Last October, Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad, California hosted the first “Council” with inmates in this level IV facility. SVSP houses some of the most dangerous inmates in California. Yet, in spite of its population, six Native Americans, four African Americans, an inmate from Honduras and a pre-op transsexual met together with a couple of Council leaders for a two-day workshop in a communication technique based on a Native American tradition known as Council.
In Council the basic format is simple: participants sit in a circle, pass a “talking piece” (a ritual object which conveys the right of the holder to receive the undivided attention of the circle), and the participants take turns speaking and listening from the heart. There is no hierarchy of authority in Council; all participants are equal. The only requirements are: Speak from the heart; Listen with your heart. Speak briefly and to the point. In the SVSP Council, the group explored the territory of brothers and others by asking the question of “Who am I? Who is my brother?
Programs aimed at helping inmates dive into questions of selfhood, brotherhood, or racial relationships have long been scarce in American prisons. For inmates to have an experience where they are not under constant surveillance by guards is unheard of. Yet, SVSP’s warden, Randolf Grounds, felt that Council would be an important tool to help inmates express their feelings about themselves and each other. He says, “You’ve got to have inmate buy-in. Until you get that, you’re not gonna have significant change.” Grounds feels that Council’s influence can spread “like an antibiotic” through every level of prison culture resulting in a reduction in recidivism.
I have participated in the practice of Council through The Ojai Foundation with both teenagers and adults and have witnessed the power of Council to elicit understanding and compassion in participants. But although I have sat in Council with gang members, I never thought I’d see Council used in prison. The advocates of Council state that the practice could transform U.S. prisons, curbing violence while helping inmates open up emotionally in ways that are rare behind bars. Three-strikes policies and mandatory drug sentencing laws have led to soaring prison populations and ballooning budgets, but today even tough-on-crime conservatives are reassessing the penological status quo.
Jared Seide, the director of the Center for Council says, “We are pleased to be working now with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to bring council to maximum security prisons to both foster a paradigm shift on the prison yards and to provide meaningful support for reintegration, as these men and women return to society.”
Please take a moment to watch the following video; it is a fabulous example of what is possible as a program in prisons for very little financial output by citizens.
Contact Jared Seide, director of the Center for Council, at The Ojai Foundation if you are interested in learning more about using Council in your community, your school, your family.