My parents have been spending time in the slammer. They are both approaching 80, are upstanding citizens, but in any given month, they might average two weekends in the joint. A while back, I decided to join them.
That particular weekend they were at the Honor Farm in Riverton, Wyo. They specialize in Wyoming institutions — Lusk, Newcastle, Laramie, among others. Most visits involve a three-hour drive, but Riverton is close to their Lander home.
We showed up early Saturday morning, checked in, and were ushered to a conference room near the prison library. Soon the prisoners started filing in, 11 men in jeans and T-shirts. Some of them had been in prison for 25 years, others a year or less. We all sat in a circle. The mood was guarded.
My mother started by introducing the program, Alternatives to Violence. She's been conducting workshops, often with my father, for more than a dozen years.
After she finished, she asked people to introduce themselves with an "adjective name." Hers was Swell Chel. The men tentatively, somewhat sheepishly, spoke up. Careful Craig, Realistic Roadie, Fast Felix, Jolly Ollie. Names they would carry for the weekend. A silly exercise, in one sense, but the beginning of breaking down barriers, the first chink in the wall.
The Alternatives to Violence Program began in Greenhaven Prison in New York state. In 1975, a group of prisoners known as the Think Tank, asked a local Quaker group for help in nonviolence training to prepare them for work as counselors for under-age offenders.
What emerged was a program that evolved into a carefully thought-out set of exercises and training aimed at stopping violent reactions and violent behavior. The idea grew, mostly by word of mouth, to 40 states and 20 countries, and it’s staffed completely on a volunteer basis.
Although its main thrust has been prison work, training has expanded to battered women's homes, homeless shelters, law enforcement groups and community mediation centers. Despite its ties to Quakers, the program is non-sectarian and carries no religious message.
"We have learned a tremendous amount about ourselves," my parents told me. "These are lessons we all need to be reminded of."
In Riverton, the session incorporated role-playing, discussion, team-based challenges and brainstorming, all focused on gaining new approaches to conflict.
Between the serious stuff, goofy activities called, "light and livelies" break things up. In one, the group stands in a circle and throws small, stuffed animals back and forth at greater and greater speed. Within minutes the group of felons had disintegrated into a giggling bunch of kids. Saturday was a 12-hour day, broken up only by meals, head counts and smoke breaks. Just before lunch, everyone shared their greatest fears.
"I'm most afraid that I'll never leave prison," said Realistic Roadie, who began serving time at 15. Careful Craig said his biggest fear was dying in a gutter, a needle in his arm.
There were role-playing sessions that cut close to the bone. Fast Felix confronted a father who had been out of prison for a year and hadn't bothered to look up his son. In others, men role-played job interviews where they had to explain their criminal past, or negotiated daily chores with a girlfriend after release, or talked to their sons about what constitutes a good man.
Once, during a heated discussion, an inmate known as Climbing Cliff burst out, "This isn't our life! This isn't who we are! There's a door we'll all walk through one day where we can take these skills." Every man in the circle was nodding his head. I felt a chill go down my spine.
The Sunday workshop was no less intense. It became clear that despite living in confinement together, these men knew each other only superficially. The opportunity to talk on a deeper level had a palpable effect on the group.
By the end of the workshop, the men who had begun with their shields raised were listening intently, jumping in with their thoughts and ideas. The day ended with a graduation ceremony. We stood in a tight circle. Each man's name, including mine, was called. We walked up, shook hands with everyone, held our certificates with surprising pride.
Afterwards some of the prisoners hung around. Several volunteered to be trained as "inside" facilitators. Others talked about what it meant to have outsiders come in without any agenda.
For me, it was the words, "This is not our life!" that kept echoing in my head all the way back to my free life in Montana.
Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives and writes in Bozeman, Montana.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at email@example.com.