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Teaching Nonviolent Communication in a US Prison

Having looked at why conflict is inevitable, violence isn’t, I’d like to look at a teaching situation. In the car on the way to the prison I tried to prepare myself for meeting the inmates by wondering what they would look like. A few weeks earlier I’d seen a documentary about St. Quentin Prison, in which the inmates showed off their numerous scars from knife-wounds – a common way to settle scores.

But for me, the scariest part was waiting to be let in, expecting to be strip-searched, looking at the razor wire and the heavy, magnetic remote-controlled doors. Once we were inside, I felt more relaxed, though I had to keep reminding myself where I was – a state prison on the East Coast of the US, and why I’d come – to share Nonviolent Communication (NVC) with a group of prison inmates.

We sat and waited in the ‘Chapel’ – a large high-ceilinged room with a glass window along one side and a uniformed CO (Correction Officer) sitting outside. Men in brown prison uniforms came in and filled up the circle of chairs around me. Twelve or fifteen of them, mainly middle-aged, three or four in their late twenties.

I introduced the purpose of NVC – to create the kind of connection that would lead to get everybody’s ‘needs’ being met – and led through some exercises to help us get to know each other. To my relief, the men seemed relaxed with each other, and were willing to share their experiences. I talked about feelings, and how feelings give us information about our ‘needs’ (what’s important to us). We made a list of ‘needs’ on the flipchart. I remember being surprised how easily the men identified their ‘needs’: safety, peace of mind, trust, honesty, independence, comfort, connection, safety (again).

Then I raised the issue of what happens when I’ve ‘screwed up’ or done something that I’m not happy with. I talked about the ‘need’ for mourning, for grieving lost dreams, lost lives. I said that this part of NVC had been a revelation for me. For the first 40 years of my life, I’d tried to throw feelings of grief out with the rubbish – because I couldn’t see any meaning to them. This had led me to several depressions. NVC had helped me to understand that grief is a ‘need’ – a natural part of human life, just as much as celebrating when things go well. In fact, for me, mourning and celebration are two sides of the same coin of honouring our ‘needs’. I said that by honouring grief and mourning, the process had become integrating and healing for me.

And as I talked about ‘mourning for lost dreams and lost lives’ something happened that I found deeply moving – every man in the room made eye contact with me, silently. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that, or the sense of shared humanity I felt at that moment.

After a few moments silence, one man in his forties talked about his wife and son – both had died since he’d been ‘inside’. I asked him, guessing empathically, if he was sad because he would have liked to have been there to support them. He looked at the carpet and nodded. Later, he said he wanted to remember some other things about them – not just the ‘bad’ things. He talked about the ‘fun’ things they’d done together – going to Burger King, days out to theme parks, to the Coast. He realised he didn’t have a picture of his wife and son in his cell. He decided to ask his brother to bring a picture of them the next time he visited.

While he spoke, the other men sat quietly, listening. I realised that I felt touched by his honesty and openness. When he finished, I thanked him for bringing this part of his life into the room.

Another man, again in his forties, started talking about his family, “I try to fix things on the phone, but they don’t listen. They don’t want someone ring up and telling them what to do in their lives”.

I guessed empathically, “Are you hopeless of supporting your family from ‘inside’?”

“Yeah, you know, when there’s a messy divorce going on and the kids are in the middle…”

“Would you love to help the kids through?”

“Yep.” He sat up in his chair. “I’m usually a pretty confident person. I can understand now why I’m confused at the moment.” I sensed that he had found some understanding and acceptance for how he was. He seemed content with this, so I just sat and waited until someone else spoke.

A guy in his thirties talked about his son: “He’s a teenager. The worst part is when we’re on the phone and he asks me when I’m coming home. I tell him in a few weeks. But I’ve been doing the paperwork for my parole for three months now, and I still don’t know when I’ll get out. I need a job and somewhere to live before they’ll let me out.”

I guessed, “Are you desperate to be there for your son?”

“Yeah.”

I sensed a connection and went silent for a few seconds to give him a chance to be with his mourning.

I asked everybody for ‘closing comments’ and finished the session. The men stood around in groups of two or three, chatting, before going to their next activity. I noticed that one man in his late forties was standing on his own. Then I recalled that he was the only one who hadn’t spoken in the session. To include everybody in the room, I went over and talked to him. He told me that he facilitated groups in the prison with a project called ‘Alternatives to Violence’. He said that the facilitation skills I had been modelling would be very useful to him and some of the other men who were group facilitators. Then he talked about his mother, and how painful it was for her to have her son in prison.

I asked, “Would you like to contribute to her life – to help her to enjoy having a son?”

“Yes, she’s getting old now. Of course, when I was on the streets, I had to reject my family. But now, I think it’s what I miss the most being in here…” He looked over at the other men. “I get along with the other guys here, but they come and they go, and it never really gets deep.”

“Do you miss people who really know you – a sense of shared history?”

“Yes, that’s what I really miss, being in here.”

We stood silently together for a few seconds before saying goodbye.

It wasn’t until we were on the way home that I found out that their lives on ‘the outside’ were not the only ones that had been lost. The person who had accompanied said that some of the men were ‘inside’ because they had acted intentionally in a way that had led to the death of another person.


© Shantigarbha 2005. This article first appeared in Funky Raw magazine. It has been lightly edited for context.

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