How is your heart today? More than 100 people coming together for the first time sat quietly in the room, meditating on this question. How is your heart today, the facilitator repeated before asking participants to get in pairs and share their responses. A moment later, incarcerated people doing time at Angola State Penitentiary and individuals on the outside who had come to the prison for the second Day of Compassion were sharing what was on their hearts. For one rare day, people who generally spend their days locked in a cage--sometimes for up to 23 hours a day in solitary confinement--sat side by side with people who had never been inside prison walls. Together they told their stories and co-birthed ideas and visions for a better criminal justice system.
The Day of Compassion is the brainchild of Lara Naughton, a white woman who experienced a kidnapping and sexual assault while traveling. She now uses writing, acting and mindfulness as tools to heal from her experiences, and teaches these tools to others. In her writing, she names compassion as the most powerful force that enabled her survival. Over time, she forged a relationship with the Department of Corrections, and that ultimately allowed her to create an 8-week Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT). The training, which explores how to create a culture of compassion, is available to currently incarcerated people, and culminates in the special day that brings together incarcerated and non-incarcerated people.
While only incarcerated people who had gone through the CCT program attended yesterday’s event, the whole day was videotaped for the almost 6,000 people held at Angola prison to watch later. Participants broke bread together and discussed one of three topics: victim-offender intentional dialogue, sentencing reform or community reentry.
“As a victim, what would you want from me?” asked Keith, a CCT participant who is currently serving a life sentence for murdering someone when he was 18 years old. Respondents talked about the importance of a sincere apology, a commitment to change patterns and behavior, and an opportunity to truly understand why he did what he did. Keith talked about his frustration with the justice system strongly encouraging victims of crime to be punitive, even if they don’t want that themselves. He has a desire to talk to the family of the person he killed more than 20 years ago, but in Louisiana, it is illegal for the offender to reach out to the victim.
“I have a parole hearing in September,” he said. “Even though I feel completely rehabilitated and other people in here [the prison] know that, I can’t show that to the victim’s family.” Victims are allowed to come to offenders’ parole hearings, and many times their opinion strongly informs the ultimate decision, regardless of how much and in what ways offenders may have changed.
Several VOTE staff members--some who have been incarcerated and some who haven’t--were present yesterday.
“The day was a heartwarming and inspiring experience,” says Anna Sacks, VOTE’s Communications Associate. “At the same time, I couldn’t help but feel sad about the other 5,000 incarcerated people who weren’t in the room.” Sacks and other staff members exchanged information with some incarcerated individuals, and have plans to become penpals with them.
While the day is no silver bullet solution to a more compassionate criminal justice system, the experiences and conversations shared will continue to have a profound impact on both sides of prison walls.
Click here to learn more about the Compassion Institute and upcoming events.