Just recently, Mathew was released from prison and is reintegrating back into his former community. His story is similar to many inmates who participate in the Center for Council Inmate Council Program. For three years now, Center for Council has provided programs inside prisons across the state of California, teaching inmates to practice and facilitate this work. Council programs have been proven to decrease aggression, heighten one’s sense of empathy and compassion, and help those who participate to find their voice. All of these skills benefit both the individual and the community at-large.
In September Mathew spoke about his experience with Council and how important it was for him to participate in and facilitate Council circles for fellow prisoners. Mathew opened up about the difference between Council and other rehabilitative programs and how, through learning to work with Council and listen and speak from the heart, he was able to experience meaningful rehabilitation.
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.
Correctional staff and officers who work within prisons are experiencing very high rates of work-induced anxiety and stress, often resulting in symptoms mimicking those of soldiers returning from war zones. Randy was struck by the openness and candor of his staff during their Council circles. Council provided a space for them to individually and collectively process some of the things they had witnessed on the job, as well as to reconnect with one another in a supportive and uplifting way.
Center for Council is now beginning to work with law enforcement officers, training them in the practice of Council so they will be able to facilitate circles themselves. Council is an adaptable, generative practice, serving all communities and circumstances. Through the transformation of individuals who participate, who share their stories and listen deeply to the stories of others, the entire community can feel the effects of the change. In September, Randy spoke about his experience with Council and how important it was for him to facilitate Council circles for his staff.
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?
Edward: When it first started out, we didn’t quite know what it would be about. But once the program got started and we went through the training, and were able to see how it played out, it was a wonderful experience for me. To be able to sit with other guys and hear each other’s stories, and see that we were all similarly situated, it was an awesome experience. Like I’ve said before, it was actually a real healing process for me.
Before Council, I would never speak in front of people, never in front of a group. And in Council, there were 20 or so people in the group. You know, I had to prepare for my parole hearing and Council played probably the biggest role in helping me get my parole. Being able to open up and sit there in front of people and talk about my struggles in life, in terms of the abuse I went through, and growing up with my parents, and being involved in gangs. Council brought that out in me in a way where I was able to talk about it openly, something that I would not have ever done had I not participated. It helped me tremendously.
Council is one of the main groups that people want to participate in. When you leave Council and you go out into the yard, people were always asking us: “What is this group?” And they wanted to join it because they saw the attitudes of the people that came out of the group. Everybody was upbeat, cheerful, and everybody felt good. The people that participated in that group said it was the best group they had ever been a part of. Before I left Ironwood there was like a line of people waiting to get into the program.
It’s very healing. It’s a place where you can just get peace of mind and learn about yourself. To be able to tell stories about your life, where each story is different, it’s amazing. Sometimes I become speechless in trying to explain it because of the experience. Because, when you participate in it, and allow the process to work, and you go through the process, it gets you to that place. And I’m grateful for it.
Center for Council: How has the transition been for you since leaving prison.
Aw man, it’s just amazing. A lot of people wonder why I’m so happy and wonder about the way I see things. Well, I appreciate everything. And coming from prison, and living in that environment, where I was down for 27 years and the element that’s in the air—in terms of the people -- you know there’s a lot of hardcore people up in there. And to have to deal with that mentally, and then come out of it and to be able to see people for who they really are, people that are loving and kind, people who you should love just for being a human, because that’s what we should all be doing... You know, we’re all united or connected in some way or another and so to see that in Council brought that side out of me and gave me an appreciation for people in a way I had not seen before. And so, coming out here, into society, after 27 years, the transition has been smooth. It has been wonderful.
I’ve been accepted by everyone I’ve come across. When they hear me speak and they see my experience… they’re just very welcoming. I know that Council had a lot to do with that because before coming to Council, although I was working on myself and rehabilitating myself, and participating in other groups, Council opened that door to where I was able to see people’s points of views and the deep things in people’s lives and be able to connect with them.
On a level where the things you go through as children, whether it’s abuse or neglect, or whatever… you go through those things and you become this person that ends up joining a gang because of the influences that were in your life at that time. And, for me, wanting to be a part of something, and then ending up going to prison and having to go through that... And then finding my way out of that and coming into a program like Center for Council where you’re accepted, where you’re not being judged, your story can be told and you can speak about your life without feeling like someone’s going to judge you for it… it was an awesome experience for me. So I feel like I’m doing really good transitioning from prison back into society with the experience I got from Council.
Part of my transition was to make sure I got everything in line, in terms of identification, social security, Medicare, and things like that. I also participate in programs at the transition house that I’m in right now. They just recently had a celebrity golf tournament where they were raising money for the program itself. The owner of the program chose me as someone to participate in that because of my personality and my spirit. He heard me speak before at a meeting and invited me to the event. I’ve been invited to a couple events like that, you know, where I have had the opportunity to speak with different people and meet different people and acclimate myself back into society. Right now, I’m getting involved in lots of programs and going to the colleges and classes to speak about my experience. I’m sure I will be using those skills that I learned from Council.
I just want to say thanks to Jared and Ray, for coming into the prison and bringing Council. Like I said before, it was a wonderful experience for me to get involved in that group and be able to open up to people in a way that I was comfortable speaking about myself and my life.
(Hear more of Edward’s insights about the practice of Council, recorded when he was still an inmate at Ironwood.)
Loren: I work at a non-profit youth center called Heart of Los Angeles, or HOLA. I’m Senior Program Director, head of the Leadership Department, and I help to coordinate summer programs here. I’ve been with HOLA for 16 years, and I came to this work with a background in theatre, so I started off incorporating a lot of theatre games that I’ve noticed, in the world of Council, are also commonplace: ice breaker games, team-building activities, etc. I used those activities to build communication skills, connection between the kids, and jumpstart some self-reflection.I was first referred to Council from a friend at Crossroads School who recommended the book, “The Way of Council” -- and it felt familiar to me right away. I started incorporating aspects of it, and started implementing Council to the best of my ability, without any training, here and there in the organization’s programming.
I think it was about two years ago, our Executive Director told me we had an opportunity, through Center for Council’s Social Justice Council Project, to train the HOLA staff in the practice of Council. I enthusiastically supported that idea and helped to organize training of our directors and coordinators, around 30 staff members total, in January of 2016.
The Social Justice Council Project experience was great, for me personally, to get that depth of understanding, but also for the rest of the staff to learn how to be in circle with each other. Our staff meetings are pretty Council-like to begin with, so it felt really right for us to have this as a practice within the organization. There were a few of us who formed a Council committee and, with support from Center for Council, we were convening monthly Council sessions amongst the staff. It kind of faded a bit over time due to people changing jobs and moving around. But when I joined Center for Council’s Trainer Leadership Initiative, I started again offering a monthly Council session and invited anyone who wanted to participate. I’ve been doing that for about three months and those circles have been really deep and meaningful in terms of the quality of sharing. I think having that foundation with the initial training, and a little bit of time, and a bit of new energy has made those circles really powerful.
I think especially among some newer staff members, having that regular practice has given them a sense of the possibility of sharing that can happen both with staff and with the youth that we serve. In a space where everyone is activity-, task- and goal-oriented, where interactions can be somewhat superficial in terms of just coordinating tasks and getting things done, offering the staff members a space where they could slow down and really be with each other, and share a little bit of their inner lives with one another, has had an impact on the staff members. Their sense of what’s possible has grown, through the work that we’re doing and the depth of connection that we can have with the students, as well as with each other. And the strength that we gather from connecting with each other and hearing each other’s stories, really seeing each other, the depth of humanity that we can see in each other when we slow down and spend time with each other…
Center for Council: After you’ve participated in Center for Council’s Trainer Leadership Initiative, have you continued to introduce the practice of Council or aspects of it in your programming with youth?
Loren: Yeah, absolutely. That was part of the reason to reignite the Council practice with the staff. There were a number of staff members that were using Council within youth programming but they had moved on, so we wanted to give newer staff members the opportunity to experience Council so that they too could implement it in the programs they run for youth. One of our newer staff members who has been a regular participant in our monthly staff Council, took it upon herself to lead a Council circle with parents of students in our elementary program, co-facilitated by someone who was a part of the original Social Justice Council Project training. That went really well and was pretty special. It was the first time we had Council with parents.
I’ve been incorporating Council in the programming that I run for many years, and will continue to do so. In Play for Peace, I conduct Council with the youth facilitators on a regular basis. It enables them to get to know one another better, to practice being in Council, and gives them the opportunity to lead circles with my assistants when they lead their activities with younger students. Which they do. And it is really cool to see high school students in circle, co-facilitating Council for younger students.
Center for Council: It’s very much in line with one of Center for Council’s main principles of training the trainers and creating a practice that is constantly evolving and adapting to fit the people that are practicing.
Yeah! I was actually able to participate in one of the Inmate Council Program trainings over the summer, as an intern. It was there that that idea sank into me a little deeper; how, when a group of people gets trained, the facilitation then belongs to that group rather than to an “expert.” You know, Council belongs to you. I could see that in the way that the inmates were being trained. That was kind of an “aha” moment for me. That was what was given to us as a staff in the Social Justice Council Project: when we received our training, we no longer needed Center for Council to come out here and tell us how to do it. That was the impetus for me to revive the monthly staff Council circle here. I thought, if we’ve got a core group that has already been trained in the Council practice, and we could develop a new group here, I would no longer need to be the expert. I would love to hand off facilitation to someone else. It develops the sense that we are all on an equal level, especially within the circle. I would love for the circle to take care of itself. I want to see that the youth facilitators feel empowered to own that process, and they’re not just answering questions to an authority figure, they are responding to inquiries from their peers. I feel like that level of circle-sharing is the deepest, where we really level the playing field.