For 18 years, the San Francisco County Jail in San Bruno has run a program aimed at keeping inmates from committing more crimes. It invites victims to meet with perpetrators, with the idea that hearing the voices of victims will force perpetrators to face their own actions. The meetings can be hard, but healing -- especially when they're between father and son.
Delia Ginorio runs the Resolve To Stop Violence Program (RSVP). In a room just off the jail hallway, Ginorio talks with the day’s speakers, outlining the work they do here. In addition to survivors' talks, they also run an on-site charter school, substance abuse recovery program, creative writing classes, yoga classes and meditation. It’s not a quick fix nor a guaranteed one, but Ginorio says that in the 18 years since they started, it’s proven incredibly effective at interrupting cycles of violence.
“I’m a believer that no program works, but it’s our job to provide really good tools and information, and if our clients choose to use those, it will work for them,” she says. “We have good stats and information that the longer men are in our program, the higher the chance of them changing their behavior, but I can’t give false hope.”
But today Ginorio says the program will be “a little bit different.”
Different because of who the speakers are. This isn’t the first time Joe Loya Jr., a convicted bank robber who has been telling his story publicly for years, has spoken here. But this time he is joined by his father, and he’s feeling the nerves. It's only the second time they've told the story publicly together.
Ginorio asks him why he's feeling shaky.
“ ’Cause of my dad. Now I’m here with my dad, I’m telling the story differently. Now it’s a different story,” he says. He describes it as a dance with his father, a story told by two narrators. “We’re barely starting this dance, and now it’s a love story. And when you're in a love story, you collaborate.”
But it is a love story that took a long and violent detour.
Fathers and Sons
Ginorio leads the group down the hallway and into a room lined with jail cells. Chairs are arranged auditorium-style in the center. Forty-five men, all dressed in bright orange jumpsuits, are already in their seats.
Ginorio introduces herself and then poses some questions to the men in the room. How many are fathers, she asks. About a third of the men’s hands go up. Then she asks how many people have had challenges with their own fathers -- more than half of the men raise their hands.
“How many of you in here right now, your children, have issues with you?” Ginorio asks.
This time only a couple of hands shoot up. Ginorio shakes her head, “I just want to say if we had your children in here, I think they’d tell a different story. Just by being in jail you’re impacting your kids. We got to get honest about that, OK?”
And then she introduces Joe Loya Jr.
Joe is a big guy, with a big laugh and a big voice, a natural-born storyteller. He talks about how he started robbing banks in the late '80s, a spree in which he robbed “about 18 banks in ’88 and ’89 in 14 months.”
“I may not look like it, but when I was a youngster I was a pretty crazy guy. I copped to three banks and I did about seven years in the feds, spent about two years in solitary confinement,” he tells the men.
But the story Joe Jr. is here to share isn’t really about robbing banks, or even his time in prison. It’s about the moments that led up to that.
Joe Jr. was born to 16-year-old parents in East Los Angeles. His parents were good parents, he says, and it was a loving home. But then when he was around 7 years old, his mom got sick with liver disease. She died two years later.
That loss unleashed his father's rage.
There are three moments from Joe Jr.’s childhood that he says were pivotal, that changed something in him. “These are the moments that my dad acted against his conscience in a way,” he says.
The first one was after he got beaten up by some bullies, and came home with his sweater torn and glasses broken. His father put him in the car, and drove him around to find the guys that beat him up -- telling his son that he had to fight them. They found the guys, but Joe Jr. lied and told his dad it wasn’t them. “I’m in ninth grade, and my dad knows he has a sissy for a son.”
It taught him a lesson, he says, a lesson that tied his own self-worth to violence, to the ability to fight back.
The second story is spotty in Joe Jr.’s mind because he had a concussion from football practice. But he remembers his father hitting him so hard he toppled over. This was a lesson in the inevitability of violence. It had become a language -- a shorthand between father and son that registered as a fist.
These moments, Joe Jr. says, formed a “troika, the trinity of violent moments in my memory that I remember, and I held onto for many years in my prison cell.” Not just in his prison cell. Joe Jr. says that before he would go rob banks, he would think of these moments, turning them over in his mind whenever he wanted to conjure up rage.
But it is the third memory, the final one in the trinity, of one night when Joe Jr. was 16 that would turn both his and his father’s worlds upside down.
The Night Joe Jr. Stabbed His Father
“My dad comes home, we have a tough day, something kicks off -- and there happens to be a very, very bad beating that I’m subjected to, my brother and I. And it might not even have been the worst one of all. It just happens to be a bad day, and it happens to be that I’m very scared, and it happens to be that I reached my limit,” Joe Jr. says.
After the beating, Joe Loya Sr. left the house. Joe Jr. remembers locking his brother in a bathroom and going to the kitchen and grabbing a steak knife. He describes going to his bedroom, hiding the knife underneath his pillow and then waiting for his father to come home. It was as if he took the lessons of violence he learned and put them to work.
“He comes to the bedroom door and it’s round two, I think. And I stand up and I pull out the knife. He tells me to put the knife down. One thing leads to another, we wrestle in the middle of the room, and I end up getting the better of him,” Joe Jr. says. He had stabbed his father in the neck.
He remembers twisting the blade, trying to break it off. He remembers his father falling on the ground, yelling out, “You killed me, you killed me!”
“So up until now, I’ve been a victim. And now like, whoa, that felt interesting. Everything comes out. And as soon as it hit, I felt power. And I liked that feeling,” Joe Jr. says.
Joe Jr. was not charged with anything, and after the stabbing he and his brother were sent to foster care for a little bit. He ended up back in his father’s house, but not for long. Soon he was out on his own, and he turned to crime, making victims as a way to never be one again.
The jail room is quiet. Some men stare at their feet, others watch Joe Jr. intensely. And then he does something I don’t think the men were expecting.
He invites his father to speak. “This is Joe Loya Sr.,” he tells them. “I love him very much -- show him respect.”
Where Joe Jr., is big and brash, Joe Sr. is shorter, a slender man with an elegant figure. It doesn't seem possible that this is the same man who was as violent as Joe Jr. described.
But Joe Sr. admits to what he did, everything. It wasn’t easy, and it didn’t happen overnight, but it was his idea to accompany his son on jail visits like this.
“I did beat him up, and I did punch him,” Joe Sr. says. “I never should have, that was way over the line. I was angry, I don’t want to go into details why, because it’s just an excuse, it’s just another excuse why I was angry. I hit him, and I remember very clearly that when he stabbed me, I was in shock.”
Joe Sr. touches the wound that his son left in the back of his neck. He says that every now and then he touches it, feels the scar, and it all comes flooding back -- the fight, that night, all of it.
“When it happened I was completely in shock. But when he turned the knife, I said, ‘What an asshole.’ That’s how I felt. He didn’t have to turn the knife -- he already had it in there.”
Joe Sr. says what he remembered then was a “moment of enormous clarity.”
He remembered when he was a young parent, not much older than 16, coming home from work, and little Joe Jr. was banging on his high chair, so thrilled to see his father.
“I said, 'We’ve gone from that to this. Who's responsible?' ” Joe Sr. pounds his chest for emphasis. “I was."
“I had a beautiful little guy that loved me, that when he saw me would run to me -- Daddy, Daddy -- and now he’s put a knife in my neck. There is no book that’s given to a child, ‘Here’s how you can dust your dad.’ Nobody gets that book. We make that book in the heart of a child.”
Rewriting the Book in the Heart
Now they are working to rewrite the ending as a love story. Joe Jr. says this rewriting is possible in part because he recognized that his father’s pain was so similar to his own, that they were both shaped by the loss of his mother. It’s possible in part because Joe had a daughter, and they made a decision -- that it ends here.
But they had to start sharing their stories in words -- rather than blows -- in order to make that shift.
A man in the back of the room stands up. “I grew up in a home with no father, I only met my father twice in my life. Both times he said he would be back and he never came back. But I also grew up in a very violent home, so I knew violence, it was really prevalent in my home. I was a victim of it and then I continued the cycle as I got older.”
There are more practical questions from inmates as well. A man asks Joe Jr. how, after he was released from jail, he beat the temptation to go out and start robbing banks again. “I’m sure you liked what you were doing -- you liked the rush,” the man asks.
Joe Jr. nods and thinks for a second. He tells the man that robbing banks was always, at heart, a response driven by his own anger. “I really learned to see anger as a symptom of a wound.” Now, he keeps track of the warning signs, the body's physical manifestation of anger.
“What do you guys feel when you get angry?” The men call out responses -- their teeth grind, their stomachs churn, their hearts pound.
“When I tell myself -- 'Oh no, my body’s feeling angry' -- immediately my mind now says, 'OK, where’s the wound?' Immediately. My brain turns instantly into, 'Oh if I’m feeling angry, get the anger out of the way, I’m wounded somewhere,' ” Joe says.
Where’s the wound? It’s a fascinating question. And Joe Jr. puts it in a really powerful way -- that anger is a wound without a story. That when we don’t have a narrative for our pain, our wound's only outlet is rage.
At the heart of the RSVP program is an idea about the power of storytelling. In hearing the stories of victims, and listening to the stories of our own wounds, we can change the narrative of the future.
After the end of each of these sessions, one of the men gets up to retell the story they have heard, to pull out the lessons.
One clutches a pad of paper, and slowly reads the words he has written there.
“How many of us didn’t want to be that little boy, didn’t want to be picked on? So I’m going to create this image, I’m going to create this monster, this person that victimizes, that hurts people,” he says.
“ 'Cause you can’t hurt this monster, you can hurt that little boy, but you can’t hurt this monster. How many of us our fake, though, 'cause we think our violence means we are in control? But if someone calls us a bitch, we become a puppet to other people, other people can control us. And how many of us are doing what it takes to quiet that monster, doing work?” he asks. “ ’Cause I know I have still have that monster in me.”