Na prisão de Salinas Valley, Califórnia, anexperiment in empathy is getting under way. A dozen blue-uniformed inmatesdrift into a classroom off A Yard, decorated with maps, alphabet letters, and aposter of a surfer at sunset. After exchanging handshakes, shoulder bumps, andmurmured greetings, they sit in a ring on battered steel chairs, clusteringlike segments on a demographic pie chart: six Native Americans on one side,four African Americans on the other, with a guy from Honduras and a preoptranssexual (who identifies as Mexican, Apache, and female) seated alonebetween the groups. The only whites in the gathering, besides myself, are acouple of trainers—one dark and stout, the other fair and lanky—who’ve come toteach a two-day workshop in a communication technique known as Council.
The method contrasts sharply with most prison self-help programs (Alcoholics Anonymous, say, or cognitive behavioral therapy workshops), which tend to emphasize rules, goals, steps, and stages. In Council, the basic format is strikingly simple: Participants sit in a circle, pass a “talking piece” (a ritual object denoting the bearer’s right to undivided attention), and take turns speaking and listening “from the heart.” The topic can be anything the group chooses, and any member can lead the discussion. That open-endedness reflects the technique’s folk origins: Although the version to be practiced today at SVSP grew out of the human-potential movement of the 1970s, Council is based on the kind of talking circle used by Native American and other aboriginal cultures—in Hawaii, it’s called “ho‘oponopono”; in Zimbabwe, it’s “daré”—as an egalitarian way of resolving disputes and making communal decisions.
An aura of earnest spirituality suffuses the practice, but there’s no religious content. Nor is there a specific therapeutic agenda. “Council doesn’t start with the assumption that something’s wrong with you,” says retired warden David Winett, a longtime supporter. In corrections, he observes, the custom is to tell inmates, “What you need is a good talking-to.” Council’s core belief, Winett says, is that what everyone needs is “a good listening-to.” By hearing others deeply, the theory goes, people learn compassion; by being heard, they learn to better understand themselves.
Advocates of Council argue that the practice could transform U.S. prisons, curbing violence while helping inmates open up emotionally in ways that are all too rare behind bars. That, in turn, would allow them to make better use of other rehabilitation programs as well, from substance abuse treatment to remedial education. For such programs to be effective, notes SVSP’s warden, Randolf Grounds, “you’ve got to have inmate buy-in. Until you get that, you’re not gonna have significant change.” By encouraging prisoners to shed their psychic armor and overcome their us-versus-them mentality, Grounds asserts, Council’s influence can spread “like an antibiotic” through every level of prison culture. The larger effect, boosters say, could be a reduction in recidivism.
With their wary faces, weight lifter’s muscles, and masses of tattoos, the men in the circle don’t appear to be the ideal candidates for a practice based on letting down one’s defenses. Although they’re curious about Council—one of the trainers, Jared Seide, has given brief presentations for each of the yard’s main ethnic blocs—their presence doesn’t mean they’re buying it. In prison, the motivations for attending “program” (as rehabilitation offerings are generically known) can include a desire to impress parole boards or simply escape boredom.
As they wait for the session to start, the blacks and Indians fall into separate conversations, seasoned with a mix of anger and helplessness, while the transsexual and the Honduran sit silent and apart. One man gripes about the treatment of visiting family members: “They make the women pull up their shirts in the visiting room to check for weapons.” Another disparages the officers at his previous prison: “They’re all corn-fed crackers. They love to spit on you and knock you down.” A third rails against a scheduled wave of transfers, which will send some inmates to facilities farther from their loved ones: “If they try to move me, I’ll take drastic measures. I’m not gonna say what, but there are ways.”
Seide calls the meeting to order. “Thank you for showing up for this,” says the kind-faced 50-year-old, whose skull is shorn like a monk’s. The group, he explains, will be “diving into the question of ‘Who am I? Who is my brother?’ ” We’ll be exploring “that territory of brothers and others.” The inmates keep their arms crossed, their expressions neutral. But they lean forward perceptibly when the taller trainer speaks.
“I want to move us into doing this,” Seide says. “Let’s begin.”
He and Mobley have laid a white embroidered mat at the center of the circle, covered with vaguely numinous items: a brass Tibetan bowl, a Buddhist temple bell, LED candles, seashells, a sage bundle, a Hopi doll, carved stones. Seide invites each participant to choose an object that he finds meaningful and say a few words of dedication to open the session.
An inmate who calls himself Jaguar—Mojave on his father’s side, Mexican American on his mother’s, but Native in the polarized context of prison—takes the talking piece, which today is an ordinary Hacky Sack. He’s 32, serving a 14-year term for assault with a deadly weapon, and covered in tattoos from the top of his shaved head to his knuckles. Jaguar picks up the Tibetan bowl. “To me,” he says, “this represents when we’re in the womb, and the circle of life is before us, and we have to decide what we’re going to be.”
One of the black inmates dedicates a stone heart to the family members he’s lost while imprisoned. “My heart is exactly like this,” he says. The Honduran rings the temple bell in honor of “all the voices that have been silent.”
I’m taken aback by the speed with which these hardened convicts slip into poetic self-revelation. During a break, however, Seide tells me that Council’s spell is usually fast-acting: “It comes naturally, by virtue of the choreography.” By creating a sacred space and a sense of solemn ceremony, he says, Council triggers responses rooted in thousands of years of human culture.
A Pomo named Edward—37 years old, with a pompadour and a biker mustache, doing life without parole for a drug-related murder—gestures for the talking piece. “A lot of us are curious,” he says. “What are the guidelines? When we take this to the yard, people are going to be asking, ‘What kind of group is it? What does it consist of? How is it gonna help me?’ ”
Seide gives a quick overview. Council, he says, is a “container” for whatever participants need to talk about. Ritual (the talking piece, the dedications) is key to the vessel’s integrity, setting it off from ordinary conversation. Each session is led by a facilitator, who throws out “prompts”—short statements that invite narrative responses. Speakers are encouraged to tell stories rather than offer ideas or opinions (“You can’t argue with a story”), and to be spontaneous, emotionally open, and succinct. Listeners are discouraged from interrupting, criticizing, or judging. If they’re moved by what’s said, they’re welcome to say “aho” (a Lakota version of “amen,” first brought to the foundation by visiting tribal elders). Everyone is asked to maintain confidentiality, unless permission is given—as it was to me—to share outside the circle.
But Council is like Zen, Seide likes to say: You can’t understand it by talking about it. The only way to find the answers, he tells the men, is by “living into the questions.”
To get things rolling, Seide tosses out the first prompt: Tell me about your lineage. He names his grandparents and parents, then passes the talking piece. One by one, the others do the same—some adding siblings, children and grandchildren, or their ancestral ethnicities. Mobley claims both Jewish and Plains Indian heritage. Some of the Indians admit to the presence of Austrians or Africans among their forebears.
Talk about a time when someone gave you a gift you’re carrying into this circle. Raven, 47, a Pima with a teardrop tattoo beside his left eye (receiving stolen property, third strike, 25 to life), speaks of his father-in-law, a Japanese American who taught him how to roof a house and install an HVAC system. The Honduran, a 34-year-old ex-gangbanger called Omar (attempted murder, 25 to life), acknowledges his stepfather: “He told me, ‘Stay away from your homeys, man.’ ” Jeffrey, 60, a diminutive, balding black man (robbery, 30 to life), names his parents, for “bringing me the word of the Lord.” Trixie, 46 (robbery, 25 years), whose five o’clock shadow contrasts strikingly with her cascade of copper hair, names her daughter: “She gave me hope. She taught me to leave the hurt behind and move on.”
Over lunch, we’re asked to pair off and tell each other something few people know about us. Jaguar tells me proudly about a night at his grandparents’ farm in Jalisco, Mexico, when he helped a distressed sow give birth by reaching inside her and pulling out a piglet, then did the same for a struggling cow. I tell him about my grandfather, an immigrant from Russia, who died in 1931 after being clubbed by a policeman. Jaguar seems as surprised by my story of urban bloodshed as I am by his tale of rural bliss.
When the circle re-forms, Edward takes a seat next to Trixie. “I ain’t afraid of you,” he says with a smile. The divisions that the Council began with seem to be breaking down.
Seide has us do a Council without words, in which the holder of the talking piece hands it off when he feels “seen,” after exchanging eye contact with each person in the circle. That’s followed by an exercise in which we regroup again and again, based on shifting criteria—those over 50 on one side of the room, under 50 on the other; those born in California on one side, out-of-staters on the other. When we sit again, the demographic pie chart has dissolved further.
The talking piece completes more circuits, and the hours pass. Seide throws out a final prompt: What does the word “legacy” mean to you?
“Someone lost their life at my hands,” says Edward. “I took my life from my children, my wife, my mother, my father. There will never be no one to blame but myself.”
There is a long silence. This is the kind of talk that can get your ass kicked in prison, under normal circumstances—but the inmates gaze at Edward with expressions of tenderness and sorrow. I’m reminded of something Seide told me: “It’s really difficult, when you encounter someone whose story has moved you, to demean or hurt them.… The bell of recognition cannot be unrung.”
Trixie tells how she was sold into prostitution as a small child in Tijuana and wound up running with a gang in East L.A.: “My mom has to carry the pain for her mistakes. She says, ‘I cry because I feel like it’s my fault you’re in prison.’ ” Trixie chokes back tears. “She’s a lonely lady.”
Hump, a pensive-looking 28-year-old with short dreadlocks, talks about his own mother. She became addicted to crack when he was small, and he and his sisters often went hungry. The gang that controlled his block in Oakland set him up in the drug trade. When he was 18, and members of a rival gang snatched his cousin’s gold chain, Hump and his comrades took revenge by shooting up a New Year’s Eve party. Hump landed a 25-year sentence for inflicting grievous bodily injury with an automatic weapon.
Hump’s mother, conscience-stricken, quit the pipe; as he cycled through penitentiaries, she drove long hours to visit him, sent cards and care packages, reminded him of how they used to snuggle together. Hump’s gratitude was tinged with a sense of entitlement: He felt she owed him. Meanwhile, he fell in with a prison-based gang. One day it ordered him to stab an inmate he’d known since childhood. Hump warned the intended victim, and the two of them knifed the plotters instead. The (nonlethal) attack earned him 17 months in solitary, after which members of his gang stabbed him in retaliation. Once he recovered, he was shipped to SVSP.
Up to that point, his story had followed a depressingly familiar pattern: Poor kid from fractured family joins gang to survive, which leads to downward spiral of violence, prison, and violence in prison. In the protected zone of A Yard, however, Hump began rethinking his life. Soon after his arrival, in 2009, he started studying for his GED. He signed up for AA and NA, and when Warden Grounds began introducing more rehabilitation programs, he joined every one he could. He even wrote remorseful letters to his victims’ families.
But he never heard inmates talk the way they’ve done today. After listening to Edward and Trixie, it occurs to him that he owes something to his mom.
“I’ve never asked her to forgive me,” he says. “I’m gonna make sure to ask tomorrow.”
The Council says, “Aho.”
In Making Good (2001), an essential text of the restorative justice movement, the Irish criminologist Shadd Maruna analyzes hundreds of interviews with British “desisters”—ex-cons who have abandoned crime. What they have in common is something Maruna calls a “redemption script.” To stay straight, he writes, “ex-offenders need to make sense of their lives. This sense-making commonly takes the form of a life story or self-narrative.” Desisters “need to account for and understand their criminal pasts…and they also need to understand why they are now ‘not like that anymore.’ ” In the stories they tell, these men and women start out as victims of circumstance, but they discover ways to seize control and let their better selves emerge.
On the second morning of Council training, the inmates begin to take charge of their own stories. At Seide’s request, they’ve brought objects that have personal meaning to place on the mat in the center of the circle. A gray-haired black man in a wheelchair, known to everyone as Mr. Brown (first-degree murder, life without parole), holds up a chess piece: “It’s a king with a broken head, because I’m in prison. I made a mistake somewhere, right? And hopefully my game will get better.” Omar waves a small Honduran flag: “That’s one of the loveliest places I know on Earth.” Jaguar displays an oversize watch: “Time,” he says, adding that Hump’s decision to ask his mother for forgiveness inspired him to write a seven-page letter to his brother last night, with a similar message. “There’s just not enough time in the day for me to do what I need to do—and that’s to be right within myself and my family.”
Seide leads the assembly in a few more rounds. He asks them to list themes they’ve picked up from the day’s discussions, jotting them on a whiteboard. Then he makes what seems to me a serious error: He forgets what he said yesterday about “living into the questions.” Instead, he launches into a lecture on the principles of Council. There are five elements, he says. The first three are the circle, the center, and the threshold—that is, the opening ritual. The fourth element is the Four Intentions. The first intention…
This spiel may go over well in Ojai, but for this audience, it’s poison. The inmates’ eyes grow unfocused; their bodies slump or sprawl. After reciting the fifth element, Seide asks, “So how do we go from a theme to what we talk about in Council? We find the Council prompt!” He goes on for a while, explaining how to tailor a prompt so that it elicits a story rather than something else.
But when he asks the inmates to come up with prompts based on the themes they’ve listed, all the suggestions are off-base—too broad, too imprecise. As Seide tactfully rejects each idea, the men shout out others (equally unusable) or snippets of anecdotes. For a half hour, the chaos mounts. I begin to wonder if these men, after all their traumas and deprivations, are capable of grasping the abstract concepts required to master Council. Seide’s Zen calm looks like it’s starting to slip.
Finally, Jaguar declares, “I say we stop asking how we’re going to do it and just see what works for us.”
Seide agrees. He has the men count off by threes, then assigns each group a theme: healing, loss, family. Over lunch, the groups huddle in separate corners of the classroom, quietly hashing out their prompts.
The circle forms again, with Hump facilitating the first round. Tell a story about the healing you did when you lost someone close to you.
Raven tells how his brother called from another prison to say he was dying of cancer. “He started crying on me. I told him, ‘Man up,’ ” he recalls. “I didn’t have a heart then.” Two weeks later, his sister called to report that the end had come. “She’s crying hysterically.…” Raven, too, is crying. He stands, apologizes, and stumbles out of the room.
After a respectful silence, more stories follow. Jeffrey grieves for his baby daughter, shaken to death by a babysitter. Seide talks about the chasm that opened with his daughter after his divorce, and his struggle to close it. Mobley describes the death of his best prison buddy, and the growth of new friendships afterward. Mr. Brown tells of losing half a dozen family members while incarcerated.
Raven returns. He never cried about his losses in prison, he says, because “people will pick you apart like piranhas,” and his pent-up sadness and anger sometimes led him to attack other inmates. This group, he adds, “is allowing me to let go of some of that.”
Jaguar leads the next round. Tell me something positive about your family.
Mobley remembers how his parents stood by him through his decade of imprisonment: “That gave me something to live up to, I think.” Mr. Brown recalls a conversation with his sister: “I’m trying to explain to her, ‘Robbie, I don’t even remember killing nobody. I was that loaded.’ She says, ‘It don’t matter what happened…I’ll always be there for you.’ ” James, a tall Lakota with a long black braid (possession of a controlled substance, three years), gestures to the group. “Here’s to my new family,” he says.
Edward leads the third round. In five words or less, define yourself as you’ve been shaped by your losses. He kicks it off with his own list: “Enduring. Hardheaded. Unsympathetic at times. Afraid. Humble.”
The others toss out adjectives: Broken. Blessed. Lucky. Loved. Focused. Regretful. Thankful. Impatient. Accepting. Bald.
The talking piece completes more revolutions. When it’s time to adjourn, Hump says, “I appreciate all you tough guys letting your guard down and letting me get to know you. And you getting to know me.”
The Council says, “Aho.”
The next day, during rec period, hundreds of inmates churn up the dust in A Yard. Under a chilly, cloudless sky, battalions of black men do calisthenics; platoons of Latinos kick soccer balls; squads of whites jog or play checkers. On a bench by the fence, a pair of African Americans with bulging arms sit listening to a Native American with a teardrop tattoo.
“It’s a circle, and you tell your story,” he explains, tracing the shape in the dirt with his sneaker. “Not your opinion, not your thought, but your story. We’ll be meeting every Monday. I’m Raven, by the way. Thank you, gentlemen.”