from Northwest Dharma News, Spring 2012
Is there a way to handle criminal justice that is more effective and humane than the current approach being used in the U.S, with its focus on long, mandatory prison sentences? Do prisons even meet our collective need for long-term public safety?
Fred Sly, director of the Oregon Prison Project, thinks there is a better way. Sly, who is completing a Ph.D in clinical psychology, started teaching Nonviolent Communication classes in San Quentin prison several years ago with the Bay Area NVC group. Four years ago, he moved to Oregon and helped found the Oregon Prison Project.
The Oregon Prison Project currently sends about 30 regular volunteers into four Oregon prisons, where they facilitate Nonviolent Communication classes with inmates. The training helps the inmates (and the facilitators) learn skills they can use to craft and maintain relationships that nurture themselves and those around them. It offers them a new way to understand life, and a perspective on how to achieve a peaceful and responsible relationship with themselves and with other people.
To understand the vision of the Oregon Prison Project, we have to imagine a world where everyone has a place at the table, where everyone belongs in the human community, and where everyone is able to share from the heart. This is a world where people can see mistakes as learning opportunities, and where everyone is allowed to be imperfectly human.
This vision is not the current reality for many inmates in the U.S. prison system. They often receive the message that they are not fully human, they do not really belong, and there is nothing they can ever do to heal the hurt that they have caused.
Nonviolent Communication is a way to communicate with other people, but also a consciousness. It is the life work of Marshall Rosenberg, who was a student of humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers. Nonviolent Communication is often practiced at Buddhist meditation centers and monasteries, and many dharma practitioners have found it highly compatible with the teachings of the Buddha.
Victoria (Vika) Miller, executive director of the Oregon Prison Project, said, “I'm always delighted when I hear a prospective volunteer say they have a Buddhist practice, because I know they'll connect well with the consciousness of NVC.”
NVC is based on empathy, which according to Sly, is “a felt sense of what is alive in another person, coupled with a holistic understanding of what these feelings mean to the person, all without becoming that person.” Empathy is very similar to compassion, which is for many Buddhists the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. Whereas compassion could be thought of as the heart’s natural response to suffering, empathy could be thought of as the heart’s natural response to whatever is alive in another person, whether or not it involves suffering.
Sly sees empathy as something very natural, something that will emerge automatically, unless our cultural conditioning prevents us from being in touch with our natural empathy. He thinks we live in a “trauma culture,” where we are constantly being conditioned to disconnect from our natural empathy and see the world as full of “good guys” and “bad guys”. He points to the many police shows on television as examples of the way our culture encourages a victim/villain view of life, rather than an empathetic view of life that sees all human actions as attempts to meet universal human needs.