It wasn’t until a year after getting involved in the Inmate Council Program that I mentioned Council to my family; and that was only because I was invited to speak at Center for Council’s Social Justice Council Project celebration via speakerphone. Before the event all my family knew about Council was that it was a group that I attended on Tuesday nights and that the program was helping me make significant changes in my attitude and my outlook.
That event was where my family experienced first-hand exactly what I did each Tuesday night in the Delta Yard Chapel. They got to sit in Council circles; they shared stories about their lives; they learned about The Four Intentions that setup the foundation for the Council practice: speak from the heart, listen from the heart, be spontaneous, be lean of expression. They listened to the stories of other participants sitting in the circle and heard so many similarities to their own narratives. At the end of the day, my family walked away with a better understanding of what it was that I was doing, and they had so many questions for me: “Why didn’t you tell us about this thing that you do?” “Do you know all of these people?” “How do we get involved?” “Can we do Council too?” They didn’t’ know that Center for Council existed outside of the prison setting.
From that day forward, in most of the conversations that I had with my wife, Jolene, there was some mention of Council. After witnessing how much Council had changed my outlook and behaviors, and experiencing the joy she felt after engaging with the practice herself, Jolene joined the Trainer Leadership Initiative. And because we both were now involved in the program, we would discuss how we would practice Council with our kids during their visit to Salinas Valley State Prison. Jolene and I were started using Council techniques when we’d talk with each other; we weren’t arguing like we used to. We were actually listening to each other, paying attention to each other, and before we knew it, our marriage improved. We couldn’t wait to have a Council with the kids. When we finally did, it brought our family closer together.
Our first Council experience as a family was very emotional. After giving the kids a brief description of what Council is and what we would be doing I then placed some pillows on the floor, arranged in a circle, to sit on. And I even left a place for the empty seat. I put a blanket on the floor for our center and now all we needed was a talking piece. There wasn't much to choose from in that family visiting unit so we settled on my daughter's hairbrush and a NERF football. I then went over our prompt and demonstrated the process of making a dedication. After that, we dropped into Council. The conversation began light and lively, and as we shared our story and our truth we began to carry the conversation deeper. Giving our kids the space to talk honestly about what they were experiencing while I was in prison gave me a better understanding of who they were and what they were going through. I was able to look at them with compassion and empathy and actually understand their perspective. It was amazing to actually HEAR their stories. Sitting in that family visiting unit gave us all the time that we needed to explore and address all the issues that we hadn’t had a chance to talk about. And, because Jolene and I knew how to navigate all the emotions that were coming up, holding this family Council was very restorative. It didn't matter that we were in a family visiting unit, in that moment that space was sacred.
We still have Council as a family, and when we can’t sit in the circle because of time or space, we always try to use the Four Intentions as a guide in our everyday conversations. We know how to give each other our full attention.
On April 6, 2018, I was found suitable for parole by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Board of Parole Hearings. The work I had done to transform my perspective and character had paid off. I had no idea that it was after I was granted parole that I would go through the real fire. The last 120 days of my sentence were the hardest, most challenging days of my time in prison. As soon as word got around that I would be out on parole, inmates who had never challenged me before became aggressive toward me. Not because they were bigger or badder than me, but because they knew I had something to lose. They knew that I wouldn’t respond to their advances the way that I would have in the past. It was then, as I was walking away from the insults and the challenges, that I realized that I was, in fact, ready for freedom. In all my years in prison, I had never been tested the way that I was during this time. I surprised even myself when I responded to their challenges with empathy and compassion.
Nobody warned me about the anxiety that kicked in as the days turned into weeks and months. When you’re granted parole, there is a review process that can take up to 120 days. Your case goes before a review committee and then goes to the Governor for a final decision. Even though you may be granted parole, the decision is not final until the Governor’s review, or until the 120 days is up. I went from knowing my release date to not knowing. At any point during the review process, the Governor has the power to reverse or affirm the parole board’s decision. And if at any time during the process you get into trouble, that decision could be affected as well. I’ve never had so much hanging over my head. And still, this wasn’t the worst part.
The worst part of my last 120 days was the toll that this waiting period began to take on my family. I had been away for approximately 17 years. I had never been physically present in my children’s lives; they were all born while I was incarcerated. The most time that we’ve ever spent together was in a “family visiting” cottage. Our lives were built around me being in prison. So, although we all were very excited about the news that I’d been granted parole, we had no idea what to expect. All we knew was that there were a lot of changes headed our way and the anticipation made it worse; the slow pace of the review process only added fuel to the fire. We caught ourselves arguing over things that we’ve never argued about before.
So, there I was, trying to navigate the parole transition period, not doing anything that would jeopardize the parole board’s decision, while at the same time trying to handle family life and the anxiety of moving through all of it. There was a point where I began to feel overwhelmed and I decided to just sit in my cell and stay out of the way. I cut myself off from my routine, from the prison world, and in doing so, from some of the things that had been keeping me going in prison. I began to get agitated, angry, and frustrated that things weren’t moving along at the pace that I hoped or expected they would.
I am thankful that I had the practice of Council to help me explore and hold all these emotions and unexpected twists and turns that life was throwing at me. As I was facilitating Council circles during this process, there were stories of patience and perseverance coming from my fellow inmates that helped me cope with the issues I was facing in my own life. If I didn’t have the skills that I had developed in Council—to find comfort in stillness, an ease in the unknowing, and the ability to listen to the stories of others—I believe I wouldn’t have made it through my last 120 days inside. It was in the collective wisdom of the Council circle where I found my strength and peace. It was there in the circle with my brothers where I found my way home.
"I never knew what would come of me joining the Inmate Council Program, but when I saw what it did for me and my family I was convinced that this is something that I want to do for the rest of my life." – Sam Escobar
Sam Escobar was introduced to the Council practice during his time in Salinas Valley State Prison. Skeptical of the Inmate Council Program at first, Sam spent many sessions watching other men in the circle speak honestly about their lives, often unearthing emotions and offering up a vulnerability previously unseen within the prison setting. Seeing this unfold within the circle, Sam realized that Council was a space where people would leave their comfort zone, speak openly from the heart, and let their guard down—something that, growing up in gang culture, Sam was vehemently warned against. Sam says he came to see that the authenticity and vulnerability he was experiencing was a result of the unique quality of nonjudgmental listening that the program participants brought to the circle.
It took Sam a little while of observing how the group held space and what others were sharing before he was able to get out of his own comfort zone and open up. In a story for ATTN, Sam writes:
“For someone who was once involved in street gangs and prison gangs and who participated in race riots and prison stabbings, letting my guard down was a big turnaround. I no longer saw other inmates through the lens of the gang, as the enemy, but as a prospective member of the Council, someone who could fill the symbolic empty seat in the circle. I see them as someone waiting to be heard, listened to, understood with compassion and empathy, potential links in this chain of peace and human kindness.”
Over the next few years, Sam became the Chairman of the group and helped expand the program throughout the prison, and even introduced Council to interested officers. Earlier this year, Sam was released on parole. His Parole Commissioner made special note of the transformation Sam had undergone due to his participation in the Inmate Council Program and his leadership of Council circles within the prison community.
We are thrilled to welcome Sam back into the Los Angeles community and even more excited to announce that Sam is now an official member of the Center for Council team! As Center for Council’s new Outreach Associate, Sam will help us present future programs to agencies and individuals and work with our team in visioning new program opportunities. We are honored to have him speak about his unique and impactful experience working with Council and how it has the power to transform individual lives just as it did his. In addition, Sam will be lending his voice to our Center for Council narrative, contributing stories and articles about his time transitioning back into the community from prison and how he continues to integrate skills he learned practicing Council in the face of both challenges and new opportunities that arise for him. Keep an eye out for Sam’s stories in the coming weeks!
Mathew was introduced to the practice of Council through Center for Council’s Inmate Council Program at Correctional Training Facility, in Soledad, California. Through the program he found a practice that enabled him to internalize and reflect on what had been brewing inside him before imprisonment. It also helped him consciously create a new way to move through the world so that he can connect with and relate to those around him, regardless of their difference in backgrounds or ideology. The Inmate Council Program helped him articulate his thoughts and feelings about how he had previously existed in his community.
Randy has been the warden at both Correctional Training Facility and Salinas Valley State Prison, in Soledad, California; he is currently a Commissioner on the Board of Parole Hearings. After learning about the practice of Council and witnessing the transformation and shift in attitudes of the prisoners who participated in the Inmate Council Program, Randy facilitated a circle with his correctional facility staff. It was an informal circle, around a small conference table in his office, but the effect of that single practice was no less profound. In a working environment where being vulnerable is discouraged, where the traumas and stresses that one is exposed to while on the job can be overwhelming, Randy knew how important it was to create a space for his employees to be able to be open and honest.
Edward encountered Council for the first time at Ironwood State Prison. He was one of the first participants to sign up for the Inmate Council Program there and became a leader within the group after completing both the Council 1 and Council 2 training workshops offered by Center for Council trainers.
Edward was incarcerated for 27 years before being called for an interview this summer before the Board of Parole Hearings. That interview led to the granting of parole and Edward is now in the process of reintegrating himself into the San Diego community. Edward credits the success of his rehabilitation efforts, and the granting of parole, to skills and perspectives he learned in the workshops and practice groups offered by the Inmate Council Program.
When CDCR’s Office of Public Communications arranged for Center for Council to videotape inmate testimonials about the impact of the program, we were struck by Edward’s extraordinarily clear and insightful perspective. His articulation of the power of the work of Council remains a highlight of the short film on the Inmate Council Program (find the link below). Center for Council caught up again with Edward recently and asked him to share his thoughts on the reentry process and how the practice of Council has helped him transition back into the world outside the prison gates. Edward’s passion and positivity is contagious; it is apparent that he doesn’t take a thing for granted.
Center for Council: Edward, could you tell us about your experience in general with Council and what it has meant to you?
Center for Council has recently received word that we have been awarded funding to bring the Inmate Council Program (ICP) to eight more California State prisons. Three of these new sites will be funded for three years of ICP programming. Council is now being practiced and taught within 22 CDCR institutions around the state.
The ICP offers council training as a "rehabilitative resource" and teaches inmates how to independently facilitate Council circles on the yard for other inmates. Our preliminary research with RAND Corp and University of California has demonstrated that our Council programs "lead to reduction in anger, aggression and hostility and better communication, cooperation and pro-sociality." And we know that the work is profoundly shifting prison culture in a positive direction.
We are thrilled to expand this work and eager to support an ever-growing circle of incarcerated carriers of Council as they find their way into the practice and bring it to others on prison yards around the state.
Check out Sam Escobar's powerful and inspiring essay on leading Center for Council's Inmate Council Program at Salinas Valley State Prison, recently published online!
A powerful new website highlights innovative programs at the
forefront of prison reform.
Our longtime funder, Kalliopeia Foundation, has created a new website called "Beyond Prison," that highlights the work that Center for Council is doing, along with that of our colleagues at ArtSpring, Insight Garden Program, Insight Out, Mind Body Awareness Project, Prison Mindfulness Institute, and Rehabilitation Through The Arts. We're thrilled to be engaged in this coalition of like-hearted organizations, promoting transformative work in prisons, communities and organizations, and we're grateful for the collaboration and mutual support of this powerful group of organizations.
"Beyond Prison" explores innovative approaches to rehabilitation and offers a new vision of what prison could be.
Take a moment to read the chapter on Center for Council's Inmate Council Program – as well as the compelling introductions to work that our colleagues and partners are innovating. It's an honor to be collaborating with such powerful allies and exciting to be recognized and celebrated in this moment of innovation.
Read the powerful article now.
The California Office of the Inspector General released a highly critical report late last week on the deeply dysfunctional culture at High Desert State Prison. Included in the OIG's "Findings and Recommendations," among other efforts to shift the culture for officers and inmates, is implementation of Center for Council's proposal, in partnership with Center for Mindfulness on Corrections, for a council-based wellness and resiliency program for Correctional Officers.
"There are such extraordinary moments emerging in many of these compassion-based programs in prisons and communities. In this season of abundance and thanksgiving, I am reminded of an amazing and moving council I got to participate in at Lancaster State Prison with a group of inmates who had such incredible stories about food. One shared that he has spent decades wondering about pomegranates... so curious about their taste and feel, and their prevalence in mythology and poetry, and his longing to know a pomegranate, and his realization that a sentence of "life without the chance of parole" meant he's probably never get to taste one.
Read Ken Miller's in-depth article on the Inmate Council Program pilot at Salinas Valley State Prison, published on Takepart.org.
Jared and Ugo were invited to talk about Center for Council’s work in prisons and reentry in California and Rwanda on KPFK 90.7 — listen to this powerful 30-minute clip from the "Think Outside the Cage” show, hosted by Geri Silva.
Listen to the entire episode right here.
In October of 2013, Center for Council and Stories Matter Media, with the support of Cal Humanities "Community Stories Project," collaborated on a film project documenting the extraordinary Inmate Council Progam unfolding in Salinas Valley State Prison.
Reporter Kenneth Miller followed the film crew into Salinas Valley State Prison and wrote the following article on the powerful weekend.
Miller reports, "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.
Read the article in it's entirety here.
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"Within one year, a third of those released from prison are back inside. Within three years, two-thirds have returned to prison. To me that says more about the failure of prisons, parole supervision, and reentry programs than it does about the failure of individuals."
-Eddie Ellis, formerly incarcerated founder of the Center for NuLeadership, quoted in The Sun, July 2013
While opinions abound on how to best address the issue of recidivism in our prison system, consensus is growing that we cannot continue with the way things have been.
California has one of the highest rates of recidivism in the nation, an issue that has led to Attorney General Kamala Harris announcing a new state initiative, the Division of Recidivism Reduction and Re-Entry, aimed at identifying the best ways to reduce those numbers.
The practice of Council addresses some of the Criminogenic Factors identified as key to reducing recidivism.
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