What the Outside Can Do for the Inside

Family, community, and the world of ideas help prisoners cope and prepare for life after incarceration. Eight outreach programs that make a difference.
SPREAD Glascock


1. Barrios Unidos Working  for Unity

Nane Alejandress photo courtesy of Superconsciousness Magazine

Nane Alejandrez of Barrios Unidos.

Photo courtesy of Superconsciousness Magazine.

Barrios Unidos works to curtail gang violence on the city streets of California by sponsoring cultural and spiritual programs in the state’s prisons. “A lot of these folks are our relatives,” says founder Daniel “Nane” Alejándrez, a veteran activist who has worked to forge truces among youth and prison gangs. “We are not the enemy against each other. We need to get these guys to think in a different way.”

The organization is based in Santa Cruz County but runs economic development programs in several other areas. At a time when many prison programs have been cut, Barrios Unidos offers classes and helps organize cultural celebrations in prisons every year—Juneteenth, Cinco de Mayo, and St. Patrick’s Day—that support social cohesion, trust, and respect. “We are inside,” Alejándrez says. “We are talking directly to the guys face to face.”—Stuart Glascock

2. Justice Now Empowering Prisoners

The Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla is the largest women’s prison in the world, with 3,795 inmates. The world’s second largest, holding another 3,306, is the Valley State Prison across the street. Both hold about twice as many inmates as they were designed to handle. Justice Now works inside this grim system to promote health and justice through legal services and prisoner organizing.

Prisoners document human rights abuses in prison, circulate petitions, and write opinion pieces. Currently, five inmates serve on Justice Now’s board of directors. Three other directors were released in the last 18 months. “All of our programs are designed to build leadership among people in prison,” says executive director Cynthia Chandler. Justice Now recently helped defeat proposed prison expansion legislation in California that would have added capacity for 4,500 additional women prisoners. Inmates worked on the communications strategy and were spokespeople for the 2-year campaign.—S.G.

3. Yoga Helps Prisoners Cope With Stress

Yoga photo by Rick Fahnestock

Photo by Rick Fahnestock.

Yoga at the Illinois State Prison near Canton.

The balancing, breathing, and centering of yoga bring immediate results to prisoners, according to Natalie Smith, executive director of Yoga Behind Bars, a nonprofit that promotes yoga to help soothe the rage, anxiety, and hopelessness of life in prison. “Incarceration is an ineffective band-aid for many other problems­—homelessness, mental health issues, drug addictions,” Smith says. “Antisocial behaviors are the tip of the iceberg. Yoga has the potential to go down below the surface and teach skills like coping with stress.”

In 2010, Yoga Behind Bars dispatched 35 trained volunteers to give classes to 1,400 students in jails, prisons, and treatment centers in Washington state, but demand still exceeded supply. “It’s so rare that we have the opportunity to be calm behind bars,” wrote one participant. “I am so thankful to be able to stretch and meditate while in this stressful place.”—S.G.

4. Books to Prisoners: The Reading Connection

Volunteers at Books to Prisoners (BTP) read a thousand handwritten letters each month. Word has gotten around prisons that you can request books from BTP and eventually—it may take six months—a parcel will arrive for you with the books you asked for. There may be a personal note explaining the addition of an extra book you might enjoy. Somebody thought of you as a person with a mind. A window opens a crack.

Seattle-based BTP was started in the early 1970s by people who ran an independent bookstore. It has affiliates in Bellingham and Olympia, Wash., and Portland, Ore. As prison libraries are starved of acquisitions, the most common requests to BTP are for English and Spanish-English dictionaries, African American history and fiction, Native American studies, and GED materials. Beyond these high-demand categories, people behind bars like to read as broadly as the rest of us.

BTP is an all-volunteer effort. Most donations of books and money come from individuals, including the occasional check that arrives with a thank-you note from a former inmate. More information at ­bookstoprisoners.net. —Paige Grant

5. Puppies Hard at Work Behind Bars

Prison puppies photo by Ian Wingfield

Puppy training at Fishkill Correctional Facility, N.Y.

Photo by Ian Wingfield.

Labrador and golden retriever puppies live with inmates through Prison PUP Partnership, one of several training programs across the country that provide meaningful work for inmates and a benefit to people on the outside who need service animals. Puppies Behind Bars is another program based in New York.

Puppies tag along to classes, recreation time, and meals, as prisoners train the animals to open doors, turn on light switches, and pick up objects. The puppies learn about life outside too—cars, traffic, public transportation—on weekend visits to volunteers outside the prison.

The full-time training in prison means dogs in the program are ready to be in service sooner­—in about a year­­—than puppies trained outside. —S.G.

6. Girl Scouts Beyond Bars: Breaking the Cycle

Girl Scout photo by Ellen Spiro

Girl Scout Jessica visits her mom at the Hilltop Prison in Texas.

Photo by Ellen Spiro.

Like Girl Scouts all over the country, the 45 members of Troop 1500 in Austin, Texas, wear the familiar green uniforms, work for merit badges, and sell cookies in February. But their big event is a monthly excursion to Gatesville, Texas, to visit their mothers in prison. They talk, catch up, and hug on those days, but this group of 6 to 17-year-olds also studies life skills, interpersonal communication, and decision-making strategies.

Troop 1500 is one of 30 Girl Scout programs across the United States that support daughters visiting their mothers in prison. The girls also get backup from the social work school at the University of Texas, which works to ease the trauma of separation and stop the family pattern of offending that affects children whose parents were in prison.—S.G.

7. Communication Over Conflict

Inmates are greeted with a handshake when they arrive for Ilene Stark’s class in mediation skills at the prison in Monroe, Washington. “Prisoners live in an incredibly intense environment,” Stark says. “We try to offer a respite in class.”

Almost every week for the past 10 years, professional mediators from the Dispute Resolution Center of Snohomish and Island Counties have volunteered to teach basic mediation classes to inmates at Monroe. The focus is on communication, thinking clearly instead of impulsively, perspective, and compassionate listening. “These are skills we use in mediation, and the men can use them in their everyday lives,” said Stark. “Several have told us stories about finding themselves in tense situations, and instead of fighting, they make better choices in the heat of conflict.” —S.G.

8. Learning Together and Rethinking the System

58 ESTES Spread
School of Second Chances

Inmates who get an education are less likely to reoffend when they're released. So why are prison education programs getting cut?

A college professor schooling the incarcerated was hardly a new idea when Lori Pompa taught her first class inside a Philadelphia city jail 14 years ago. But Pompa brought along her Temple University undergrads. That novel academic exercise, in which “outside” and “inside” students met together once a week for a semester, laid the foundation for the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. The program has since spread to more than 120 colleges in 35 states and will soon be replicated in Canada and Australia.

The experience can be transformative. At a time when the United States incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world, Inside-Out has moved thousands of people to rethink the nation’s approach to criminal justice. “It makes the prison system so much more real to you,” says Christa Henderson, who took an Inside-Out course at Drew University in New Jersey. “They’re actual people. They’re not theoretical masses that you read about in books.”
“The hope is that the students go forward and make change,” says Pompa. “What could be more profound than two groups of people on either side of these walls coming together to examine serious issues and equally serious solutions?”  —Chris Hann


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