Group promotes safer society by treating root causes of incarceration
Compassion Prison Project (CPP) founder Fritzi Horstman and California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris visited Valley State Prison (VSP) to talk to prisoners and officers about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).
Horstman and a group of volunteers piloted a 12-part curriculum series called Trauma Talks.
“It was a three-day event that started with 100 men in blue in a giant circle in front of main control,” VSP resident Daniel Henson wrote in a letter to SQNews.
“CPP is on a mission to create trauma-informed prisons and communities that address trauma on both sides of the bars,” wrote Morgan Vicki Emmess in the workbook Trauma Talks. Our dream at CPP is that all prisons in the United States become education and healing centers within three years.”
Trauma Talks educates people about our physiology as human beings; what happens to our brains and bodies when we are in a state of fight, flight, or freeze. It focuses on ACEs to teach people that what happened to them while they were growing up has a direct effect on how they behave as adults today.
“It’s not that what they did was OK, absolutely not; it’s that we have to understand the mitigating circumstances,” Horstman told Spectrum News reporter Catalina Villegas. “Those men aren’t bad people. They did bad things, but they are not bad people. They are highly traumatized.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 97% of prisoners have had at least one traumatic childhood experience.
One in six males in prison studied reported being physically or sexually abused as a child, and many more witnessed traumatic events, according to a study done at Rutgers University’s Center for Behavioral Health Services & Criminal Justice Research.
Many of the men Horstman met at VSP were abused as children and grew up in the foster care system. They survived on their own at a very young age.
“A lot of them had no one to love them,” wrote Emmess, “no one to take care of them or to teach them right from wrong.”
The VSP men were questioned about their childhood experiences, according to Henson. The questions were related to verbal, physical, emotional, and even sexual abuse. As the questions were read, many of them stepped further and further into the circle.
“I sat down with Fritzi and told her about this book that changed my life called The Body Keeps the Score,” Henson said. “Fritzi’s eyes lit up. She said, ‘That’s the book that changed my life.”’
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk wrote The Body Keeps the Score. He also now assists Horstman with CPP.
On the third day of the event, the circle was cut in half and Dr. Burke-Harris stepped inside to speak to the men. “Gov. Newsom sent me here to tell you all that you matter,” she said, according to Henson. “You have not been forgotten.”
Burke-Harris is the author of The Deepest Well: Healing the long-term effects of childhood adversity. She encouraged the men to focus on healing from the ACEs that led to their incarceration.
|TALKING ABOUT TRAUMA:|
|Fritzi Horstman is the founder of the Compassion Prison Project, a program that educates both prison residents and staff on the lasting effects of childhood trauma.|
|Dr. Bessel van der Kolk is the author of The Body Keeps the Score, featured in this month’s SQNew.Book Review (pg. 23). He has assisted Horstman with CPP.|
|Dr. Nadine Burke- Harris is the Surgeon General of California. She is also the author of The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity.|
“Adverse childhood experiences are an epidemic,” Burke-Harris told Spectrum News. “It’s a public health crisis. It affects everything from our learning to our health, to our behavior to our mental health and development.”
According to the Surgeon General more than 20,000 healthcare providers have been trained since January 2020 on how to treat with evidence-based interventions.
“We have the power to change outcomes. ACE’s are not destiny,” she said.
At SQ, men learn to process trauma and turn it into healing by participating in self-help programs like Guiding Rage Into Power (GRIP). It’s a group that was started by Jacques Verduin a decade ago. Verduin has graduated hundreds of men who had issues with childhood trauma.
“Focusing on trauma is the beginning of healing,” said SQ resident Arthur Jackson. “It is the root of the problem.”
Jackson graduated from GRIP a few years ago and now helps facilitate the program. “Hurt people hurt people,” he said. “Without knowing how to identify and deal with the trauma in our lives, we stuff it until we end up lashing out and hurting others.”
Dennis Jefferson also graduated from GRIP and helps facilitate the program. “The way we act in the present moment is tied to whatever happened to us in the past,” he said.
“It all goes back to that original pain,” Jefferson continued. “Our bad behavior is always tied to past trauma and we have to recognize it in order to stop the behavior.”
For Henson, meeting Horstman and Burke-Harris “was a historic event” that impacted him. There was a moment when many of the volunteers that visited VSP surrounded the men and held up signs that read “YOU MATTER” in all-capital letters.
Tears started to flow down some of the men’s faces, wrote Henson. He believes it was probably the first time many of them heard those words.
“In three days we saw change happen,” Emmess wrote, “and all 2,900 VSP residents received their own copy of the Trauma Talks workbook.”