Medicine for the mind

By Mary, Liberation Prison Project volunteer, March 2015

The Guidelines are an amazing and accessible way for people to begin to examine the links between thinking, behaviour, relationships and meaning in the world. In prison they can become a powerful way of transforming problems under the most challenging circumstances. At the end of last year I witnessed this first hand as I had the privilege of delivering a programme based on the 16 Guidelines to a group of prisoners for the Liberation Prison Project in New Zealand.

Prior to that I had been interested in developing a programme to take the 16G into the penitentiary system, originally for another prison, so after discussing it with the Chaplain there I began work on a programme suitable for the local context in New Zealand. For this I received lots of support David Machles and Karen Mastroianni, who had already developed a prison programme called ‘Building Inner Strength’ in the USA. They were extremely helpful and generous with their advice, materials and experience about how to go about adapting the 16 Guidelines to prison.  

Whilst developing the programme, a prison-tutor approached me from another prison that was very keen to get the programme approved and started by November. She carefully chose the men to be part of the group. As a young Maori woman, she understood the cultural history of the men much better than I did. Her advice was very precious and I learned a great deal from her.  We facilitated the group together; I delivered the content, and the two of us guided the group together.  Our collaboration worked very well as I did not pretend to understand gang cultures or the various layers of prison politics happening all the time. I also worked with men in other wings of the prison in smaller groups.  
Like ‘medicine for the mind’
We had five sessions in total. Even after the first one it became very clear that the men were very keen and engaged.  We took their feedback about how vital it was to have something positive for them to think about.

The structure was that the first session would be an introduction, with the remaining four to focus on the themes of How We Think, How We Act, How We Relate to Others and How We Find Meaning.  However, my colleague from the prison felt that if we made the first session too abstract the men would find it difficult to engage, and she expressed how important Humility was in gang culture and as the first guideline how that would be the place to start conversations.

She was right; the men quickly opened up and talked about the people who inspired them and what it was about humility that earned their respect.  I took them through a contemplative exercise which they were not necessarily all engaged with but the sensitivity, openness and insight was inspiring and humbling. The men were keen to come back, with one expressing that being in the session was like medicine for his mind. 

Keeping it simple, clear and real
I was certainly learning a lot too; the importance of being humble and not pretending to know (which is easy because I really don’t know anything!); of listening to the worlds that each man lives in; and of being completely present. The next time, I adapted a meditation that David Machles developed and turned it into an analytical meditation about chocolate as a way of examining how we think.  This was a big hit and the conversation about how we think and the four words flowed easily until our time ended.  

It was also vital to begin with examples and relate the Guidelines to the men’s experience by giving them opportunities to relate their own stories.  It was continuous learning for me to use fewer words, speak clearly and in the language that made most sense to the men. The men taught me so much with their wisdom and willingness to explain prison life so articulately and openly.  

Results from the programme
As the Guidelines are all so rooted in language and the discussion of them is around our interpretations of the words and what they evoke, each week, as the men explored words and their meanings, they reported how that helped them to think differently. By the end of the five sessions there were reports from the men of coming to the session to calm themselves, people reading the 16G book when they didn’t usually read and writing to their families more.

They also said they would like to go through a Guideline a week for 16 weeks.  The men who attended the five weeks reported that this was a different way of thinking for them and they were grateful for that.

There were many challenges so I would often need to adapt on the spot.  This was very good for me, as it is so important to be awake to the people in front of us. I only wish I could have retained that kind of attention to others when I walked out of the prison….

This year another prison would like the programme and I am told the men at the first prison would like me to come back to work with them, seeing if studying one Guideline a week is possible.  The men seem to have seen changes more rapidly than I could have imagined. That is due to their extraordinary strength to be able to learn in an environment where most of us would lose our sanity.

Mary, Liberation Prison Project, NZ
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