Real Change, June 1, 2011

Changing on the Inside: Classes Teach Prisoners the Language of Peace

Fran Howard, a psychotherapist, convenes a community
circle for ex-prisoners and supporters at the
Freedom Project in Fremont

Fran Howard

©2011 Valerie Kreutzer

Entering prison you have two choices, says the man who spent eight-and-a-half years behind bars. You either victimize or you become a victim.

“I was two years into my time,” says Vincent Grand (not his real name), “when I signed up for an introduction to non-violent communication (NVC). And when I entered the classroom this little Asian woman reached out to me saying, ‘Welcome, I’m so glad you could come.’ She looked me in the eye, and for the first time in two years I felt safe enough to drop my guard a little.”

Lucy Leu was the little Asian-American woman Grand met at Twin Rivers, part of the Monroe Correctional Complex. An educator and former college professor, Leu first heard about NVC when its founder, Marshall Rosenberg, spoke at Seattle’s Town Hall. I want to learn this language, she thought, it’s the language of the heart.

When Rosenberg was invited to teach a class at the prison, Leu accompanied him. “Please come back,” pleaded the inmates, and Leu returned to teach and train for the next ten years.

Grand, one of her students, learned quickly. “I realized that I always have choices, and that I have to take responsibility for the choices I make,” he says. “For example, I’d be sitting in the TV room and this big guy comes in and says, ‘You’re sitting in my chair.’ I could fight and get beaten up and a guard might see us and we both end up in the hole (segregation). I’d have to accept the consequences of my choice. Or I could say, ‘Would you let me finish watching this show?’ Or I could move because it doesn’t matter that much to me where I sit. Once I realized that I had choices I stopped being a victim,” Grand says. “Realizing my choices, feeling my needs, and connecting to others worked every time, in the cell and in the yard.”

During the five years since his release, Grand has painstakingly restored a life of independence; he also assists former inmates returning to the wider world.

When asked about other success stories, Leu gets pensive. She knows heartbreaking stories of failure, but then adds, “For me, this work is never about success. We’re not called to be successful; we’re called to be faithful.”

Faith in the success of NVC is often challenged, as I learned during a recent introductory workshop at the women’s prison in Purdy. I was assisting the volunteer trainers who had come with lesson plans, charts, flashcards, poems, and a gong for meditative moments. The eight young inmates who had signed up looked skeptical and by the end of the first day told us outright, “This doesn’t work here; maybe on the outside, but never in here.”

The trainers listened with heavy hearts. But by the next morning, the most critical woman allowed that she’d like to learn non-violence for the sake of her little boy. She had given birth to him while in juvenile detention, had held him for only four days. But when he now visits, he throws his little arms around her and says, “You are my mommy.” And as she tells her story, tears stream down her face.

“Coming from failure and abuse, you need to find some place that is unsullied to help you succeed,” observes Tuere Sala who has taught NVC at both men’s and women’s prisons. “For me that sacred place is God. For others it is a child or children. You need courage to see the things you don’t want to see, and you need steadfastness to go on the path. And you can’t do it alone.”

Sala talks from experience. “I grew up with trauma, surrounded by hatred,” she explains. As a mother she spent ten years on welfare; today she is a prosecutor with Seattle’s Community Court. “I had to look beyond failure and abuse, and at the time I started looking, I couldn’t see success,” she says. Meditation helped her succeed on her path. “You have to do the work, get yourself clean and sober, work, go to school, and look for help and support.

“It’s not easy,” she warns. “Imagine you’re on a commuter train and at the station everyone walks in the same direction. And you decide to go against the stream. It’s very hard at first, but you can succeed and you will find fellow travelers.”

Meditation classes have become another tool in the NVC chest. Ruby Phillips has taught both NVC and mindfulness meditation in penitentiaries in Twin Rivers, Monroe, and Purdy.

“Mindfulness means paying attention to what is happening internally. It’s a coming home to self,” Phillips explains. She remembers a woman in her course who had been plagued by seizures. One time when the alarms went off and guards were running and shouting in the hallway, the woman thought with mounting anxiety, I’m going to have a seizure. She noted how terrified she was and by acknowledging her feelings avoided the attack. “I can take care of myself,” she realized.

The Freedom Project is the umbrella organization that organizes NVC and mindfulness classes in prisons. The non-profit’s goal is to “support the transformation of prisoners into peacemakers.”

On the first and third Monday of every month returnees and neighbors are invited into a community circle. On this Monday in March, 13 returnees and four supporters have come to share their ups and downs. Several men have been looking for work for over a year; one woman was hired as a baker and then denied the job for having been a sex offender. As participants share their stories, Fran Howard, a convener of the group, reminds participants “we’ve come to be heard, not to give advice.”

Howard, a psychotherapist, teaches regularly at the prisons. She emphasizes the art of compassionate listening and tells the story of a young man in her class who was skeptical of NVC, but then decided to try reflective listening during a visit with his wife. It changed the usually accusatory tone of their conversation. “This is the first time you’ve ever listened to me,” exclaimed his wife.

Count to a million before giving advice, says Rosenberg, the founder of NVC. The participants of this Monday community circle experience how being heard creates connection. They end their session with a giant hug.

The Freedom Project is located at 3644 Albion Pl. N; tel.: 206 325-5678; everyone is welcome to join community circles on the first and third Monday of the month, 6:00-8:30 p.m. The Freedom Project, a non-profit, welcomes donations.