A Tiny Seed of Peace in Prison

As volunteer Leslie says, there are often several sides to a story. Sunaina, Nonviolent Communication Program Facilitator, brings her own reflection of the realization behind the experience Mariette shared here.

“I used to think I was different from everyone,” a Donovan resident in our Nonviolent Communication program told me. “I used to think that no one could understand anything about my life because they have no idea what it’s like to be me, or what goes on inside of me.”

Photo by  Jeremy Bishop  on Unsplash

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

For weeks, we had been talking about human needs and how they are the impetus for all of our behaviors and emotions. Because those needs exist in every human being, seeing them helps us understand each other. 

“But now I realize we are all the same,” he continued. “I don’t know why it took me so long to learn such a simple thing. But it makes total sense and it changes everything.”

“How does it change things?” I asked.

I can see parts of myself in everyone else now. I know that sounds egotistical, but it’s true. I see myself in everyone,” he said, as he pointed around the circle of men. 

As this resident shared with me his realization of the unity of existence :-) I couldn’t help but wonder what an incredible breakthrough this is for anyone, let alone for a prison resident. 

I have learned that prison populations are often deeply divided among racial lines. At Donovan, the color of your skin determines the “team” you are on, and riots have broken out between racial groups on the yard, often resulting in injuries and sometimes death. 

For this person to look around a circle of residents with different skin colors and say that he sees some of himself in everyone is remarkable and awe-inspiring. It occurs to me now that I was witnessing a tiny seed of peace being planted in one of the most violent environments on earth

I can’t help but think about how our world could transform if we could all see ourselves in others, especially in those whom we are used to seeing as separate from ourselves.

Can I see my own need for self expression and understanding in someone tweeting angry political messages I do not agree with?

Can I see my own need for connection and belonging in a family member who frustratingly scolds me for missing a family gathering?

I think I can. And I am grateful to the Donovan resident for reminding me of the power of empathy to keep us connected and in a place of understanding with our brothers and sisters in this sometimes tumultuous world.

Mariette Fourmeaux
Education on humanity... to a Head of School
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As the head of La Jolla Country Day School, a PK-12 independent school, Gary Krahn has been part of an educational team seeking to gently guide students to become leaders who treat people with dignity and can anticipate and respond effectively to the uncertainties and opportunities of a changing technological, social, political, and economic world. He brings to LJCDS his depth of experience of over 29 years on active duty before retiring in the grade of Brigadier General, helping to establish and build the 18th university in Afghanistan, and redesigning the mathematics program at West Point, from which he’s also a graduate.

Below Gary reflects on his experience at Donovan…

On August 6, 2019, Mariette escorts me into Donovan State prison.  Little do I know that the experience will be an education on humanity. 

The grounds at Donovan grab my attention immediately. They are harsh and the structures are designed to separate people, seclude individuals and reinforce the fact that prisoners have little control of their lives.  The environment continually reminds residents, volunteers and those who work there that the primary purpose of prison is punitive not developmental.

Walking inside from the grounds of the prison allows the people within Donovan to slowly seep into the volunteer’s awareness.  I meet a staff psychiatrist, a guard, a prisoner, another prisoner, another guard and several volunteers. Because of an “incident on another yard,” the prison goes on lockdown, significantly limiting Mariette’s access to prisoners. Prisoners, however, find her

Human dignity transcends all our differences, putting our common human identity above all else.
— Gary Krahn

Within minutes of her arrival, an inmate, who is organizing an upcoming Restorative Justice Fair, is focused on every word Mariette is sharing.  Mariette makes it clear that he is responsible for everything that happens at the event and everything that does not happen. After listening to the inmate about his preparations, Mariette, with a firm and gentle hand, encourages him to have greater quality control in place for the speakers.  The inmate understands the expectations and is eager to learn how to resolve the shortfall. His appreciation of Mariette’s insights and leadership is touching. This inmate is caring, thoughtful, and committed to doing what is right. It is puzzling witnessing such a kind and competent person with a growth mindset in a blue prisoner outfit.  The inmate shares that there was a time when the only skill he had to provide for his family was theft. Today, he has the skills to not only lead himself, but to lead others. 

As one of the speakers for the RJ Fair, another inmate quickly reaches out to Mariette.  He shares a multitude of personal experiences. Mariette asks if he is open on getting feedback on his storytelling.  She explains that his stories must be more focused and come from the heart. He then goes on to talk about how, at fourteen, he charged toward his abusive father. After throwing his father to the ground, he saw fear in his father’s eyes.  At that moment, he learned that he could project his fear onto others. There was no place better to do this than in a gang. After many years in prison, he is remarkably self-aware and a gentler person.  

This visit to Donovan opened my eyes to the humanity within a prison.  I was not exposed to the human conflicts among prisoners and guards nor privy to the victims who had been impacted by these inmates.  But I was exposed to the decency within flawed human beings. And the greatest humanitarian was Mariette.  

Mariette demonstrated that human dignity transcends all our differences, putting our common human identity above all else. While our uniqueness and identity are important, if we take the next step toward recognizing our shared identity, our world will become and better place.  Serving people who need help should be a goal of every human being. For Mariette, it is not a goal, it is her life.

Pillowy soft French toast and other prison meals

For 8 weeks, Expressive Artists Tish, Lorilee and Cece came to prison with us to engage the residents in written expressive expression. Below is a gorgeous piece reflecting the fun we had creating new menu items for the prison meals. Salivate with us!

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Writing prompt: You have been given the opportunity to create a meal on Donovan’s menu for one day. Writing through your senses, persuade us that your food item belongs on the day’s menu.

All the residents sighed in unison. If you know prison, then you know that the food lacks in flavor and any kind of vitality. The residents reached for their pens and pencils and furiously wrote for three minutes during our weekly writing warm-up. We can tell by their smiles and scrunched faces they had much to write, traveling through their imagination to times and places when they were not in prison, recalling memories of food and favorite flavors, family gatherings, the simple fact of breakfast and a shared meal with loved ones. Three minutes flew by; with mischievous and nostalgic smiles, the residents put down their writing utensils and sat at attention. Anxious to share, many raised their hands.

Immediately a resident stood up, marking his place as first. An intoxicating description of pillowy soft, powdered-sugared French toast came tumbling out of his mouth. Not only was it masterfully written, we - the listening audience - were able to taste it through his writing: its melty texture and sweet flavor. His delivery was passionate and words clear. After reading it, he was satisfied. It was as if, through reading it, he had actually consumed his French toast.

One after the other, was much the same: odes, memoirs and tributes to their favorite food. After each reading, we wrote the name of the food on a strip of paper and put it in the middle of the writing circle. After an hour or so, the floor was covered with our collective menu: spare ribs, apple pie and ice cream, steak, lobster, gumbo, greens, sweet potatoes, fried chicken, a green salad with avocado... We were all on the edge of our seats, waiting to see what people had chosen for their menu item. It was beautiful: the memories, the love with which they wrote and read, the laughter and comradery.

It was clear that you can imprison a person's physical body but you cannot imprison someone’s creativity, imagination and collective memory.

Gentleness and Strength

by Sunaina Chugani Marquez
Nonviolent Communication Program Facilitator

Growing up, many Donovan residents learned the importance of being “tough” and providing for their loved ones. There was little space in their lives to connect with their own needs for belonging, care, rest and so on.

“Admitting I have needs is difficult,” one of the residents said, “because I don’t want to appear weak to myself or to others.” 

It struck me that this is true inside and outside of prison. I remember times I judged myself for needing more compassion in interactions with others, or for needing play and rest in the middle of a challenging work week. I would think to myself: I shouldn’t need these things, and doing so makes me weak.

The residents, volunteers, and I explored whether it’s possible to be gentle with ourselves and to be strong at the same time. Is there a relationship between gentleness and strength?

With love in his voice, one resident shared that thinking of gentleness reminded him of the first time he held his precious first grandchild in his arms. Laughter broke out from a group of residents who pointed out that even the toughest “gangbanger,” when you put a baby in his arms, will begin to speak silly baby talk to connect with the infant. :-)

Another resident reflected on how little gentleness his mother received from his father who ran a tight household full of strict rules. How different would their family life have been, he wondered, if his father had treated his mother with more love, maybe asking how her day went once in a while? And, why did his sister receive tenderness, when he and his male siblings didn’t?

Soon the conversation shifted to the sources of gentleness in the residents’ lives. One man shared that his foster mother was the first person in his life to show him what love meant. Grandmothers were symbols of gentleness in many others’ lives. Though many of these sources were feminine, one resident shared that he was only now realizing that gentleness is not just a feminine trait, as he’d been taught growing up, but a real strength for all genders. 

We are learning in our NVC circles that being gentle with ourselves allows us to see and connect to the sources of our joy and pain. It allows us to connect to our humanity. When we tell ourselves to ignore our needs and to be “tough” instead, we are ignoring our own humanness, which makes it easier to ignore the humanity of others. 

Thus, there is profound strength in gentleness, because it is with gentleness that we can truly see and understand ourselves and each other. My hope is that this understanding will help us to build stronger relationships, more resilient communities, and a more peaceful world.

Our ending meditation concluded with this thought: "You, as much as anyone in the universe, is worthy of your love and compassion."

Sunaina Chugani Marquez
Conflict with a baby momma - Resolved!

In June, we launched the 4th iteration of Conflict Resolution | Being Peace, led by the fabulous and deeply experienced (30+ years!) Cynthia. Here she is to share just one of her memories…

About a year ago, during a session continuing our study of feelings and needs, our own and those of others, the prison residents and I worked with lists of needs and feelings created by the New York Center for Nonviolent Communication. As a group, we practiced:

  • Identifying and distinguishing feelings from needs

  • Recognizing our feelings

  • Holding them, separately, from our search for ways to meet our needs

We also talked about the possibility that by simply acknowledging, to the person we’re in conflict with, that we understand they may have needs, we might be able to move past our old intractable arguments. We identified this simple step as one way to reduce actual conflict and address a possible cause of conflict.

Then, to practice these skills, Stu, one of the program participants, volunteered a recent, personal conflict he had had with the mother of his child. Stu wanted to talk to and see his daughter, but the child’s mother refused to discuss the matter with him. Whenever the parents spoke on the phone, they were soon caught up in a loud argument and Stu got no closer to interacting with his daughter.

We went to work understanding and analyzing the interactions between Stu and his daughter’s mother. Clustered around Stu, sitting on stools bolted to the Culinary tables, through conversation and brainstorming, the men began identifying Stu’s possible feelings and needs, as well as those of his daughter’s mother. We compared the two lists the men had created and it was obvious that several needs - for example, for dignity, belonging, understanding, and connection - were shared by both Stu and his daughter’s mother.

Empowered by this new knowledge, the group discussed the types of statements Stu might make when talking to his daughter’s mother to acknowledge her pain and need, and to help her hear him talk about his need and desire to interact with his daughter. Their conversation and ideas were thoughtful, useful and appropriate. We all felt hopeful and comfortable with these new insights and capacities that folks in the group were displaying. The session ended on a high note!

Fast-forward to earlier this month. While on my way to gather with the new group of program participants, I met Stu. He greeted me and, with a big smile on his face, told me that we had really made a difference for him and how he talked with his child’s mother. Stu said he no longer had a relationship with her but he didn’t care, because he now was in regular contact with his daughter and that was what was important to him.

More about Conflict Resolution | Being Peace: This interactive program offers Donovan residents training, analysis and practicums on understanding and resolving inter-personal and inter-group conflict. It also exposes them to yoga postures, Qi gong movements, silent meditation with affirmations and poetry. Almost weekly, participants and I amaze ourselves as we experience revelations of connections between our innermost feelings and the outermost behaviors of others.

Jonathan Martin
Celebrating insight

“Mariette, have you ever had an insight that felt so simple when you realized it, so simple that you wonder how come it’s taken you so long to realize it?”

I smile as many instances flood my mind.  Oh, how many times had I beat myself up for taking “so long” to realize something that was “so simple.”

Nodding, I snap out of my own memories to ask this inquiring prison resident “What insight did you realize?”

“I realized last night, after NVC*, that we’re all one!

What?!?!?  As the prison residents say themselves, when they disconnect from humanity, it becomes easy to lash out at it.  This insight was exciting as it demonstrated a shift towards a deeper understanding of and connection to humanity.  When it happens, hurting another becomes less likely.

He continues, “I’ve heard this countless times.  But I could never figure it out.  I always felt so different from everyone around me.  How could I be the same as these people that were so different?  Then, last night, it clicked.  All those people who are so different – the correctional officers, the other residents, my family, people on the streets, etc. – well, I now see the person in each of them.  It’s so simple.  And it changes e-ver-y-thing!!!!!  WHY has it taken me this long to realize this????”

As we part ways for the day, I provide “You’ve landed on what I consider to be a universal truth.  And universal truths are always simple.  It’s their simplicity that confounds us because we believe that it cannot be this simple.  So instead of beating yourself up for taking ‘so long’ to realize something ‘so simple,’ I suggest you celebrate.  Many people never come to their own experiential realization of this reality.  Congrats for recognizing it.”

Now to you, “free person”:

  • What universal truth have you uncovered?

  • How have you celebrated yourself for this insight?

And I close with the same question I asked the prison resident before leaving him at the gate:  “The question now is:  now that you’ve realized this, what beliefs, thoughts, words and behaviors are you going to change?”

* NVC = Nonviolent communication, a recurring 12-week program Brilliance Inside’s Sunaina brings to Donovan which teaches the theory and practice of nonviolent communication