Compassion in Prison

•November 5, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Compassion in prison??? Yes people! And it was a roaring success!!!!!! Yesterday marked the end of the 30-day Compassion It Challenge that Sara and I put on at Donovan. And we celebrated in big prison style: with music performed by resident bands (they are so awesome that Hollywood producers are producing a CD of their music!), stories of compassion (wait until you hear some of these below!) and with cake (you gotta see the residents eat cake, it’s magical!). Every day in October, the Donovan men were encouraged to perform acts of compassion to their friends and family, themselves and all. And we heard two in particular that rocked our world.

Story 1: A few days ago, John asked to recognize a man who performed amazing compassion. So, during yesterday’s celebration, John shared with the 80 men present: why are we so afraid of death? The greatest compassion comes when we do something others are afraid of. In prison also, people grow old and die of old age. The decline can be difficult. Over the past weeks, John has been witness to a man giving of himself selflessly to a dying man: “cleaning him, washing him, dressing him, feeding him, talking to him and treating him as though he still matters. It was compassion in its purest form, not for the attention or the recognition of doing it but pure love for humanity and compassion for another person.” When John called this man out, the fellow residents gave him a spontaneous standing ovation!!!! A small and meaningful acknowledgement for the amazing selfless commitment he’s shown to a fellow resident…

Story 2: Keith shared a marvelous story of the ripple effect of kindness. During one of our weekly compassion classes (attended by 17 residents), Ben told the class about secretly slipping soups into his cellie’s pantry when he noticed that the cellie’s pantry was low. (That cellie turned out to be Keith.) Inspired by this story, Mark one day spontaneously asked Keith what he wanted from the store. Keith was incredibly taken aback: He knew who Mark was but they had never spoken. (They are different races.) And he wondered what could be behind the offer. (It’s prison after all.) Keith refused but Mark insisted. So Keith asked for coffee. Folgers. And Mark returned from the store with Folgers and a pack of soups! Keith was so moved by these acts of kindness that he felt compelled to share them with all celebration attendees.

There were more amazing stories throughout the month and during the day, including one of a man making amends with a man he had sworn to hurt. Oh, the power of these men’s stories!!!! It literally changes and saves lives.

* All names have been changed.


Gratitude for firefighters…inmate firefighters

•October 21, 2017 • Leave a Comment

As the Napa and Sonoma fires become contained, we survey the destruction and count our blessings, with gratitude for the countless people who have supported us in this ordeal. Top of mind come the thousands of firefighters who risk their lives to ensure we lose minimal lives, homes and businesses.

Did you know that you have prison inmates to thank for the same thing? Yes, 14% of California’s firefighting power is prison inmates, trained in 33 Conservation Camps across the state. They cut lines. They are the line of defense. They do some of the heavy lifting of firefighting.

Inmate firefighters put in 3 million firefighting hours per year. So, as you count your blessings and express gratitude with those who helped save homes and lives, please include in your blessings the thousands of inmate firefighters who, as they are saving our homes, are also rebuilding their lives.

Learn more about them and watch the video at

Wisdom from a man in a cage

•September 24, 2017 • Leave a Comment

When a prison resident becomes a danger to themselves or others, he/she can be placed in Administrative Segregation, also called AdSeg for short or, familiarly, “the hole.” A few weeks ago, I visited, for the first time, a Donovan resident recently sent to AdSeg. And it definitely created a new experience.

I walked into a familiar-looking housing unit to step into the unfamiliar world of AdSeg, which started with being given a protective vest to wear. The cement walls and metal doors made every movement in the corridor a very noisy one. I waited in a clinician’s office until Bernard (name changed) was escorted in, locked into a metal cage they call a module and then de-handcuffed. Just a few days prior, he and I had been sitting side-by-side exchanging stories and insights. Now, for the first time, I was speaking to another human locked up in a metal cage.

I looked past the metal cage to connect to this human being who has been a creative, loving, dynamic and genuine member of one of my teams. And despite the cage and the incident, the human being was still strongly present. Bernard instantly acknowledged his regret for having lost his cool. “I’m upset at myself. I know better now. It’s shown me that I still have rage I have to release.” (Like so many men inside, that rage was the response modeled to him his entire childhood.) And then, unprompted and unsolicited, Bernard moved into articulating: “And I’m ready to do the work. Being in AdSeg is a blessing. There are here the resources to help me and I’m going to use them to address this rage. This is the last time I am in AdSeg.”

Too good to be true? Only time will tell. Here’s what I know. First, many men enter AdSeg angry, rageful and with zero interest in uncovering the “causative factors” to their actions, seeing in their rage their advocate. Second, many other men speak of AdSeg as the start of their transformation towards positive change. Therefore, clearly, AdSeg can be either a blessing or a curse. And the outcome depends entirely on the men’s decision to create the blessing or the curse.

Seeing a man in a cage is not a pleasant experience. Hearing him committed to using this “punishment” as an opportunity to grow and change transforms the circumstances into beauty. It turns out, this is the only thing we can ask of each other. Growth comes with its ups and downs (as stated in this post for last spring). Can we have the patience to hold people with love during the downs so that the downs can become the bottom that creates a new up?

Inspiration to claim your big bold wild dream

•September 8, 2017 • Leave a Comment

We start our weekly team meetings at Donovan prison with a circle in which everyone shares what’s happened over the past week. Ups, downs, visits, classes, programs, trials, successes…

Some Tuesdays are cause for celebration, like a few weeks ago. As we went around our circle of 15 men, we learned that

  • One had his sentence reduced significantly with prop 57 as well as all of the programming and education with which he’s fills his days
  • For another, a judge ruled that it was physically impossible for him to be at the scene of the crime for which he was convicted. If he was not at the crime scene, it becomes difficult to argue he committed the crime. Next steps TBD
  • Another sees a new path to clemency on which his family is embarking
  • Another received a new release date of next spring and will likely be heading to a rehabilitation camp before then
  • And the kicker of them all: one guy had been away from Donovan for several weeks for a retrial. He left us with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. He came back to our team with that sentence reduced to life with parole and, with his decades of incarceration, is now up for parole. If found suitable, he could be walking out of prison within a year!!!!!!

All of these are MASSIVE news for each of the men concerned. All but one of these men has spent more than two decades in prison. Can you imagine being sentenced as a juvenile to spend the rest of your life in prison, being told that you’re going to die in prison, and then, just like that, with a few words pronounced by a jury, being told that you have a possibility of seeing the streets again?

When I asked the last guy how he felt, he said he was still floating, having not fully processed the whirlwind of the previous weeks. He’s still pinching himself, wondering if this is but a dream.

For most people in prison, their wildest dream is to see the streets again.   They have made the difficult decision to change their ways and place all of their determination, dedication and constant efforts every day to transform their lives. The above celebrations acknowledge them moving one step closer to this dream of walking out of those prison gates.

What is your wildest dream? How can you increase your dedication and commitment? What small steps are you taking every day towards your big bold wild dream? Let these men’s stories be a source of inspiration. If they can do it, so can you.

3 lessons from Kari’s murder

•June 25, 2017 • Leave a Comment

This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of my cousin’s murder. Today’s visit to Donovan prison provided the perfect setting to reflect on the lessons of the past year.

First, I had never imagined that this group of “hardened criminals” was going to be my greatest source of comfort and healing. And yet, that’s exactly what happened. My cousin was allegedly murdered by the drug dealers with whom he had gotten involved.   While the world of drugs – the products, the infrastructure, the code of conduct, etc. – is foreign to me, the Donovan men are intimately aware of the dynamics since they were once part of – and some even ran – that world. They have an understanding of the forces that led to my cousin’s murder, I could have never grasped without their help. And understanding can be a first step to healing and forgiveness.

Second, today, I don’t think of my cousin without also thinking of the perpetrators of his murder. And my thoughts are compassion and love to them. I know, I should be feeling anger, hurt and destructive thoughts. Heck, they took my cousin’s life! Yet, I now understand that people have to be terribly broken and hurt themselves to hurt another human being and take a life. And therefore, my cousin’s murderers were deeply hurting themselves. Wishing these murderers harm will not bring back my cousin. My only wish is to eliminate the pain and end this cycle of hurt. And that comes with love and peace. So, now, anytime my cousin crosses my mind, I send love and compassion to his murderers. I wish that, wherever they may be in the world, they feel that love and that, with time, the love may bring them to heal their own wounds.

It is this journey from hurt to healed that the Donovan men have mastered and exhibit every day. They have understood that their actions stem from their deep-seeded pain and hurt. And every day, they work to clear yet another layer of this pain so they may finally feel the liberation that comes with love.

Third lesson. My cousin’s murder fueled a fire in me. A fire that guided me on a radically different path than the one I had laid out before me. The most challenging step has been to trust myself, trust this fire, trust its guidance and the unexpected direction in which it was leading me. Oh, my rational, logical, linear, engineering self has wrecked havoc as she freaked out with the myriad doomsday scenarios she played out. And yet, I have learned that true brilliance comes when I trust that burning fire within. Difficult to start doing; also infinitely rewarding. Today, I live my brilliant life in the most unexpected of places, supporting people in business and prisons to create the culture that fuels their own brilliance and growth. I’m here today because I’ve taken many trusting steps into the darkness. The deeper I traveled, the clearer the path has become. I wish this upon everyone!!!!!

Jellyfish among the zebras

•June 13, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Saturday evening offered one of those moments of undeniable messages from the universe.

Speaking to a friend sitting on a hotel lobby couch, I expressed the resistance I’d felt asking my many questions over the first two days of a workshop we were attending. My questions felt “irrelevant” for most workshop attendees. In a room full of coaches and holistic practitioners, I was the “odd ball” which is not only being called into prison, but is now being called to bring in a change from a punitive to a compassionate culture across the prison system. I’ve been feeling both humbled by the direction and freaked out as I know nothing about government, anyone in government, becoming a government contractor (which is what I assume will have to happen), how to propose this crazy idea to the government, what credentials they’d wish to see, how to support myself in the process (can I do it without double niche-ing?), etc. While we were speaking of offering a free consultation and enrolling people into packages and programs, I was wondering how the heck this applies to government officials. I told this friend: “In a room full of zebras dealing with zebra questions, why bring in a jellyfish?” I felt like the misplaced jellyfish.

Within minutes of saying those words, a woman sat down across from us. On her T-shirt, underneath her half-open sweatshirt, I spotted… a jellyfish!!!!! Really!!?!?!?!! We laughed and everyone agreed that it meant that I was to bring the jellyfish into the room of zebras.  On Sunday, I committed that I would raise my hand at every sharing opportunity to bring in the jellyfish.  That sharing did not happen with the bigger group.  And the jellyfish admits having a hard time accepting that, after feeling so unseen, daring to put out its tentacles and not receiving group support.  Until I realized the many zebras who provided support to the crazy jellyfish which is showing up in the room full of zebras.  I’m now on a mission to connect with people who can provide clarity into the government jungle… Because this jellyfish has crazy stuff to create!

A huuuuuge circle of 60 men

•May 10, 2017 • 1 Comment

When we started organizing TEDxDonovanCorrectional last December, our team was 11 Donovan men strong. These “men in blue” became our Core Team, the men who ideated, conceptualized and implemented each detail of the event. Then, in February, our team grew to 15 men after the Core Team short-listed the TEDx speakers-in-training. A couple weeks ago, the Helpers joined the Core Team and Speakers and our team ballooned to 30 men. And today, when I walked into the Activity Room, I saw a huuuuuuge circle of 60 – yes, 6-0 – men in blue! I stopped almost dead in my tracks. What a sight! From the 11 initial men, TEDxDonovanCorrectional has grown to engage 60 men! Many of these men have been coming to see me for weeks, asking to get involved. They are eager to gather the tools that create positive impact and experiences in their lives, so they may continue to grow into the positive human beings they know themselves to be despite their violent destructive pasts. I was moved to tears to see this large group of men committed to their transformations, committed to being the change they wish to see in the world, committed to putting on a successful mind-expanding, heart-opening TEDx experience for all people involved. And I am humbled to be a creator of this space of transformation, that we may each create the learnings that will stay with us forever, craft the new chapters of our lives. Each time we visit Donovan, all of us – those in blue and those not in blue – leave touched, changed and more connected to our common humanness.   We are 11 days away from the big day and our team is ready to step up their game in dimensions we have never imagined before. We are stretching them and they are absolutely stretching us.