In November 2008, I visited the San Bruno jail and sat in on an RSVP session. A group counselor and about fifteen inmates sat on plastic chairs in a semicircle, while a white twenty-eight-year-old bank robber named Don described a fight he had been involved in eight years earlier. While the other prisoners looked on and asked questions, two inmates analyzed his story, writing down every incident of violence—physical, sexual, and emotional—that Don reported, from selling drugs at the party, to cheating on his girlfriend, to yelling at the girl he cheated with, to slugging a fellow party-goer with a beer bottle and then kicking him as he fell. The session took two hours, and by the end the entire blackboard was filled with details, not only about whom Don had hurt and how, but about the ways in which, in telling the story, Don had attempted to minimize what he had done or blame others for his actions.
"I left out a lot of stuff," Don told me when I talked to him afterward. Although some inmates volunteer for RSVP, most, like Don, had never thought of themselves as violent before they were assigned to the program by the jail administration.
"I knew I had a problem with drugs," he told me, "so I didn't mind being in drug rehab. But violent? Me? No way." After sitting through a few mandatory RSVP sessions and watching other men describe their own violent acts, however, Don told me he began to realize something about himself that he had never known before. He saw how badly he had hurt other people, not only the men he had punched and beaten up over the years but also his own family, who became so terrified of his angry rages that they all but avoided him. When he entered RSVP, he had been in jail for ten months and had barely heard from his parents, and had not spoken to his sister at all. Thirteen weeks later, he was speaking to his parents once a week and to his sister once a day.