Some inmates are doing the chicken dance in the Pierce County Jail in Washington. They’re standing in a circle, so as they lift their arms to flap their wings, they knock elbows and shoulders.
“Okay, I’m gonna do… this,” says one inmate, punctuating the last word with a dab. Cheers raise from the group and everyone starts the choreography from the beginning, with someone adding a Michael Jackson-esque foot flick to the ad hoc sequence.
“In all my years in prison, I never thought I’d be doing that,” says David Anello, an inmate with a strong New York accent and an easy smile. His face is red from a wheezy laugh.
Anello is one of 14 self-selected Alternatives to Violence Project workshop participants. It’s the second day of the three-day workshop, and the activity in which he and the others are involved is called “Dancing Dan,” an exercise that gives them a reprieve from the emotional intensity of the program. The facilitators have been encouraging levity and laughter from the moment they started—it’s essential to the process.
The Alternatives to Violence Project is an international nonprofit that facilitates anti-violence and conflict resolution workshops within prisons, as well as outside communities.
As of 2018, project’s national branch has local programs active in 33 states. Each program has no less than two facilitators who lead numerous workshops with both incarcerated and non-incarcerated communities. Facilitators are volunteers who have completed workshops as a participant, as well as received facilitator training.
An internal analysis of the AVP program in a Delaware prison—the only study of this kind the project has completed so far—shows that recidivism rates of workshop participants were nearly 50% lower than inmates who hadn’t taken the workshop.
Each workshop in Pierce County costs $3,000 and has anywhere from 10 to 15 participants. It takes an average of $36,000 per year to incarcerate a person. In a 12-person workshop, six of them will statistically stay out of jail, meaning a $3,000 investment can save the county $216,000 in incarceration costs.
Because the project’s workshops usually take place in prison, where workshop participants are facing long sentences, studies on the workshop’s impacts rarely focus on recidivism but rather personal impacts. Studies have shown AVP workshop participants experience a significant drop in trait anger, a measure of someone’s predisposition to become angry with or without provocation, that lasted for at least two years after taking the three-day workshop.
Another study found that prison inmates who were interested in the workshop but hadn’t taken it were twice as likely to break prison rules than those who had completed the workshop. This showed that the workshop wasn’t just taking credit for inmates who were already interested in changing their behavior, but actually influencing workshop participants.
Veteran Incarceration Declining
The Washington facilitators hold a workshop every other month in the Pierce County Jail, as well as more workshops in regional correctional facilities. The Pierce County workshop is unique, according to the project’s national office, because it is the only AVP workshop held in a jail—workshops typically take place in prisons—and it specifically targets incarcerated veterans.
The funding for the jail workshop comes from the Pierce County Veterans Services, as opposed to being supplied by AVP itself, and dictates that at least seven workshop participants must be veterans.
Recently, that requirement has become more difficult to meet as the veteran population in the jail is declining.
“I don’t know if I could base it all on AVP, but they’re definitely part of it,” says James Bolz, of the Pierce County Veterans Bureau, who brought the program to the jail in 2015. “A lot of the frequent flyers we’ve seen before aren’t coming back, the ones who have taken the workshop.”
According to Bolz, even though the veteran population in the jail is declining, Pierce County is poised to have the highest incarcerated veteran population in Washington state in two years.
While veterans—who make up 8% of the incarcerated population nationally—are in the criminal legal systems for a host of reasons, many are service-related. For example, trauma and PTSD can cause debilitating psychic pain, leading some veterans to self-medicate and develop drug addictions; if they’re not arrested for possession because of their addiction, veterans might be caught for theft or robbery—a means to pay for their addiction.
Similarly, aggressive and even violent behaviors that are essential in combat often have no place in civilian life.
“What do they teach you to do in the military when you hear machine gunfire?” Michael Howard, veteran and project facilitator, asks during the workshop. “They teach you to run towards it.”
Soldiers are trained to engage because doing so is likely to overwhelm or distract a shooter long enough for the soldiers to locate and eliminate them as a threat, Howard explains. Soldiers train the behavior until it’s a near-instinctual physical response. While that response may keep them alive in combat, it works against them in civilian life. As of 2012, the latest data available, 64% of incarcerated veterans were sentenced for violent crimes as opposed to 48% of incarcerated nonveterans.
“The military just kind of trains that ‘stop-and-think’ out of you,” Elias Martinez, a workshop participant and veteran, says. “I’m to the point where I’m trying to train myself to think.”
Before the workshop, Martinez converted to Buddhism to increase his self-awareness and remove violence from his life. His religious studies have had an impact, but he never felt like he could talk about the shift he was trying to make with others in the jail—until he joined the workshop.
“It’s nice to know that it’s not just me trying to work on these things,” Martinez says.
Each workshop is hosted in the TV room of a unit. The week before the workshop, Howard visits the jail with a roster of veterans and meets with them, pitching the program. If there aren’t enough veterans available to fill the workshop, then the program is opened to interested nonveterans. Workshop participants can be from any unit of the jail, but they must be moved to the unit where the workshop takes place the night before.
The workshop activities fall into categories of community building, shifting perspective, listening, and self-reflection. While the three facilitators—at least one of whom is always a veteran—have the authority to tailor each workshop to meet the needs of the particular group, they stick to an underlying structure.
The first day is focused on community building. The facilitators lead several exercises that get participants to share and recognize their commonalities. There are speed-dating-like activities that move them around a circle to talk one-on-one with prompts like: What are you proud of? What’s a song that’s attached to a memory? Who do you need to forgive?
The group also pairs off to work on affirmation activities, where each person must talk about things they like about themselves for 2 minutes. This exercise is not only designed to reveal commonalities, but also to encourage each participant to focus on their accomplishments.
“When we’re talking to incarcerated veterans, we’ve caught them at a low point and they’re not thinking about their better qualities,” says Roger Kluck, a facilitator and regional AVP organizer.
After a block of heavy introspection or serious moments, the facilitators transition to the “Light and Lively” exercises to get the participants on their feet and laughing. In addition to providing an emotional break, Kluck says that the movement exercises can also be a way to break up gangs from sitting together.
Keeping participants shuffling from chair to chair forces them into new pairings when they turn to their neighbor for sharing exercises. If gang or clique members sat only with each other, each participant wouldn’t be challenged to recognize common values and morals they have with others in the workshop. Creating a network of understanding within the group builds trust and a community more capable of supporting vulnerability.
The group learns the difference between “red light” and “green light” language, or demanding versus asking. They also learn how to listen to hear and not just respond, and how to discuss feelings without placing blame by using ‘I’ statements.
While practicing ‘I’ statements in pairs, two inmates resolve a problem they’ve been having in the unit. The two of them sleep foot-to-foot in the bunk beds that are tightly lined end-to-end, resulting in some accidental footsie. They volunteer to share their example with the class.
“When our feet touch, I feel weird because everybody needs some personal space,” one of the men says. “Would you be willing to coordinate where our feet go?”
Everyone chuckles, but facilitator Lisa Roy makes a point of praising them for using the exercise to talk about a real issue. She makes one correction: “weird” isn’t an emotion, so maybe replace it with “uncomfortable.”
Planting the Seed
Day three connects all the lessons. Now that the foundation of tools and terminology has been established, the group focuses on self-reflection and evaluation. Many of the exercises focus on personal values and priorities, such as each participant writing down 10 qualities, good or bad, on slips of paper. Roy then methodically tells the group to crumple one paper at a time and toss it to the floor, pausing after each one to ask how it felt to lose that quality.
Finally, the participants are asked to think of an insult they heard growing up and write down the affirmation they wish they’d heard instead. Then, as Howard plays his guitar in the corner, the group separates into two groups, each taking turns walking around the circle whispering the affirmations to one another.
“You’re doing a good job, keep up the good work.”
“I want you to come with me.”
“You’re not your father.”
“I love you.”
The workshop ends with a graduation where each participant receives a certificate and a bag of snacks—sunflower seeds, Chex Mix, Pop Tarts, a donut that’s shelf-stable for several years and two packets of instant coffee.
Several of the inmates expressed a profound level of gratitude for their experience in the workshop.
“I’ve been in here seven months now, and I haven’t been able to talk about half the things I talked about in there,” Martinez, the Buddhist veteran, says. “It makes me feel like a person again.”
Kluck attributes much of the program’s impact to its emphasis on self-discovery. The participants are never lectured on how they need to change or what they did wrong to end up in jail.
“I’ve been involved in programs before, [and] usually most people are involved in a program to get the benefits like the candy or the coffee,” participant and veteran Jeff Lucey says. “I think actually this program touched about 60% of the people that actually took advantage, and that’s a high number.”
After facilitating nearly 50 workshops, Kluck says he can recognize who is really being affected by the course.
“As you sit there you get to see people make fairly substantial shifts,” he says. “There is always the question of how long that will last, but the research has shown that it really does stick.”
Although he’s witnessed some participants struggle with accountability or how to envision non-violence in their life, Kluck says he knows that all he and the other facilitators can do is plant the seed and hope it sprouts.
“You have to meet them where they are,” he says. “You can’t make them what you want them to be, you can’t change them in the way you would like, but you can challenge them and they’ll either take it or not.”