Compassion Prison Project goes to Valley State Prison

by Morgan Vicki Emmess

I flew into LAX on Sunday, September 5th, preparing myself for what would become one of the most enlightening experiences I have ever had.

The following day, six of us piled into a 12-person van stocked full of supplies and were on our way to pilot our 12-part curriculum series, Trauma Talks, at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, California just outside of Madera where we would be staying for the next three nights.

Entrance sign at Valley State Prison

Inside the grounds at Valley State Prison

During this visit, we also gave a presentation to the Corrections Officers and staff about the devastating effects of childhood trauma and how it could be impacting their health.

Our mission is to create trauma-informed prisons and communities and we can’t do that without addressing childhood trauma on both sides of the bars.

Correctional Officers walking in a room wearing masks

Fritzi speaking to Correctional Officers

3 correctional officers holding Trauma Talks workbook and bag

Our dream at CPP is that all prisons in the United States become education and healing centres within 3 years. With 98% of people in prison returning home to us, do we not want them to be thriving members of our community? These are our brothers, sisters and neighbors.

The recidivism rate in the United States is 64%, meaning that those people are stuck in the pattern of committing crimes instead of learning from them. More importantly… why they committed them in the first place.

Trauma Talks educates about our physiology as human beings, what happens to our brains and bodies when we are in a state of fight, flight or freeze (when we are under threat), and with a focus on Adverse Childhood Experiences, teaches people that what happened to them while they were growing up has a direct effect on how they behave as adults today.

Fritzi in the middle of a circle of men

Men taking a step inside the circle

2 men in masks holding our workbook Trauma Talks

This is life changing information and we witnessed that happening as one volunteer put it… within hours.

Many of the men we met while at Valley State Prison were abused as children, grew up in the foster care system and had to survive from a very young age. A lot of them had no one to love them, no one to take care of them or teach them right from wrong. It is no wonder many found refuge in gangs as they became like family and satisfied the needs to belong and fit in as a child. They were kids left to “figure it out” on their own and find their way at a very young age, literally doing all they can to survive in the streets… Imagine, having to live a life where you can’t rest because you never feel safe. Imagine what that does to your nervous system and biology over time.

Men sitting in a circle listening to someone speak

Two men sitting in masks

Fritzi dancing to camp songs

Each story was terribly tragic but beautiful in it’s own right. Beautiful because each pain can be a catalyst for positive change and that is what these amazing men are doing… using their pain to help people. I was blown away by the amount of (really good) advice that was given to me by these men who are doing all they can to give back. And I believe we were all blown away by how many incredible ideas they had for helping foster youth, crime prevention and bridging the gap to the communities they once hurt.

We are working with a group of 24 mentors who will be facilitating Trauma Talks to their yard and the 2900 men living at Valley State Prison, including groups of 18-25 year olds also taking part in the California Youth Offender program. We will be returning with a similar program for Corrections Officers and staff.

Group of people standing in circle with arms up

Man speaking into microphone wearing mask

Volunteer engaging in coversation with man living in prison

The feedback we received as the men were reading through their workbooks makes everything we do here at CPP worth it. Seeing people’s eyes fill with hope instead of sadness as they learn about their trauma over these few days was the best feeling, and I know the volunteers who joined us from near and far, donating their time, money and energy to be there would agree.

Man holding up sign that says 'addictive behavior'

Woman fist bumping with man

On the final day we were honored to be joined by the California Surgeon General, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris. She stood in front of these men and told them that “Gavin Newson sent me here today”. She told them they mattered and they listened. She dedicated time to each individual shaking his hand and asking his name, with such grace and compassion that some of these men have never felt.

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris spent half the day with these men speaking with them and answering any questions they may have. There was one man who at the beginning of the day had no hope for himself, but by the end of the day and after an intimate conversation with Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, he was recording testimonials to help youth in our communities.

Nadine Burke Harris holding up 'you matter' sign infront of men living in prison

Nadine Burke Harris shaking hand of young man in prison

Nadine Burke Harris speaking to a man living in prison

It was a transformative experience.

Now don’t get me wrong. Our program is not designed to dismiss the wrongs that people have done, but it is designed to inform people of the science behind why they behaved the way they did.

The room was ripe with hope as men who didn’t know they had experienced some form of childhood trauma slowly realized that they weren’t the monsters people had made them out to be. They were traumatized and made mistakes and now, with this knowledge, they have answers and an opportunity to heal and become thriving members of society.

Men standing up with arms outstretched

Man sitting down intently listening

Woman and man laughing

Love filled the room. We talked, we played and we cried. Three days was not enough. But in those three days we saw change happen. And now, all 2900 men who are living there have their own copy of the Trauma Talks workbook thanks to a generous donation CPP received. Now, they can learn something about themselves for the first time.

Group of people talking

Two people talking in front of group

Two men in prison standing with arm on shoulder

To witness the wisdom and hope in these men living at Valley State Prison has only fuelled our motivation and determination to get Trauma Talks into all prisons and stat. Because to us it is imperative that each and every man and woman living in prison knows we see them and that they matter.

I cannot wait to go back.

For more information about our Trauma Talks program, contact info@compassionprisonproject.org

Watch the story from Spectrum News 1 in LA:

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CPP is a grassroots, 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. We value every donation, no amount is too small. Your contribution directly funds CPP's projects and operations which support our mission to transform prisons and communities through compassionate action. All donations are tax deductible.

Compassion Prison Project © 2021. All Rights Reserved. Photography by Vivianne Nacif.

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