Mitch Highley was serving a life sentence at Ironwood Prison when he first encountered council. It was definitely not love at first sight! In fact, when Mitch walked in on a group of Lifers he quickly identified as adversaries from rival affiliations -- sitting in a circle around a centerpiece covered with talking pieces -- he almost turned around and walked out. He remembers saying to himself, "This is not for me!"
The year was 2015 and Mitch had found himself at something of a crossroads. Despite the discomfort, he recognized something compelling about this unlikely group of men, talking softly and opening up about things not usually discussed in public, even less so in prison. He made a choice to be curious and he kept coming back to the group, week after week. He soon found the practice of council to be surprisingly freeing -- and even inspiring. The depth and poignance of the stories shared were striking and Mitch found that one person opening up about something challenging led others to do the same. "It kind of put me in a place where I could be vulnerable in a place you're not supposed to be," he observed in a 2016 video, captured by a crew from Center for Council. Mitch became hooked. "There’s no group on the yard that makes me feel the comfort that council does," he reflected. "It actually builds my confidence and gets me comfortable with who I really am."
Mitch's amazing transformation was confirmed by a grant of parole in 2019 and the launch of an inspiring new chapter in his life. Seven years after that first video interview, Center for Council's Brie Thiele paid a visit to Mitch to check in on his extraordinary story of redemption and triumph. Mitch and his wife Marybeth had welcomed their son, Gage, four months earlier and Brie reports that the couple has taken to parenthood very naturally. Their cozy home is decorated with family pictures, and their friendly dog, Freedom, stands guard over his terrain. The future is bright for this new, budding family and they were kind enough to chat about their journey.
Have a look at Brie's video of her visit to the Highley household below:
Mitch credits council with helping him develop a better understanding of his emotions and motivating him to rediscover his true self. Despite his life sentence, Mitch committed himself fully to his self-improvement and education in prison and he achieved a Bachelor's Degree in Sociology with an emphasis on Criminology while inside, as well as certification as a Substance Abuse Counselor. And Marybeth was by Mitch's side every step of the way. He fondly refers to her as “the real gangster,” holding down the fort as he moved through an uncertain and scary time, confined to a maximum security prison in the middle of the California desert. During this time of incarceration, Mitch never imagined that, several years later, he’d be Center for Council’s Program Manager, an integral part of our prison programming.
These days, Mitch is responsible for managing all of Center for Council's programming in prisons. On any given week, he can be found traipsing around the state with Center for Council's Executive Director, Jared Seide, as they check in on prison programs launched in 29 facilities and serving thousands of incarcerated individuals.
The Council for Insight, Compassion & Resilience program that Mitch manages is a three-month intervention in which participating incarcerated individuals are trained to facilitate council sessions for their peers, empowering them to become positive agents of change, on the yard and in their lives. The program contributes to a shift of culture within jails and prisons and equips participants with tools for successful reentry and reintegration into their communities upon release. After the successful 2013 launch of the program at Salinas Valley State Prison, the program has now grown to 29 California prisons and received 2020’s “Innovation in Corrections" award from the American Correctional Association.
CICR’s pedagogy is based on restorative justice principles, focusing on taking responsibility for past behavior and the harm caused to victims, and to others who have been impacted (friends, family, community), as well as to the trauma passed down through generations. Center for Council also provides services to those moving through the journey of rehabilitation and reintegration, launching the Council Reentry Program (CRP), managed by James DeBacco, who was actually first introduced to council as a member of the same Ironwood Prison group as Mitch! CRP works to address the needs of formerly incarcerated individuals returning home with a customized approach that offers warm hand-off support services initiated during incarceration and continues throughout the release and reintegration process with case management, ongoing council sessions for participants and their families, and advanced training in council facilitation for those who have found healing in this practice and want to carry it to their communities.
As an outgrowth of its work with individuals moving through incarceration and reentry, Center for Council created Leaving Prison Behind: A Council Before I Go, a powerful illustrated novella intended to offer a resource for individuals facing challenges on the path to freedom. It weaves the words, stories and insights of system-impacted individuals and those who support them.
Center for Council is committed to providing as many copies as possible to individuals who are incarcerated and who are somewhere in the process of coming home, as well as to all those who work with and care for them on this journey.
Your support of our programming helps us expand our capacity to provide this resource to as many individuals as we can. Copies are offered to our supporters, as a gift of appreciation, when you become a donor.