Transforming Power

Teaching Nonviolence in Prisons

High incarceration rates were supposed to make the United States safer for its law-abiding citizens. The best evidence indicates, however, that our increased rate of incarceration has not made society any safer. Nonviolent offenders are packed together with violent offenders into dangerous, crowded prisons, where violence is the rule. Upon release, inmates find reintegrating into society extremely difficult.

A constructive path to a safer society entails introducing people to ways of resolving conflict that reduce their need to resort to violence. Fortunately, there is a program that has been doing exactly that.

In 1975, a group of inmates at Green Haven Prison in New York State was working with youth coming into conflict with the law. They collaborated with the Quaker Project on Community Conflict, devising a prison workshop. The success of this workshop quickly generated requests for more, and the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) was formed. The program soon spread to many other prisons.

Grounded in and developed from the real-life experiences of prisoners and run entirely by volunteers who have been trained in leading experiential workshops, the AVP program is offered in communities, prisons, and schools. The object is to create successful personal interactions and transform violent situations. The program implements nonviolent skills and techniques that were used by Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., rooted in the fundamental notions of respect for everyone, including one’s opponents and of replacing the need for power over others with that respect.

Every AVP workshop is designed around affirmation, community building, cooperation, communication, and problem-solving. Playing games is an integral part of the workshops. Humor, along with exercises that focus on appreciation and trust, enhances the affirmation process and promotes a sense of community. The importance of cooperation is also explored in exercises in which teamwork is the only way to succeed. The trainers model the behavior they are trying to teach. How they interact with the participants and other trainers sets the tone for the workshop.

In the basic workshop, communication skills are taught, all of which illustrate the workshop themes. Listening is the most important of these. A lot of time is spent on active listening because it is essential to conflict resolution and it is one of the most direct ways to show respect for someone else. Workshop facilitators listen to participants. For some participants, this is the first time in their lives that they have experienced quality listening.

Beyond these concrete skills, the concept of transforming power is taught. Transforming power allows us to change violent and destructive situations and behaviors into constructive and cooperative ones. The purpose is not to manipulate others but to change the situation. If the goal were to change the other person without changing oneself, this would be using force or power over the other person, which is not nonviolent. Authority does not have to incorporate this type of verbal or physical violence, but it often does unless there is a conscious, concerted effort to use nonviolent means.

An AVP graduate recently wrote:

In an AVP program in prison I learned the power of “transforming power.” I had the experience of watching inmates transform from individuals who would never trust each other, no way, no how, to brothers who let their walls down and open up. We shared our thoughts, feelings, war stories, and even tears. We trusted each other enough that we even played cooperative games, something that no inmate would have thought they would do in prison, or probably anywhere in their life. Through these experiences, I learned that my need to be in control was not as important as respecting others’ feelings and individuality.

He eventually became a trained AVP facilitator, led groups in prison, and has continued to do so since his release. Workshops are now offered extensively in communities and schools and have been held for businesses, churches, community associations, street gangs, halfway houses, and women’s shelters. The program has been growing by 25 to 30 percent each year since. There are currently almost 2,000 volunteer AVP facilitators in the United States. AVP focuses much of its efforts toward one of the most violence-prone groups in our society: prison inmates. Last year, more than 2,000 inmates in California alone took the training.

Recidivism Reduction

In a recent recidivism study measuring the effectiveness of the AVP program, more than 350 inmates were followed for three years after release. In the study, the AVP participants were compared to a control group from the same population during the same time frame. The AVP group had a 47 percent lower recidivism rate than the comparison group, and only 5.7 percent committed violent felonies within three years after release.

The chief of the Bureau of Prisons in Delaware recently commented:

As a warden of a state prison in Delaware, I saw the AVP facilitate a dramatic reduction in the number of assaults between inmates in what had been a difficult maximum security unit. As the program continued to run and “graduate” more and more inmates, the overall climate improved to a point where the inmates were actually seeking out ways to positively affect their environment. As the chief of prisons for Delaware, I’ve seen similar results in each of the prisons that have implemented Alternatives to Violence Programs. There have never been any security breaches, and the staff and inmate population alike respect the AVP volunteers.

Beyond Prisons

The AVP program has also been used in dozens of countries. For example, in order to deal with the 10,000 prisoners who have been sitting in jail for years on charges stemming from the genocidal attacks in 1994, Rwanda has set up a truth commission and has appointed lay judges. AVP workshops have been part of the training for the 1,400 truth commission judges. The results have been remarkable. Workshops are being held with perpetrators of the massacres and families of victims. At first they did not even want to speak to each other. By the end of the workshop, the perpetrators were asking for forgiveness. Some of the perpetrators of the genocide are now building houses for the victims.

Terry Kayser

Terry Kayser, a former Milwaukee police officer, came to AVP in 1995 in Minneapolis, Minn., after viewing a video of incarcerated youth produced by Bill Moyers and determining there is another way to deal with offenders. He facilitates in two state prisons, one federal, and one county correctional facility.