In many ways, Salinas Valley State Prison is a typical maximum-security penitentiaryâ€”a place where brutality is pervasive and compassion is in short supply. The 300-acre facility, in the Central California town of Soledad, is bounded by a stockade of chain link and razor wire, as well as an inner fence carrying twice the voltage of an electric chair. SVSPâ€™s 3,500 inmates live in bleak concrete cellblocks set on five dusty yards; gangs control most of the terrain, enforcing a strict code of racial segregation. Beatings and stabbings are commonplace, as factions battle one another or punish errant members of their own group. Inmates also lash out at correctional officers, who often strike back with clubs and pepper spray. Until recently, indeed, SVSPâ€™s main distinction was its status as one of Californiaâ€™s most violent prisons. At the peak of the mayhem, in 2011, there were over 1,200 reported incidents.1
For years, the authorities here focused on containment; in some yards, inmates were rarely allowed to leave their cells. But like many prisons, SVSP is changing. Lately, it has embraced an array of programsâ€”some of them boldly experimentalâ€”aimed at helping inmates gain insight into their own behavior and find more constructive ways of engaging with the world. One striking example can be seen on a Monday evening in the D Yard gym, as 60 men practice a communication technique known as Council. The method is based on the talking circles used by many aboriginal cultures to resolve conflicts and make communal decisions.
â€œCouncilâ€ is a Native American term for such a ceremony. Hawaiians call it hoâ€™oponopono; Zimbabweans, darÃ©.
The basics are simple: Participants sit in a ring, pass a â€œtalking pieceâ€â€”an object conferring the right to undivided attentionâ€”and take turns speaking and listening â€œfrom the heart.â€
In contrast with most self-help methods taught in prisons (such as Alcoholics Anonymous or cognitive behavioral therapy), Council has no predetermined steps, stages or goals. Once inmates learn the technique, they can lead others; thereâ€™s no need for outside experts. Nor does Council start from an assumption of pathology. Although its intent is therapeutic, Council isnâ€™t exactly a therapy. Rather, itâ€™s a way of sharing storiesâ€”accounts of participantsâ€™ past, present, or imagined future, whether tragic or blissful, triumphant or harrowing. The methodâ€™s formal yet flexible structure provides a safe, supportive setting in which everyone can be heard. Ritual is a key element: when people sit together in a space that feels sacred, no matter their religious or cultural background, they often open up in extraordinary ways.
â€œCouncil is about investigating how you got where you are and the conditions youâ€™re facing,â€ says Jared Seide, director of the Los Angelesâ€“based Center for Council. Itâ€™s a â€œcontainerâ€ for grappling with whatever issues those in the circle need to address. Itâ€™s also a vehicle for bonding across ethnic and other lines that can be difficultâ€”even dangerousâ€”to cross. â€œBy telling your story,â€ Seide explains, â€œyou become the author of your own life. And by listening deeply, you find your interconnectedness with others.â€
â€œWhen you encounter someone whose story has moved you, itâ€™s difficult to demean or hurt them,â€ Seide observes. â€œThe bell of recognition cannot be unrung.â€
The Inmate Council Program has taken hold firmly at SVSP since Seide introduced it two years ago, and replicas are now being rolled out at prisons across California. Many correctional officials have come to see Council as a potentially powerful tool for reducing violence, both on the yard and (once inmates are released) on the streets. â€œThereâ€™s a huge benefit in developing empathy,â€ says California Inspector General Robert Barton, who oversees the stateâ€™s rehabilitation programs. â€œInmates tend to see everything as â€˜us and them.â€™ We need to teach them to see people as people.â€
Thatâ€™s what Council strives to do.Â â€œWhen you encounter someone whose story has moved you, itâ€™s difficult to demean or hurt them,â€ Seide observes. â€œThe bell of recognition cannot be unrung.â€
The Power of Story
Although there are other versions of Councilâ€”usually spelled with a lowercase â€œcâ€â€”the one Seide champions was conceived in the 1970s by anthropologist (and later Zen priest) Joan Halifax. It was developed over the following decades at the Ojai Foundation, a retreat center that Halifax founded in Southern California.2 Along with indigenous influences, the practice incorporates elements from Quaker meetings, Buddhist meditation gatherings, and civil rightsâ€“movement nonviolence training. Dozens of L.A. schools adopted Council to heal racial rifts after the riots of 1992. Corporations and charities employ it as a team-building tool. Middle Eastern peace groups use it to sow harmony between Israelis and Palestinians.
The campaign to bring Council to prisons began in 2005, after a retired warden discovered the practice at an Ojai Foundation retreat and worked with the organization to develop a model designed for inmates.3 But in an era when punitive correctional policies still reigned, the effort fizzled. A few years later, Seide began trying to reignite it. A former actor and screenwriter, heâ€™d thrown himself into Council after falling in love with the practice at his daughterâ€™s middle school, eventually leaving Hollywood to become a full-time trainer. â€œCouncil appealed to my passion for storytelling,â€ Seide recalls. â€œAnd there were huge, positive shifts in the community as people began to see that they were more alike than different.â€ He was appointed director of Council programs for the Ojai Foundation in 2011â€”the same year the Supreme Court ordered California to release 30,000 inmates from its overcrowded prisons.
Hoping to keep the cells from quickly filling back up, policymakers put out a call for innovative, economical rehabilitation programs. At the time, Seide was overseeing a small Council circle at the Correctional Training Facility, a medium security facility in Soledad. Its warden, Randolf Grounds, was a committed reformerâ€”and when Grounds moved to nearby SVSP, Seide saw a perfect opportunity. He and his colleagues, with Groundsâ€™ support, designed a project in which the maximum-security prison would serve as a kind of laboratory. First, a group of inmate volunteers would undergo a two-day Council training; they would then meet once a week, with instructors returning periodically for six months to hone their skills. If that group thrived, the program would be replicated in other yards, and eventually in prisons throughout the state. After their release, parolees would be welcomed into Council programs run by faith-based and social-justice organizations in their communities, where they could continue the practice and pass it on to others.
The experiment began on A Yard, a â€œsensitive needs yardâ€ for prisoners whose lives would be endangered elsewhereâ€”gang dropouts, informants, gays, the elderly and infirm. At the first training, in October 2013, a dozen inmates gathered in a classroom; they sat separated by ethnicity and gender identity (a pre-op trans woman formed a group of one), their tattooed arms defensively crossed. Seide and his co-trainer explained the fundamentals: Sessions are led by a facilitator, who throws out â€œpromptsâ€â€”brief statements meant to elicit narrative responses. (â€œYou canâ€™t argue with a story,â€ Seide explained.) Participants are encouraged to speak openly, spontaneously and concisely, and to listen without interrupting, judging or criticizing. Theyâ€™re asked to maintain confidentiality beyond the circle.
Seide pointed to a mat at the center holding a collection of talking piecesâ€”LED candles, carved stones, a brass Tibetan bowl, a temple bell, a Hopi dollâ€”and invited each inmate to choose an object and say a few words of dedication. A Native American inmate picked up the bowl; it reminded him of the time before birth, he said, when â€œwe have to decide what weâ€™re going to be.â€ A gray-haired African American dedicated a stone heart to family members heâ€™d lost while in prison. â€œMy heart is exactly like this,â€ he added. A Honduran-born man rang the bell in honor of â€œall the voices that have been silent.â€
Then came the prompts: Tell me about your lineage.Â The inmates spoke of their ancestors, a mix that in many cases defied prison categories of ethnic identity. Talk about a time when someone gave you a gift youâ€™re carrying into this circle. They name-checked family members whoâ€™d offered wise advice and steadfast love. â€œMy daughter gave me hope,â€ said the trans woman. â€œShe taught me to leave the hurt behind and move on.â€ What does the word “legacy” mean to you? â€œSomeone lost their life at my hands,â€ a hard-faced inmate responded. â€œI took my life from my children, my wife, my mother, my father. There will never be no one to blame but myself.â€ The group gazed at him sorrowfully. A young man with dreadlocks, imprisoned for his role in a gang shooting, confronted the pain heâ€™d caused his own mother. â€œIâ€™ve never asked her to forgive me,â€ he said. â€œIâ€™m going to make sure to ask tomorrow.â€
On the second day, inmates brought their own talking piecesâ€”a watch, symbolizing a resolution not to waste time; a broken chess piece, representing the disastrous decisions that landed the owner behind bars.
On the second day, inmates brought their own talking piecesâ€”a watch, symbolizing a resolution not to waste time; a broken chess piece, representing the disastrous decisions that landed the owner behind bars.Â Seide demonstrated variations on the circle format: a spiral Council, a double-ringed â€œfishbowlâ€ Council, a deliberately disorderly â€œpopcornâ€ Council. There was a wordless Council, in which each person held the talking piece while exchanging eye contact with all the others in the circle, handing it off when he felt â€œseen.â€
That afternoon, the prisoners took over as facilitators, composing their own prompts. Talk about the healing you did when you lost someone close to you. A man whose brother died of cancer in another prison remembered their last conversation. â€œI told him, â€˜Man up,â€™â€ he recalled, shaking his head. â€œI didnâ€™t have a heart then.â€ Tell me something positive about your family. An inmate who was raised largely in foster care gestured to the group. â€œHereâ€™s to my new family,â€ he said.
By the end of the weekend, the divisions among those present seemed to have dissolved. Several inmates said they had revealed aspects of themselves theyâ€™d never shared before. In prison, the man whoâ€™d lost his brother explained, â€œpeople will pick you apart like piranhasâ€ if they detect weakness. Council, he added, â€œis allowing me to let go of some of that.â€
Changing the Culture
In the months after the training, the group continued meeting regularly, even as some of the original members were paroled or transferred to other prisons and new ones replaced them. â€œIt was extremely powerful for most of the guys who participated,â€ says filmmaker Cassidy Friedman, who is shooting a documentary on the program, â€œand it really changed the culture on the yard. In Council sessions, inmates were talking about feelings and expressing their vulnerability. They started doing that in the cellblocks, too.â€
Friedman followed an inmate named Eddie, who was serving life without parole for murder. For more than a decade, heâ€™d tried to escape the boredom and misery of prison by getting high or fighting, despite the punishments (loss of privileges, time in the â€œholeâ€) such violations brought. But at 37, he was ready for something differentâ€”and when Council arrived, he found what heâ€™d been looking for.
â€œEddie began to believe in the possibility that he could be an agent for good,â€ Friedman recalls.
â€œHe became a sounding board for other inmates, someone who would ask, â€˜Whatâ€™s going on with you?â€™ and actively listen. He also became a role model, as a respected lifer who was trying to change from within. He would challenge peopleâ€™s BS and really get them to start looking at themselves.â€
Another early participant in the Council program was Moose, an ex-member of the Crips street gang whoâ€™d spent 21 years in prison. Moose had initially been convicted of charges stemming from a robbery, but his sentence was doubled after he stabbed a fellow inmate. Eventually, heâ€™d found religion and renounced violence. But he hid beneath a mask of wit and charm, never confronting the emotional woundsâ€”beginning with abandonment by his fatherâ€”that had fueled his rage and made gang life seem attractive. â€œIn Council, he shared so much about what was going on behind the faÃ§ade,â€ Friedman says. â€œThe men were like, â€˜we had no idea you were suffering!â€™ It was really cathartic for him.â€
When Moose was released, he brought his newfound openness with him. He poured his heart out to his uncle, a former member of the rival Bloods, leading to a tearful reconciliation. He had a soul-baring talk with his sonâ€”whoâ€™d recently been arrested for the first timeâ€”that inspired the younger man to change course. Moose is now a volunteer counselor for a church-run crisis hotline. â€œHe listens to people and makes them feel heard,â€ Friedman reports.
The program endured a period of disruption when most of SVSPâ€™s sensitive-needs inmates were moved to D Yard. But after receiving advanced training, the members began facilitating Council sessions for other inmates in the gym. Four circles of fifteen or so met weekly, with three of the more experienced inmates leading each group. Another dozen beginners soon began training on B Yardâ€”a general population area, where a program like this would once have been unthinkable.
Itâ€™s too soon to know whether Council will have measurable effects on recidivism or inmate violence. (RAND Corporation researchers will release preliminary data after the programs have been running for six months.) But thereâ€™s reason for optimism. In a landmark 2001 study, Making Good, Irish criminologist Shadd Maruna analyzed hundreds of interviews with British â€œdesistersâ€â€”ex-cons whoâ€™ve gone straight.4 The common thread is what Maruna calls a â€œredemption scriptâ€: a narrative that helps people understand how they became criminals, and why theyâ€™re not like that anymore. In these stories, the tellers begin as victims of circumstance, but learn how to let their better selves prevail. At SVSP, you can hear such tales take shape at any Council session.
â€œYou need a lot of patienceâ€ to wait for the talking piece to come, noted one inmate practitioner at SVSP. â€œYou have to be a listener more than a talker.â€
Seide also points to studies (cited by University of Cincinnati criminologists Edward Latessa and Christopher Lowencamp in an influential paper, â€œWhat Are Criminogenic Needs and Why Are They Important?â€)5 showing that the most effective rehabilitation programsâ€”capable of reducing recidivism by one-thirdâ€”target at least four of the top â€œcriminogenic factors,â€ which include antisocial attitudes, antisocial friends, lack of empathy, impulsive behavior, and substance abuse. Council-based programs address all but the last factor; they foster cooperation, efforts at self-betterment, emotional sensitivity, and self-restraint. â€œYou need a lot of patienceâ€ to wait for the talking piece to come, noted one inmate practitioner at SVSP. â€œYou have to be a listener more than a talker.â€
Whatever its impact on criminal behavior, the Inmate Council Program may have a welcome side effect: improving inmatesâ€™ receptivity to other rehabilitation opportunities, such as addiction therapy, vocational training, and remedial education. â€œCouncil isnâ€™t meant to be a stand-alone program,â€ says University of San Diego criminal justice professor Alan Mobley, who as a young man served 10 years in prison for drug trafficking, and who helped train the first group at SVSP. â€œItâ€™s a support for all other programs. It helps people clear away whatâ€™s troubling them so they can be fully present and get as much as they can out of whatâ€™s being offered.â€
â€œYouâ€™ve got to have inmate buy-in,â€ explains Warden Grounds, whoâ€™s now retired. (His policies are being carried on by his successor, William Muniz.) â€œUntil you get that, youâ€™re not going to have significant change.â€ Judging by the 30-percent decline in violence at SVSP since he initiated the shift toward rehabilitation, buy-in is rising.
Meanwhile, Seide is working to spread Council even further. Seide and the Ojai Foundation established Center for Council as an independent organization, and secured permission from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to establish Inmate Council Programs at 12 more prisons. â€œItâ€™s incredible whatâ€™s starting to happen,â€ Seide marvels. â€œWeâ€™re definitely in growth mode.â€ In addition, plans are in progress to train correctional officers at SVSP and another California prison; besides helping them cope with the severe stresses of the job, the practice may encourage more humane ways of carrying it out. Correctional officials in other states are watching to see how these experiments fare. Seide is also helping launch a Council program for inmates in Rwanda, where 30,000 genocide perpetrators are nearing the end of double-digit sentences.6 As in California, itâ€™s crucial to help these prisoners transform themselves before they go home.
â€œThe idea is for inmates to become not just productive members of society, but carriers of healing for a culture that has in many ways failed them,â€ says Seide. â€œThink about what that could mean for creating a more harmonious and peaceful world.â€