April 25, 2008— -- San Quentin is one of the nation's most notorious prisons, and is home to some of California's most dangerous criminals — 80 percent of whom are going to get out one day.
Prison Warden Robert Ayers is desperate to change the behavior of these hardened men.
"The question we have to ask is, 'Do you want them to go out the same way as when they came in?'" said Ayers.
Ayers is working with the Insight Prison Project to teach inmates how to control their anger by tapping into it. In other words, the prisoners are being taught to think before they strike.
Gerry Harris is currently serving a five-year sentence for shooting a suspected child molestor.
"I am getting close to getting out of here. I haven't heard from my wife or son for a year, and I am really getting agitated every day about it. … I still get this feeling inside of me like I want to lash out," said Harris.
He says the classes have helped him learn to deal with that instinct. "I can say OK, pause button, now I processed it, and let's roll on."
Skeptics question whether these programs really work, but its founder, Jacques Verduin, said that since its inception six years ago, only one program graduate has returned to prison. That's a far cry from the 70 percent average return-to-prison rate for San Quentin inmates.
"We think it's working because if you can road test in a place like this, you know it holds water," said Verduin.
Three hundred men a week take the classes. No tax money is used to fund this program. Perhaps the most unusual, and some would say bizarre part of it, is a yoga class.
When the warden first heard about yoga for prisoners, he said he rolled his eyes and said, 'Come on, give me a break."
Verduin emphasized that yoga is a discipline that can teach the inmates physical ways to react, i.e., breathing and relaxing instead of using violence. He said the Insight Prison Project is more than just a feel-good program, and that its goal is to create safer communities.
For more information on the Insight Prison Project, visit www.insightprisonproject.org.