Council in Prison and Restorative Justice

by Jared Seide, Director of Center for Council


Council is embraced as an opportunity to engage in restorative work by listening deeply, bearing witness and speaking heartfully.  Council in prisons offers an opportunity to begin that restoration – and is also a rehearsal for the  work that is desperately needed in impacted communities.  Work with marginalized communities has been a focus of some of the earliest trainers of the council practice . Building on work originally envisioned in The Ojai Foundation’s 2008 “One Thousand Days Project,” Center for Council (C4C) has created a prison-based council program that has now seeded Council practice  in 22 California prisons.  C4C has worked with RAND Corp and University of California on program evaluation that provides evidence of the reduced aggression and increased communication skills that emerge as a result of participation in its “Inmate Council Project.”

Council-based programming for incarcerated individuals builds “positive culture” in prisons and supports successful reentry and re-integration of released inmates and their communities.  Increasingly, these priorities are being emphasized as important facets of criminal justice  reform and Council programs provide an effective context for achieving these goals.  Once seeded, Council practice spreads quickly throughout the yard as practitioners value this tool both individually and as a  resource supporting deepening of trust in the community of  inmates. Participants in prison Council programs learn to practice new “rehabilitation” skills that support healthy and productive  behaviors critical to effective and sustainable reentry. Criminologists agree that the most effective rehabilitation programs target key “criminogenic factors,” chief among these being anti-social attitudes, anti-social friends, lack of empathy and impulsive behavior. Council programs in prison do just that, fostering connection and cooperation, dissolving pre-judgments, building trust and respect, strengthening bonds, reinforcing commonalities and lessening reactivity and impatience.  Measuring these behaviors before and after participation in Council programs demonstrates real progress towards what experts describe as “reduced criminality.”

Council practice CAN spread quickly.

C4C’s Social Justice Council Project has trained the staff in over 35 community-based organizations to use Council with their clients and stakeholders, creating the essential continuum of care through the critical prison-to-community transition. Incarcerated practitioners are increasingly eager to introduce Council to other inmates, visiting family and friends and to their home communities. They speak of a desire to have their personal transformation and healing also serve the transformation and healing of society.  As they recognize cycles of harm and neglect, they speak of  wanting to repair, reconcile and restore relationships and community.   Prison practitioners  are often motivated to return as elders to communities that are often bereft of the grandparents, uncles and aunts that have traditionally carried wisdom about deepening community.  This sense of purpose is a great motivator to inmates reaching the end of their sentence.  Men and women  isolated from the mainstream can learn to assess and reset their perspectives  by learning  contemplative practices like Council.  As Council programs simultaneously expand in community-based organizations, the ground is prepared for the return of those who would fill vital community seats. As more and more are realizing the dire situation of our prison system in the USA , there are opportunities for such programs to be replicated as well as to be an inspiration for other circle ways .