INAlternative to Violonce Project
On June 1st I wrote about an organization called AVP  Alternative to Violence Project. This organization began in New York and has since spread to 36 other states. It is a group of volunteers who hold workshops inside prisons with the inmates who want to learn a better way of living – a better way of dealing with their emotions and making positive changes in their life. Eventually almost everyone gets out of prison. Recidivism back to prison is overall 70% after five years. Even people who aren’t incarcerated want to make changes to their lives and find it isn’t easy and we have many options to choose from to try and make it happen. Coming from inside prison and then expected to live among society again, there is no family to soften the blow. That makes it very hard to create a life of value.

There is a lot of anger in a prison. There are some men, and women, who have been given a raw deal with sentences that are ridiculously long for the crime committed. Many have been inside more than once. Many have lost their family, spouses and children and some had a lifestyle they know they don’t want to go back to, but don’t know any alternative. Many come from low income neighborhoods where if they had an attorney who actually had their best interest at heart they might not have gotten the years they were sentenced to. There is nothing fair about prison.

Knowing someday Jamie will also get out of prison, and also knowing he knows very little about how to live on the outside, and most of all, knowing he has a problem with anger he has been working on, it’s been important to me to find ways to help him. Completing your sentence and getting out is only half the battle. Staying out and having a life you are happy with is another.

I found out first there are mediation services that help inmates reintegrate into society by helping with relationships that have become difficult. It isn’t unusually for family to stop writing and visiting less, especially if the sentence is long. Wives and girlfriends find new relationships. There is often anger at being left to raise children alone. Children might be angry at their parent not being there for them and also there might be a gap because they don’t know each other. Mediation helps bring them together and work out the issues. This is why I try so hard to find out how Jamie’s son is doing in school and send pictures. My daughter tells me she doesn’t care and to not speak of him again. She has a man in her life so it has made it a problem. Jamie is afraid of losing his son. That is fine for her, but nothing can erase the fact he has a father. This is one reason why I want to learn as much as I can. I think they will need mediation when the times comes when Jamie gets out.

avp, alternative to violence project

photo credit:
justifiedoutdoors.com

AVP is a different organization of dedicated facilitators who volunteer to go into the prison each month and hold workshops. These initial workshops have 2 steps. Each step is 3 days long. An inmate has to want to indicate they want to sign up for it. They can stop at this point, but if they want to become a facilitator themselves they can continue on with the training. Total hours of training is 55. It would be the same for me. I have to attend both series of workshops and do the training

I was able to contact a husband and wife team, David and Nancy Hutchins and told them the reason why I wanted to get involved. I was sent a packet of papers to fill out and send back to get approval to be inside the prison with the inmates. July 21st was the yearly AVP Facilitator Recognition Night and it would be a good introduction to the group as most of them would be there. Also at the meeting would be the old and new inmate facilitators. I live in Pa, close to the Maryland border so the prison was only about forty miles away. There were quite a few people waiting to sign in and go through the metal detectors. Everyone was retirement age and many have been doing this for a long time, 20-25 years. I wasn’t ready for what was waiting when we went to the room where the meeting was being held.

I didn’t count the inmates but there had to be total of 40-50 people there, more inmates than outsiders. The inmates either had on white t-shirts or one that indicated they were facilitators. I have never seen so many smiles in one room! We walked single file into the room with inmates on the left and right as we went down the aisle. We exchanged names, hugs and handshakes. One man said he was so happy to be in air conditioning because it had been a long time. It’s been a pretty hot summer this year and it is easy to take for granted that we can always get out of the heat if we want to. I know from Jamie, in Texas, that heat is a big problem and each year there are at least a few who die from the effects of heat. At the Wynne Unit in Texas they now have a big fans out in the corridor but it doesn’t do anything for ventilation in the cells. All at does is blow around hot air. If they have the money they can buy a little plastic fan in the commissary.

After everyone introduced themselves the meeting began. Fortunately I had a front row seat. The Master of Ceremonies was “Tenacious Tillet” aka Selvyn Tillet. Everyone has a second name and that is what everyone calls each other. James Dyson is “Joking JD”, Rigo Mena-Perez is “Respectful Rigo”, Nancy Hutchins is “Knowing Nancy”. The inmates are quite at ease with these other names. Tenatious Tillet started out with the motto of the organization, “Making a Difference One Person at a Time” How true that is because the change in a single human being can change the world.

Assistant Warden Lyons spoke and what he said was very positive. He said, Everyone has value. Everyone has worth. I looks for those who will make good leaders; those with the ability to say no and those with the ability to swim upstream against the norm. Change brings change.”

I have had very little positive to say about the prisons in my writings, but this evening, if he means what he says, these inmates are fortunate to have him there. I know it can’t be easy to run a population of people who make prison their home, either by a mistake, a deliberate crime, someone mentally off-balance or a repeat offender who knows no other way of doing things. But his desire, he says, is to bring down the recidivism percentage at the Maryland Correctional Institute which currently sits at 40% within three years. The highest percentage is in the first three years. Nationwide it is 70% within 5 years. Those who honestly try to live right find it extremely hard to find jobs and rent apartments and resort to crime or old habits to survive. There needs to be changes for those inmates who are sincere about living a better life. If they have repaid their debt to society then they should leave with a clean slate. If you have to tell everyone you are an ex felon, no one is going to want to take a chance with you on any level.

Christopher Shank, Director at the Governor Office of Crime Control and Prevention, talked about a bill being passed that would shield low level non violent crimes when they get out, to lessen the stigma of being an ex-con. They are gathering the data to look at the mix of how many are locked up for technical reasons like parole violations rather than new crimes. When people come back, what is it for? But talk is easy. Let’s see what actually happens. There is still the fact of the 20 year contracts with the prison corporations who expect the prisons to be 90-100% full or the government has to pay them for empty beds. That is a very expensive catch 22 for the inmates.

“Joking JD” did a presentation about what they teach in the workshops. It is a five step process that starts with 1. Affirmation 2.Communication 3.Cooperation 4.Conflict resolution 5. Problem solving

“Respectful Rico” gave an experience and said the workshops taught him how to interact and how to express himself. He wouldn’t even speak at the first meeting. He said he’s learned to think before he reacts. When he finished with the workshops someone said they saw something in him and asked him if he wanted to train as a facilitator. This might not seem like a big thing to some people, but this might have been the first time he had a reason to feel proud of himself and other people thought he had worth.

“Excellent E” said, “I always reacted with violence, especially when alcohol was involved. In 2008 I killed someone and got 33 years. At first I lost it, and then I worried about my kids. I needed to make a choice. AVP was life changing for me. Now I have the tools to make my life work. Now I no longer curse when I’m mad. I’ve been with AVP for five years.”

I was sitting next to “Humorous Hutch”, David Hutchins, and he explained to me that almost every inmate who walks through the door on the first meeting is scowling with their heads down and they don’t talk to anyone. By the time they get down with the third day of the 2nd part of the workshops they are completely different people, laughing and joking and making friends. The transformation of a human being when he learns he has value and doesn’t have to be wary of the person next to him is incredible. They take these new attitudes and insights back into the prison population and it encourages the next group of people to participate. Sometimes people get out, sometimes they get transferred to another prison and sometimes they are on lockdown and the meeting has to be changed. Being able to participate in these workshops gives them something of value in their lives – helping other inmates.

In addition to the workshops with the outside facilitators, the inmate facilitators carry on with workshops throughout the month. I know there are other workshops for different areas such as music. Being a piano teacher, that is of interest to me. This is just the beginning for me. I’m hoping that what I learn here I can use to help Jamie in some way. But this is a medium security prison where Jamie is in maximum security. I think it would take a good attorney to see if that could be changed because as long as he is being held the way he is he isn’t eligible for anything. This is one way they keep from paroling them. He can’t do anything to improve himself so it is a catch 22 situation. This is one reason why I am writing his story, “Inside the Forbidden Outside”, in the hopes of being able to put money together for him. But it’s a ways off and still being written. I keep chipping away with everything that needs to be done one day at a time.

16 thoughts on “Alternative to Violence Project – First meeting at Maryland Correctional Institution

  1. Very interesting article, and the goal of AVP seems to be very noble but even the highest goal is still a goal. Violence is a huge issue, we are violent, our society is violent, do we all see it? Or we invent an ideal of non violence and struggle to catch it? Another interesting question is what lies behind violence? What is the root of it? Please ask yourself. Isn’t it the divisive approach in life? Isn’t it that we feel we are different from each other? We feel that my best interest is different from yours. This separation necessarily breeds conflic and violence. This is necessary.

    So there is violence, this is what is! How can we deal with violence? Intellect, logic, thought knows only two ways.. either we suppress violence, or we justify it and act violently. There is no other option! So every method created by the logic, by thought (even the most sophisticated legislation or the most effective organization – which are actually products of intellect) can’t tackle this issue.. they can only lead to suppression or justification.

    Once we actually see it,once we see logic is so limited what is left? What about just observing violence. Not to analyze it, not to explain it, not to try to find the cause of it, just to see it, without the past, the memory, the stereotypes, the ideas about non violence, without preconceived opinions? Probably we should try it and see what happens!

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    1. You think there are only two choices? Suppress it or justify it and act violent
      ourselves? You think that is the only option?
      You are definitely looking at only the surface aspect of why we do the things we do
      and what it is that makes us who we are. I suppose you also think the nature of someone is so concrete it can’t change?;If
      you have done something violent then that is who you are and are always destined to be violent? Does that hold true for all tendencies our just violence?

      You are right in saying we can’t legislate our way out of violence or make anyone change. It depends on our desire for change. What is the riot of violence? Meaning why are we violent or were we born way? Perhaps why one person was born into a violent family or neighborhood instead of a loving family? Why did one person only know violence as a way of life, destined for prison since birth? It sounds like you think they should be treated back with violence because this person had no hope of being anything other than violent? What is the root of it? His karma. It is the effect of the causes he made. For every cause made there is an effect. That karma can be perpetuated over and over. Answering violence for violence and nothing changes – until that person learns they can get off the merry go round. It’s not easy. One doesn’t change simply because one
      wants to. That is the purpose of AVP. To empower the people to know they don’t have to settle for Less. To understand they are human. They made mistakes just like we all have. There is definitely a flip side to violence. You are looking at this issue through a very very narrow lens and I doubt you will see it any other way because you are determined to see it that way. Just observing violence? For what point? Watching with no action doesn’t do a damn thing. Causes are made by action not inaction. Effects come causes. So Explain to me what you think inaction will do? You think our differences have only one way to go and that is conflict and violence. Conflict always resorts to violence? Are you violent?

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      1. On the contrary , in the question “can we change” i am totally open. I can’t find a reason why an everchanging structure like the brain can’t change. Yes i think, intellect can either justify violence, analyze it, or suppress it, try to hide it? Is there anything else it can do? I am not sarcastic or aggresive, maybe i miss something, please tell me what you have in mind.
        Actually i don’t know why you conclude that i believe people can’t change, why you conclude i believe violent people should be treated with violence.. again, on the contrary it seems like violence as a reply to violence will perpetuate the chain of violence, so it just doesn’t make sense at all.
        The only thing that makes sense is to deny all these intellectual approaches. Then we are left with “what is” which is violence.. and this is the only way to actually see violence, which will reveal the whole nature of it.. and then strange things may happen.

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        1. I probably read something in your comment different from what you intended. Yes, people can change, but it takes more than just wanting to change. If it were that easy people would do it all the time. The reality is most people end up saying, “That’s just the way am”. The process of human revolution is a lifelong process. It’s hard because people either try to figure things out intellectually our they justify it by saying it must be the Lord’s will and part of his plan for me. Karma gets perpetuated over and over because we keep making the same causes yet expect a different result. Example: a woman has an abusive husband. She gets out of that relationship and attracts another abusive man – over and over – no matter what she does. We attract into our lives the same thing over and over. You can do your best to understand why, but that doesn’t change it. The cause for this type of relationship has not been changed. This holds true for everything in our lives that makes us unhappy. There could be child who is neglected, maybe in the system, who becomes angrier ever year. He learns to lash out with violence until his criminal activities put him in prison. It’s his own fault. He did the crime. Some would say the fault lies with his upbringing. It made him who he is. When he gets out he has no idea what a normal life is and gets dragged back into a lie of crime. Why didn’t he learn and do things different? Yes, his life pushed him in the direction on anger and violence but it is deeper than that. Why was he born into it in the first place? Why were we all born into our circumstances? Why is it hard to change those circumstances? Because it is an effect of the causes made in a different cycle of lives. Karma we accumulated over eons of time. Life is eternal. It goes round and round just like all life. Birth, aging, sickness and death. Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter. Humans are not different. But as long as you think your problems are part of God’s plan, and he must want you to suffer, and he’ll answer your prayers when he sees fit, and believe you’ll go live in utopia with him when you die, you change nothing because is not your job. It’s God’s plan. Changing your nature that draws the same kind of people into your life is hard. Some people try moving to a new location and start over. That doesn’t work. Your problems follow you. The same kind of people come into your life. You can’t escape your life. You want to be happy and you don’t know how. All you can do is has fleeting happiness that is easily destroyed. You don’t know absolute happiness even exists. Absolute happiness is not caused by anything outside yourself.

          You are right in the end. It is about the nature of it – but the nature belongs to the individual, not to the act.

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          1. Thanks for the lengthy comment! What you describe is common in society.. we see it happening everywhere around us.. which doesn’t mean we can’t change… even if something has never happened before it doesnt’ mean it can’t happen in the very next moment. All you describe is an eternal chain of reactions which are based on the conditioning of the man (which is developed because of all these experiences you describe). You don’t lie, what you say is accurate.

            .. my question is can we tackle this conditioning? And is intellectual approach (analysis, justification, escape) able to do anything or this intellectual approach is a part of the conditioning – so it can only boost conditioning. I think it’s obviously part of the conditioning.. so what is left? Seems like the answer lies in passive awareness, a totally non verbal, effortless movement which, i think is essentially life itself.

            PS: What you say about karma, God etc is something that i am not touching at all, i don’t know anything about all these things.

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            1. Of course it can be changed. I think it is hard to not try to analyze it, but that doesn’t change anything. So how does one change something that causes unhappiness? Let’s take a hard situation, since I mostly write about the prison system. (My main blog is at http://mynameisjamie.net ) Today I wore about juvenile detention and the artwork is from a man on death row. He committed a contract killing. Not his first offense. Read what he wrote about what happened the first time he was released. He wanted a better life. His karma was too strong. What is karma? The effect of causes made. If you want to know what causes you made in the past look at your life today. How do you want you future to be? Make the right causes. Otherwise life just slaps you around and if you really think life isn’t being fair is easy to play victim and say is not your fault – it was done to you by something outside your control. At that point many people would pray to God to fix it and when that doesn’t work they’d say it was part of God’s plan for them to suffer. So nothing changes and no responsibility is taken. Amen. Praise the lord!

              How does someone change the fact they are on death row? or Ad Seg like Jamie? Physically, right now it won’t change. What changes is attitude and life Condition. You could call it moods. depending on your mood, when something happens you will react differently. If you are angry and a guard treated you badly you’ll get pissed which will start a chain of events that could end up with you getting very hurt. If you have ahigher life condition you might blow it off and he’d just walk away. You could have a higher life condition and instead genuinely smile him..Afterall he has to work in this 100 degree weather with more clothes on than you and tempers are flaring. Now that he isn’t angry and you weren’t condescending to him maybe you’ll be the first one he takes to the shower and you thank him. Different causes. different effects. this is all of life. This is how karma is made. Everything you think, say or do creates karma. Even in a prison cell you can be happy. There are many kinds of prison cells. To escape unhappiness you have to understand the causes of your life. When you are in rhythm with the universe you will bring to you what you need and when you try to change, your life will throw up obstacles to keep you down. Resistance to change. This is a life long battle. How do you get in rhythm? By chanting “nam myoho rengekyo” The law the cause and effect through sound and vibration. Some people mediate but that is too passive. You physically have to do something. Yes you can think about change but it isn’t the same. There are so many things Iwant to do. None of it will happen unless I make the cause. We understand that on a basic level. Can you even imagine what you could do if you took control of how you’re life actually went? So whether it is changing violence, or anger or jealousy or lack of confidence, or a hateful coworker, or not wanting to be alone, anything – if you have complete confidence your mind will figure out a way. But we are human and it is always 2 steps forward and one step back That is life.There is nothing supernatural about it. No God up there who has the ability to love no matter how much people want it to be so. Common sense. That, was the intro to Nichiren Buddhism 101. No fat happy Buddha, either, BTW.

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  2. Sonni, has anyone told you lately that you’re an amazing person? The work your doing to change the lives of people others have written off is beyond selfless. I know you’ve talked about this bit many times: “There is still the fact of the 20 year contracts with the prison corporations who expect the prisons to be 90-100% full or the government has to pay them for empty beds.” This to me seem fundamentaly wrong because with a expectation of 90-100% capacity leaves very little room for people to be viewed as law abiding citizens. I can’t even begin to imagine the corruption in the system to maintain these levels. It’s just sickening .

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    1. No One in the media is questioning this. Lately all of these people have jumped on the bandwagon saying the prison population needs to come down – even Obama, but what about the contracts and why are they still building new prisons? It doesn’t add up so it sounds like all bullshit and a way to make it sound as they are “going” to do something – especially with an election next year – but it will all probably go the same route as closing Guantanamo Bay. All BS, or they will let go their token 47 or so which won’t mean much but they’ll make a big hoopla about it.

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  3. Hi Sonni. What a great organization. I know that most inmates would benefit from this program. After drugs and alcohol I believe anger from a lack of getting any respect or feeling worthless is the primary reason most are in prison.
    I commend you for actively taking part. I’m wondering if they have this program in Texas?
    Keep up the good work. I have re logged this post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. My thought, too. This was a medium security prison, though, so how does an inmate get from high security to medium. I’ve not looked into that yet to see if it is possible. When I saw what it was doing for the men in the room, many of them it was the first contact of this size with the outside world. They were so happy to see us! I can understand why these people have been together for so many years doing this. Some of them were quite old. They were happy to have me there.

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