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Compassion in Corrections

Lara Naughton | September 7, 2017

The Compassion Institute, in partnership with the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, LA (Angola), has set in motion a prison-wide Compassion Program. Every Thursday, I drive from my home in New Orleans through the old plantation country of south Louisiana to Angola, a sprawling 18,000-acre prison surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River and the fourth side by the Tunica Hills. Angola currently houses more than 6,000 men, making it the largest maximum-security prison in the country. At least 75% of the inmates have life sentences, most without the possibility of parole.


The Compassion Program includes a series of Compassion Cultivation Training classes (CCT) for incarcerated individuals; weekly Compassion Dispatch videos that highlight aspects of mindfulness and compassion, and are aired on the prison’s closed-circuit TV; one-day mindfulness and compassion workshops for prison staff and correction officers; and A Day of Compassion that will bring incarcerated men, victims’ rights advocates, legal professionals and community leaders together at Angola for an educational conference on the science and practice of compassion.


The front gates of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. (Source)
Once a week, the twenty-one men enrolled in CCT and I sit in a large circle on plastic chairs in a prison classroom to grapple with what it means to live our best lives. We discuss the challenges and benefits of practicing compassion, and each week there are reports about how mindfulness and compassion have positively impacted relationships, reactions to triggers, and overall well-being. We also have lively conversations about our incomplete and false narratives, and the deep suffering that can arise from them.


It’s hard to heal in a harsh environment. Harder still when society’s dominant narrative says you deserve to suffer and don’t possess the capacity to change. Dominant narratives—including the ones we tell about ourselves, the ones we tell about others, and the ones others tell about us—are usually too easy to be correct. We’re left thinking about each other as archetypes rather than multifaceted individuals.


Case in point: “People who harm others should be locked away, often forever, without contact with society.” “Victims’ lives are ruined.”
Based on those dominant narratives, the men and I are an unlikely group: I’m the survivor of a violent crime, and most of the participants have life sentences. Yet violence is never the whole story, and the harm done to or by someone is the not the sum total of their lives. We all know humans are complicated and messy, so when a narrative is concise and one-note, we can be sure it’s incomplete.


Within our group, we’ve noticed how our stories are so often based in conflict and perspectives of wrongdoing. And we’re masters of the craft. Storytelling is as ancient as human language; it’s what we use to create order and make sense of the world. The problem is, when we base stories on fear and anger, they end up creating distress and a different kind of chaos. When we finally pause and take a more comprehensive look, we can see that right alongside pain is the human urge to move beyond it, and a natural desire to be happy and well. When we begin to focus our stories on healing, compassion and change, the experiences of our lives shift. And we become better equipped to tell the story of our sameness.


I’m humbled to admit this, but I recently caught myself in a false narrative masked as a compliment. I’d been telling people for weeks how blown away I was by the group’s openness and willingness to be vulnerable, by the deep reckoning, and richness of conversation. Our class even meets for three hours rather than two because discussion is so dynamic. But then it struck me that inherent in my awe was the assumption that it would be otherwise.


What limited narratives had I ingested about men in prison? What stereotype did I expect to encounter, and why? How did my own experience with crime generalize and solidify into a story? What did I presume to offer that I thought didn’t exist?


A narrow perspective never results in a complete story, and no narrative is solid. One breath can blow a hole right through it. The breath of mindfulness does that, evaporates what seems immovable. And what’s left is an opening for a new perspective. The perspective of compassion helps us recognize the whole, complex individual, as well as our shared humanity.


Perhaps more useful questions are: How can we function in our interconnectedness? How can we hold each other up?


Compassion is, of course, already present within Angola, as I suspect it would be within any group of individuals. In fact, many of the current CCT participants have served twenty or thirty years in Angola, and are dedicated and compassionate prison leaders: inmate pastors, clerks, legal counselors, teachers, mentors, and hospice caregivers.


The Compassion Program at Angola will continue to build on the compassion that already exists; give name to it; offer specific tools for daily practice; explicitly highlight the benefits of cultivating greater compassion both within—and beyond—prison gates; and create mechanisms for first-hand contact between inmates and community members who can work together to shape new narratives about justice and healing.

Lara Naughton is coordinator and instructor of The Compassion Program at Angola.