Ending Violent CrimeIntroduction | Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Epilogue
Another adjunct to our prison programs has been counseling. Of course, the elders are always available for individual counseling before or after circles or sweats, but in two of the prisons in different periods I have arranged for separate times purely for counseling. At one prison I came weekly and men who had signed up stayed in a waiting room while I saw each one in a small room for private counseling sessions. This was a helpful addition to the program, but with changing schedules it was moved, and I began weekly sessions of group counseling, and finally with a change of administrations the program was dropped.
The other program, in the original prison of our first program, was a class in peer counseling which I continued for five years. It was discontinued at that time for a variety of reasons, including the release of a number of the original class members, and increasing demands on my time by expanding into other prisons and the loss of two teachers who assisted me once a month.
This class was a signal success, and remains in my mind a possible model for expanding into other prisons and developing a program that could be adapted in any culture and any country in the world. One of the original class members expressed his feelings about it like this: "The circle saved my life, the sweat took me further and helped me more, and the class took me the furthest of all and gave me what I needed to really control my life." Other men have made similar statements that the circle put them on the good red road, the sweats give them a safe outlet for discharge, and the class empowers them and gives them information and tools to take charge of their lives.
The official name of the class was Re-Evaluation Counseling. This is a process which I teach where I live in New Hampshire and in native communities in the New England region, and the precepts of which I use in my own counseling and in other seminars that I teach in schools and communities throughout North America and Europe. It is sometimes known as co-counseling, a kind of peer counseling where persons exchange help in counseling each other.
The process has a number of basic differences from that of what is usually thought of as counseling, different enough that I often wish we had a different word to use, so as not to carry associations with ordinary counseling. Something like "Effective Listening" - but that's weak.
This class was carried on through the auspices of the prison school, which provided the space for us once a week. Both the prison and the school were very supportive, allowing me to undertake this class in something they had never heard of solely on my assurance that it was a good thing and that the men would benefit both in acquiring very useful knowledge and in being able to examine their own lives more deeply and learn ways to make the changes they desired.
In developing this new and experimental prison class, I had the encouragement and advice of two other excellent teachers who came in once a month, Stacey Leeds, co-counseling reference person for the State of Connecticut, and Emmy Rainwalker, reference person for the Monadnock region of New Hampshire, and the assistance of my wife Ellika Lindén.
In such a class it is important that all students be suitable to learn the process of co-counseling. What this means basically is that the student must not be psychologically completely self-absorbed. He must be capable of giving attention and thought to others for extended periods of time. Therefore it is essential to screen new students that one does not know. A member who is in constant need of attention himself will exhaust the patience of the class and throw it off balance
For the first class I choose people from the circle who I think are potential leaders, who seemed to have the desire to learn and grow and also plenty of attention to give others. Since I had come to know most of the circle pretty well this was not difficult. I took on one person I did not really know after he showed such a keen desire and insistent interest, and I interviewed him at some length. He turned out to be a terrific learner and really appreciated the class.
The prisoners became very proud of their class and of their own progress in it. It was something totally new and beyond anything they could have imagined, but they became really involved, would ask very pertinent questions, absorb the reading material we would bring them, and practice their skills whenever opportunities arose during the day. When I arrived some of them had managed to get to the school early, before the class was called on the prison public address system. They had arranged for the room, had cleaned it once more and arranged the chairs, and were eagerly awaiting my arrival.
The first thing we did, common to all Re-Evaluation Counseling classes, was for each member to report on something that was new and good in their lives. This is in order to bring the attention together in a positive way. You can imagine that life in prison can be rated on a scale from ordinarily bad to really
miserable. It can be depressing, hopeless, maddening, crazy, unreal, and inhuman, and that has the potential of really weighing down any class with negative energy.
You may imagine that it is not an easy task to set a prisoner, to have him report on what is new and good in his life. If there are visits or letters or good calls from home, that is good. But may of these men have no one on the outside concerned for them or have very difficult situations going on beyond their control in their families. So at first a student might say that he has absolutely nothing good to say about his life, but after I insist and refuse to go on until he has thought of something, he will be able to find one glimmer of light in all his darkness.
"I guess it's good I'm alive anyway. It's good I could get up this morning. It's good I have this class to come to," they will way. Later they will think of more things, "Because of the circle I have some real friends, brothers I can talk to." "I watched the birds. They fly down to my window because I bring bread from chow to them." "The sky was really blue, deep blue, and the clouds were really speeding across it, so white and fluffy."
After a number of months students have told me that being forced to think about the good things in their lives has made a big change in their consciousness. They say that time, which used to be hard time, slow time, wearisome time, is now speeding by for them. Because they no longer take up a lot of it being stuck in their feelings and problems. They have lost the habit of complaining all the time about whatever goes wrong. If it's minor, they let it go, it's not important. They keep noticing the good things, things to be glad about, to be thankful for, so they can focus on their "new and goods". Of course they also know that when they have a real problem and truly hard feelings, they can deal with them in the circle, in the sweat, and, for the students, at even greater length in the class.
With their attention up, I would usually bring up some point of counseling theory and explain it. Then I would probably demonstrate the use of the techniques they were learning by counseling one of the students in front of the class. After the session each student would get to comment on what he saw taking place, to ask questions, to say what he might have done had he been the counselor. If I noticed at the beginning of the class that one of the students was having some heavy feelings, I would probably go straight to a demonstration with him. If a number of people seemed to be stuck and down at the beginning, I might spend the rest of the class giving attention to these.
We might just go around to each one, splitting the time equally, to give group attention to every one, or we might break the class down into couples for them to practice their counseling skills on each other. Every class would be different, and would depend on the psychological state of the members at the time. Teaching always requires flexibility, but nowhere is that so demanding as in a prison.
I started with 12 but two had to drop out for Narcotics Anonymous meetings. The rest of the ten were very tight and opened up more and more each week. We always started with new-and-goods, not so easy in prison and generally amounts to a report of a visit, or just being glad to be still alive and in the class. Then we had a life story from one man each week. These were very powerful. After the life story we had questions and comments from the class with everyone excited and thinking well. After that, if there's time, one piece of counseling theory for them to chew over, or sometimes longer counseling sessions.
I learned that teaching a co-counseling class in prison is very different from a class on the outside. In the first place, some amount of discharge was inhibited by the fact you cannot shout, scream, or do anything very loud as we would in an outside class, or you would bring unwanted attention from the ever present guards who are alert to the least disturbance. And if something very disturbing to a student is brought up, I might not have the time within the confines of the school to fully go into it and bring a resolution of some kind which brings him safely back to a present time that he can handle. And I am not quite so easily available by phone if they are in difficulty. I learned that if something was coming up late in the class time that looked big I should reserve going into it until early in the next class.
I made some mistakes, along those lines and others, in the beginning, not really having any model of such a class in prison, and having to learn it all for myself - with the help of my other teachers, the prisoners. They were patient with me, realizing that I was on new ground. They understood that I knew some stuff that was really valuable, and they wanted to learn it too, but also that being able to teach it in these circumstances was very different, and they were going to have to teach me a lot about prison and the life of prisoners in order for me to figure out how to adapt my material and presentation to their world.
Of course it is not easy for them to have a real session out in the population, so these sessions in class were very important to them. They learned to think about each other in terms well, and they moved in on each other when they noticed a lot of distress. One time a man left the class before it started, very angry at a minor incident, and we spent a lot of time talking about what might be going on for him, and what might be the best way to counsel him. His friends went after him, and the next class he was solidly there and quite out. He did well, considering that he has never been able to trust anyone in his life, had no support on the outside, and was facing extradition from that institution and the only friends he had ever been able to open up at all with, to face a 15 year old murder charge alone in another state.
Another time a man was not in the class, and when I asked about him I was told that he was being threatened by someone not in the class and was very upset. Naturally I said that this was exactly the time when he needed to be in class, and I asked someone to go get him, and to find the person who was threatening him as well, and bring him if he would come. This was done, the men themselves counseled these two men, the whole thing turned out to be a big misunderstanding which never would have come out if we hadn't gone after them and counseled them, and a serious fight could easily have ruined two lives. You can believe these men were very proud of themselves after that, and in awe of the power of co-counseling!
Little by little, more slowly than in an outside class, in sessions lasting only two hours a week, the prisoners got to learn basic counseling theory, watch demonstrations of counseling, practice their own counseling skills, and further explore the scary world of discharge. They learned that they can allow themselves to feel feelings which are terrifying and painful and enraging, and that they will not go crazy or get bummed out forever, but will actually relieve themselves of old burdens, gain more power, and think more clearly. They began to use their new skills with other inmates, with guards, with their families. And they began to envision taking leadership on the outside, creating circles, counseling, helping young people stay out of trouble and out of prison. In short, they began to see the possibilities of staying in the spirit (actual Reality) and changing the world.