Photo courtesy of Center for Council

Chapter 08

Circle of Strength

Restoring Relationship Through Empathy

“When I go home, I don’t want to be that person I was when I came to prison. I want to be a dad, I want to be an uncle, someone that can have something to put out there to society other than my anger and a name. I just want to change.”

“Hump,” a member of the Inmate Council Program
at Salinas Valley State Prison

In many ways, Salinas Valley State Prison is a typical maximum-security penitentiary—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. SVSP’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, SVSP’s main distinction was its status as one of California’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 programs—some of them boldly experimental—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.

“Council” is a Native American term for such a ceremony. Hawaiians call it ho’oponopono; Zimbabweans, daré.

The basics are simple: Participants sit in a ring, pass a “talking piece”—an object conferring the right to undivided attention—and take turns speaking and listening “from the heart.”

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; there’s no need for outside experts. Nor does Council start from an assumption of pathology. Although its intent is therapeutic, Council isn’t exactly a therapy. Rather, it’s a way of sharing stories—accounts of participants’ past, present, or imagined future, whether tragic or blissful, triumphant or harrowing. The method’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.

“Council is about investigating how you got where you are and the conditions you’re facing,” says Jared Seide, director of the Los Angeles–based Center for Council. It’s a “container” for grappling with whatever issues those in the circle need to address. It’s also a vehicle for bonding across ethnic and other lines that can be difficult—even dangerous—to cross. “By telling your story,” Seide explains, “you become the author of your own life. And by listening deeply, you find your interconnectedness with others.”

“When you encounter someone whose story has moved you, it’s difficult to demean or hurt them,” Seide observes. “The bell of recognition cannot be unrung.”

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. “There’s a huge benefit in developing empathy,” says California Inspector General Robert Barton, who oversees the state’s rehabilitation programs. “Inmates tend to see everything as ‘us and them.’ We need to teach them to see people as people.”

That’s what Council strives to do. “When you encounter someone whose story has moved you, it’s difficult to demean or hurt them,” Seide observes. “The bell of recognition cannot be unrung.”

The Power of Story

Although there are other versions of Council—usually spelled with a lowercase “c”—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 rights–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, he’d thrown himself into Council after falling in love with the practice at his daughter’s middle school, eventually leaving Hollywood to become a full-time trainer. “Council appealed to my passion for storytelling,” Seide recalls. “And there were huge, positive shifts in the community as people began to see that they were more alike than different.” He was appointed director of Council programs for the Ojai Foundation in 2011—the same year the Supreme Court ordered California to release 30,000 inmates from its overcrowded prisons.

Council circle at Salinas Valley State Prison.
Photo: From the video 'Behind Bars, Open Hearts,' produced by Stories Matter Media. Courtesy Center for Council

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 reformer—and when Grounds moved to nearby SVSP, Seide saw a perfect opportunity. He and his colleagues, with Grounds’ 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 “sensitive needs yard” for prisoners whose lives would be endangered elsewhere—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 “prompts”—brief statements meant to elicit narrative responses. (“You can’t argue with a story,” Seide explained.) Participants are encouraged to speak openly, spontaneously and concisely, and to listen without interrupting, judging or criticizing. They’re asked to maintain confidentiality beyond the circle.

Seide pointed to a mat at the center holding a collection of talking pieces—LED candles, carved stones, a brass Tibetan bowl, a temple bell, a Hopi doll—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 “we have to decide what we’re going to be.” A gray-haired African American dedicated a stone heart to family members he’d lost while in prison. “My heart is exactly like this,” he added. A Honduran-born man rang the bell in honor of “all the voices that have been silent.”

Then came the prompts: Tell me about your lineage. 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 you’re carrying into this circle. They name-checked family members who’d offered wise advice and steadfast love. “My daughter gave me hope,” said the trans woman. “She taught me to leave the hurt behind and move on.” What does the word “legacy” mean to you? “Someone lost their life at my hands,” a hard-faced inmate responded. “I took my life from my children, my wife, my mother, my father. There will never be no one to blame but myself.” The group gazed at him sorrowfully. A young man with dreadlocks, imprisoned for his role in a gang shooting, confronted the pain he’d caused his own mother. “I’ve never asked her to forgive me,” he said. “I’m going to make sure to ask tomorrow.”

On the second day, inmates brought their own talking pieces—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 pieces—a watch, symbolizing a resolution not to waste time; a broken chess piece, representing the disastrous decisions that landed the owner behind bars. Seide demonstrated variations on the circle format: a spiral Council, a double-ringed “fishbowl” Council, a deliberately disorderly “popcorn” 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 “seen.”

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. “I told him, ‘Man up,’” he recalled, shaking his head. “I didn’t have a heart then.” Tell me something positive about your family. An inmate who was raised largely in foster care gestured to the group. “Here’s to my new family,” 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 they’d never shared before. In prison, the man who’d lost his brother explained, “people will pick you apart like piranhas” if they detect weakness. Council, he added, “is allowing me to let go of some of that.”

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. “It was extremely powerful for most of the guys who participated,” says filmmaker Cassidy Friedman, who is shooting a documentary on the program, “and 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.”

Friedman followed an inmate named Eddie, who was serving life without parole for murder. For more than a decade, he’d tried to escape the boredom and misery of prison by getting high or fighting, despite the punishments (loss of privileges, time in the “hole”) such violations brought. But at 37, he was ready for something different—and when Council arrived, he found what he’d been looking for.

“Eddie began to believe in the possibility that he could be an agent for good,” Friedman recalls.

“He became a sounding board for other inmates, someone who would ask, ‘What’s going on with you?’ and actively listen. He also became a role model, as a respected lifer who was trying to change from within. He would challenge people’s BS and really get them to start looking at themselves.”

Another early participant in the Council program was Moose, an ex-member of the Crips street gang who’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, he’d found religion and renounced violence. But he hid beneath a mask of wit and charm, never confronting the emotional wounds—beginning with abandonment by his father—that had fueled his rage and made gang life seem attractive. “In Council, he shared so much about what was going on behind the façade,” Friedman says. “The men were like, ‘we had no idea you were suffering!’ It was really cathartic for him.”

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 son—who’d recently been arrested for the first time—that inspired the younger man to change course. Moose is now a volunteer counselor for a church-run crisis hotline. “He listens to people and makes them feel heard,” Friedman reports.

The program endured a period of disruption when most of SVSP’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 Yard—a general population area, where a program like this would once have been unthinkable.

Finding Redemption

It’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 there’s reason for optimism. In a landmark 2001 study, Making Good, Irish criminologist Shadd Maruna analyzed hundreds of interviews with British “desisters”—ex-cons who’ve gone straight.4 The common thread is what Maruna calls a “redemption script”: a narrative that helps people understand how they became criminals, and why they’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.

“You need a lot of patience” to wait for the talking piece to come, noted one inmate practitioner at SVSP. “You have to be a listener more than a talker.”

Seide also points to studies (cited by University of Cincinnati criminologists Edward Latessa and Christopher Lowencamp in an influential paper, “What Are Criminogenic Needs and Why Are They Important?”)5 showing that the most effective rehabilitation programs—capable of reducing recidivism by one-third—target at least four of the top “criminogenic factors,” 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. “You need a lot of patience” to wait for the talking piece to come, noted one inmate practitioner at SVSP. “You have to be a listener more than a talker.”

Whatever its impact on criminal behavior, the Inmate Council Program may have a welcome side effect: improving inmates’ receptivity to other rehabilitation opportunities, such as addiction therapy, vocational training, and remedial education. “Council isn’t meant to be a stand-alone program,” 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. “It’s a support for all other programs. It helps people clear away what’s troubling them so they can be fully present and get as much as they can out of what’s being offered.”

“You’ve got to have inmate buy-in,” explains Warden Grounds, who’s now retired. (His policies are being carried on by his successor, William Muniz.) “Until you get that, you’re not going to have significant change.” 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. “It’s incredible what’s starting to happen,” Seide marvels. “We’re definitely in growth mode.” 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, it’s crucial to help these prisoners transform themselves before they go home.

“The 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,” says Seide. “Think about what that could mean for creating a more harmonious and peaceful world.”