SAN QUENTIN — 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.