, Bay Area Heart representative Donna Andrews noticed there was a marked change in the men.

"I couldn't believe it," she said by telephone, "when we got there, every single one of them was there and they were all sitting in quiet order in neat rows. They'd never been lined up like that before. They could hardly wait to see us. They were still on a high. I had to tell them that it's not going to last. They're going to have to do more work."

According to Andrews, each man spoke of the changes he'd experienced since his emotional work-out. Some said they had initially attended only because they knew women would be present but had received far more from the seminar. Others told of surviving ridicule from bunkmates who had heard they had cried in public.

And still others claimed not to have the foggiest idea of what happened in the course of the weekend. As one man said, "I just couldn't stop singing. I don't know what happened to me but I sure like it."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World