CPP Volunteers Remind The Incarcerated That They Matter

by Robert Wells
When was the last time someone told you that you mattered? For many incarcerated people, it’s something they likely haven’t heard in a long time, if ever.
In addition to educating and providing resources, a big part of our mission at CPP is letting those in prison know that their lives matter and that there are people who want to bring them an experience of joy.

Our volunteers help us to do that in many ways. For example, one volunteer got pistachios donated for the prison residents to enjoy during our recent presentation of the Compassion Trauma Circle and Trauma Talks at Valley State Prison.

“We heard multiple times how long it’s been since someone had a pistachio,” says CPP organizer Morgan Vicki Emmess. For prison residents, seemingly small things that we take for granted can be incredibly meaningful and deeply joyful.

“A correctional officer came in and announced abruptly that any food was to be consumed in this room only and couldn’t be taken back with them,” Emmess recounts. “It was a reality check for us volunteers for sure. The food issue is huge.”
“On one visit to Pelican Bay, we had pizza, and they had not had pizza in 7 years,” recalls volunteer Lesa Lacey. “There was a crazy buzz in the room.” She added, “After having just one state lunch, I can see why.”

Another favorite part of bringing the Compassion Trauma Circles and Trauma Talks to prisons is the camp songs we sing together. While many of us remember singing around a campfire as a kid, most people in prison never had the opportunity to go to summer camp, so it’s the first time they’ve ever sung silly songs together. People who experienced childhood trauma often missed the chance to have a real childhood. Instead, they were stuck in survival mode from a very young age.

According to data from the National Institute of Health, more than half of male prisoners experienced abuse, neglect, or other types of trauma at a young age. Through our Compassion Trauma Circles, Trauma Talks and other programs, CPP helps the incarcerated, corrections officers, and staff better understand the long-term mental and physical effects of childhood trauma.

One of our biggest allies, California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, joined us for one of our Circles at Valley State Prison. She spent the day speaking one-on-one with each person about their aspirations, concerns, and favorite superheroes.

“I see myself as Deadpool,” one participant told the group. “I love helping people, but I find myself doing it in an unconventional way. I am that guy who lends the ear.”
“What you’re describing is just being present for somebody,” said Dr. Nadine Burke Harris. “That’s the greatest gift that you can give most people, just show up and listen.”

Simply put, small actions go a long way. Most people in prison want nothing more than to be heard and acknowledged for their intrinsic value. If you want to help us remind those in prison that they matter, learn how you can become a pen pal or support CPP.

Watch some of our volunteers talk about what brought them joy during our trip to Valley State Prison:

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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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