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Peace Talks Radio host Carol Boss talks with former California prison inmates Carl Irons and James Alexander (Alex), and president of AVP California, Pat Hardy.

Carol Boss: Pat, talk to us about the principals and the goals of AVP.

Pat Hardy: Well it’s probably best understood by looking at our history. We started in Green Haven Prison about 35 years ago as a result of a group of men asking a group of Quakers if they couldn’t – Attica had just happened and they had been moved to Green Haven as a result of those riots and they said you know, we understand violence, but we don’t understand the alternative to violence and it was at their request. Now we fear in society the people who go to prison because of the violence that we believe they have done and by introducing alternatives and giving people experiential skills, skills and experiences in alternatives to violence and other ways of handling a situation, we then prepare them to come into society. One cannot function on any kind of job or with any kind of family if it’s always done from a position of I’m right, you’re wrong or I’ll bunk you across the head. Life doesn’t – we can’t function in a society like that. We’re preparing people to return to society and become a significant contributing part of society and it takes practice. It doesn’t just happen.

Boss: Right.

Hardy: It takes practice in learning to change how we approach a situation and this not only in prison. We offer this workshop also in the community because there’s a circle between the community and the prison work. People come out into the community, we involve them in the workshops, people from the community go into the prison so there begins to be an education of the two worlds.

Boss: So when folks gather for the very first workshop which lasts for two or three days, what happens in that first workshop?

Hardy: Well, in the first workshop, we set basic ground rules of how we’ll relate to one another which include things like; no put downs, shy people speak up, talk to people, don’t hog the floor, those kinds of ground rules. Then we introduce what is a core called “Transforming Power Guides,” guides to transforming power which have, as it turns out, 12 guides to transforming power but they’re not steps like you would think of with the NA. These then become the guidelines that are then carried on throughout all the rest of the workshops, but some things that they start off that are a surprise to them is everything is completely experiential. It’s all interactive and they have a chance to interact with one another and interact with all of us interacting.

Boss: How do you begin exploring in that first level, that first workshop, ideas about violence and non-violence?

Hardy: Well, it’s not like everybody doesn’t know what those are, so we put two pieces of paper up on the wall; one that says “violence” and one that says “non-violence” and they start off brainstorming what is violence and every comes up with things. It can be everything from guns to rudeness and then we have non-violence and that can be everything from prayer to a handshake. We then just leave that as a part of the workshop throughout the workshop and there’s no lecture. It’s not like everybody doesn’t know what this is about, we just name it and put it up on the wall. Then from then on we move onto communication exercises; everything from “I” messages to listening to role play exercises to try on the exercise, the things we’ve learned.

Boss: What are “I” messages?

Hardy: In our society, we have “you” messages; you are a terrible student. We have “I” messages that say; when you don’t study, I’m very concerned about your ability to succeed in this class. What I’d like from you is that you would take your book home and study when you leave the class. That’s the difference. “I” messages calls out the best in people and owns what I’m feeling as a person and the “you” messages are often the messages that we’ve gotten from society about our badness.

Boss: Carl Irons, what did you think when you attended your first meeting in group? What do you remember there that struck you?

Carl Irons: The fact that the people cared enough to make the effort; people being treated like a human being because in prison often we’re not. Like I say, there are other programs that bring in people from the outside from the community. They don’t just talk about treating people decently and all of that or their faith or what they’re doing, they live it. AVP is one of those situations. The fact that AVP is an experiential workshop rather than just lectures made it a lot more valuable for me. It gave me the opportunity to really explore how it applied to me. And one of the values of AVP was the fact that we explored what constituted violence. Some of the obvious things; fighting and physical violence are there and everybody recognizes it, but it opened some discussion about “is drug use violence?” Well, yeah. We harm ourselves and generally people using drugs and alcohol harm the people around them; their families and friends and stuff. So for me it expanded that view of what constituted violence into a larger theater.

Boss: Well Carl, what did consider one of the more valuable skills that you picked up?

Irons: I think one of the most valuable skills for me was the use of “I” messages. I’m fairly good sized. I mean I’m not the biggest guy in the world by any means, but when I was younger I used my size to my advantage. If I had a disagreement with someone, I had a tendency to start the discussion with poking my finger in their chest and “look, you SOB,” and oddly enough that very seldom resulted in a satisfactory result. Through AVP I learned – I can’t say I learned, but it made me aware that if I start the conversation with looking for a solution rather than a victory, that I was more likely to find a solution.

Boss: Were you able to then practice the skills that you learned and developed in the workshops? Were you able to actually use them in the prison itself?

Irons: Yeah. Like most things that we learn it takes practice. I didn’t leave the first workshop all cured and all better, but I learned some techniques and it made me aware of the need to approach things differently.

Boss: What did you think for the first time Alex, when you went to a workshop or one of those groups? Did you think hey, that’s for me, I want to be a part of this?

James Alexander: I could not believe that people actually cared about people in prison. When you find someone to treat you like a human being, not like you are just someone to be thrown away, it has an impact on you Carol and it had a great impact on me.

Boss: What would you say was one of the more valuable skills that you learned and were able to use?

Alexander: I would actually say assertive communication.

Boss: Can you explain that?

Alexander: Well, being able to stand or sit across from an individual, look them in the eye and understand that they are not your superior as far as being better than you. Just because they may have more money in their bank account, they may have a better suit and tie, they may know how to shoot a basketball like Michael Jordan or say a speech like President Obama, it doesn’t mean that they are a better human being than you are. So if you start from the place that you are equal with the person you’re talking to and you are valued just as they are valued, you are loved just as they are loved by their family and friends, if you enter into a conversation from that perspective, it’s difficult to be angry, to be violent, not to hear that other person.

Boss: What were some of the things that you saw and heard at the very beginning that most struck you along with the fact that you couldn’t believe people could care so much about people in prison?

Alexander: For me, it was the exercises where you learn about the different triggers or things that you know, get people angry. I’ve been out of prison for two months and I see anger as I’m driving on a highway. I drive kind of slowly now because I really respect and value human life, but people who drive behind me are going so fast and so quick that they get so angry, it’s just unbelievable.

Boss: Did AVP really seem to impact the level of violence in prison?

Alexander: Yeah, I’ve noticed a reduction of violence. In the years that I’ve been in prison, in the beginning, there was so much violence. I found Alternatives to Violence Project in 1995. The amount of violence prior to that would just scare the living daylights out of any clear-thinking human being. But something happened in the prison where I was at, San Quentin. When you have different races of individuals in the same workshops and these individuals hug each other, talk to each other, communicate on the most real level that two human beings can communicate on, there is something that develops and when they leave out of that workshop and go back into the prison environment, it has to manifest even in that large environment because I can’t look at Carl any longer as being different from me. I have to look at Carl now as being a human being who has the same desires and needs and wants as I do, who feels the same emotions as I do. So it has that type of effect like a wave; it goes out. So I think that the workshop is beneficial and it has had long-term impact because of that, because that seed has not stopped growing and that wave has not resided, it keeps going out.

Boss: Can you give us an example, Pat Hardy, of how that plays out some more in a workshop setting?

Hardy: Well in prison, we have groups that are often divided up into racial groups or cultural groups and heads of those groups are called “shot callers,” the ones who call the shots for that particular group and we very often have shot callers in an initial workshop or in any workshop and when you have the shot callers come together, you begin to see a softening within the group, with the prison itself. Let me give you an example. One of the people in a workshop, an African American man named Bull, who someone later described as the more violent man he’d ever known, and a Mexican American shot caller I’ll call “T” were in the same yard, in the same workshop, they were there and they sat down, began these exercises; affirmation exercises, and as the workshop progressed, they became friends and once on the yard, they actually hugged one another. This kind of hugging is not allowed in the social venue of a prison yard and they were called on this by the men in their groups and when called on it, they said, well, this is a friend of mine now and this is the way we’re going to act now and this is how we are.

Boss: What does reduced violence look like to someone who’s in prison, either to the incarcerated or to the prison personnel?

Hardy: It means that you stop from continuing a violent situation. Someone comes at you and says something, a “you” message, “you idiot, why did you do that?” and that immediately requires a response by someone in prison and not meeting that requirement is the reduction in violence. I say to myself, “okay, I know I’m not an idiot and if I react to this person, I’m going to get in trouble and so I’m going to either walk away or I’m going to smile or I’m just going to not pay any attention.”

Boss: Those who come to – because it’s all voluntary.

Hardy: It’s all voluntary.

Boss: Do many of them have that intention already to try and live non-violent lives or there’s a curiosity on their part as to what these workshops are about? What brings them initially?

Hardy: Well, I think there are multiple motives. Some people come because they want to make change. Some of the people come because they are looking to get something in their file so that when they go to the board of prison hearings they can show that they have attended this anger management workshop and in some cases, they come to check it out because they are the shot caller and they want to know what their people are attending. They want to know what’s happening. Very often we get people who come merely because they need the piece of paper or they’re just checking it out. It’s not uncommon to hear a man say or a woman say, “I came for the parole board, I stayed the rest of the weekend for me.”

Boss: Pat, I’m wondering if there are any studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of the program or is most of it anecdotal? I’m talking about both in prison and once those who have participated in the workshops in prison, once they’re on the outside.

Hardy: Yes, we have a couple of studies when we’re working on more that show two specific things. One, a reduction in the violence of the individual in prison and that it is long-lasting and that it does not – it reverts a little bit, but specifically the level anger is reduced because they now have these skills. Recidivism is also reduced. That means the rate that people return to prison as a result of having committed another crime and that is lowered by 40% in people who’ve taken these workshops. We need lots more research on it and we’re working on that.

Boss: And AVP it sounds like, from what I’ve read, is embraced by the wardens, many of them wanting that program in their prisons.

Hardy: Well yes, I actually spoke on the podium with the director of adult institutions who oversees all the wardens this last weekend at the AVP USA, the Alternative to Violence Project USA National Conference who was sharing how he felt the impact of AVP has made in the prison.