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Co-Intelligent Prison Work


The prison population in the U.S. doubled from 1981-1991, and has doubled again in the past five years, [writes Manitonquat (Medicine Story), a Native American elder, spiritual leader and Keeper of the Lore for the Assonet band of the Wampanoag Nation in what we now call New Hampshire.] Yet there seems to be no alternative but to clamor for more of the same approach that is not working. A little like saying if your present medicine is not effective, then you should keep taking more of it until it works.

[The prison program I work with is based on an indigenous understanding of] how to live a life that is harmonious and in balance. We notice that things tend to want to heal, to come to balance, to become better, and that human beings want in fact to learn, to become more aware, more conscious, and to make things better.

[In our prison program] we encourage spiritual growth and seeking, because a whole human being must be aware of more than himself, that there is a vast mystery beyond our consciousness to which we must have some relation.

[At the start of each meeting] we greet our common mother, the Earth. And then we greet her other children -- those that put down roots into her, those that crawl under her skin, those that run about on her as we do, those that swim in her waters and those that fly on her winds. Each one has a different gift that they bring to the web of life, and that web depends on all these gifts.

Our people noticed long ago that the circle is the basic form of Creation [so we sit in a listening circle]. In the circle all are equal: there is no top or bottom, first or last, better or worse. The talking stick will be passed, and each one who holds it may speak for as long as he needs and chooses. Everyone else will listen and give the speaker his attention and respect. It is not necessary that you agree with a speaker in order to respect him. You respect him by listening and keeping your mind open to hear his words, as well as to feel his heart and what lies between the words. Each man holding the talking stick is asked only to be honest.

This teaching of respect is spiritual wisdom to our people, because we have found over the ages that it functions and makes our lives work, makes them better, and when we depart from this wisdom at any time we make mistakes and regret it. Therefore we are taught to respect the Earth, as our own mother, to respect all things in Creation, all forms of life, and all other human beings regardless of their age, sex, color, nationality, or belief.

Most of these prisoners have never in their lives been listened to with respect. Very few have any persons in their experience who have shown them respect in any manner at all. So for them to hold the talking stick and feel all that attention, respectful, supportive attention, it becomes a really powerful and liberating experience.

[We tell prisoners] "No one was ever like you in all the universe, and there will never be another one like you again. Therefore only you have your special gift, and you are the only one who can give it away. You will not feel right, will not fulfill your purpose until you give it away. The rest of us need to receive your gift and hear your story."

[Every] human being [starts out] loving, joyful, intelligent and creative. That's how every one of these prisoners began, these criminals, these men with shattered lives who may have shattered others' lives. [But] every prisoner I have listened to has suffered some level of abuse in those tender, vulnerable early years of childhood -- physical abuse very often, sexual abuse, or just terrifying emotional abuse by one or more adult care-giver, coupled with some level of isolation and abandonment.

After some years in a prison circle, men find themselves so changed that it is hard for them to believe that they once were the people who committed their crimes.... Having been rescued by a circle, having seen that the most human society is one that lives by the ideals of respect and honesty, equality, closeness and caring, these men want never to be isolated again, never to be without the support and the love of a circle of real human beings.

[We also use] the sweat lodge -- an almost universal purification ceremony among native cultures of North America. The well-known Northern European version of a sweat lodge is the sauna. In a Native American sweat lodge, people sit together in total darkness in a low domed structure made of saplings set in the ground in a circle and bent over and then covered with blankets and canvas. Pouring water over red-hot stones in a central pit creates the steam.

In my way of leading a sweat purification ceremony, I use four rounds, or sections, one for each direction, in which I focus on healing the body, the mind, the heart, and the spirit. The ceremony is very intense and may last over two hours, and the experience cannot be translated adequately into words. [It seems to] burn out their past, their troubling thoughts and feelings, the tension of life in prison, and their worries about the outside world.

[And sometimes I've used Re-evaluation Co-Counselling, a peer counselling practice through which these prisoners] learned that they can allow themselves to feel feelings which are terrifying and painful and enraging, and that they will not go crazy or get bummed out forever, but will actually relieve themselves of old burdens, gain more power, and think more clearly.

Out of [this] circle of men hidden behind their [dysfunctional psychological] patterns comes a family of brothers with common grief, common despair, common desire, common fear, and common hope. Old timers take the new ones under their wings and set them straight. They begin to look at everyone -- parents, siblings, wives, children, friends, enemies -- as human beings that once were innocent children but got loaded with distress with no support to deal with it, and developed the patterns that now make them so difficult to relate to. As their attitude changes they feel better... [and even] see other inmates and especially some of the difficult guards in this way, too. They become less confrontational, sometimes downright sympathetic, and report great changes in those encounters as well.

[When these prisoners leave prison they should have their] own half-way houses, staffed by the ex-prisoners themselves, where newly-released prisoners can have the ongoing support of a circle. Going from a circle in the prison to a circle on the outside would be an easy transition for them, within a way that is familiar and empowering. Here the men would find counseling, to understand their way into the new social world, to relate to their families and friends, and to find employment and housing.

-- edited from the pamphlet version of "Ending Violent Crime" by Manitonquat. Click here to download the full text of his full book "Ending Violent Crime."

COMMENTARY: Manitonquat's program has run for more than a dozen years. Whatever else people may think about it, two qualities make it broadly appealing: its effectiveness and its low cost. Only 5-10% of the convicts who complete Manitonquat's program revert to criminal activities which land them in prison again (compared to a general recidivism rate of 65-85% in the overall prison population). As a volunteer, he serves 120-150 inmates in seven state prisons with only about $100/month in travel expenses. He estimates that if he worked full-time on a small salary he could provide bi-weekly programs for up to 1000 inmates and train people to do what he does with a 2-week training program.

He also notes that the convicts he works with are eager to use the same practices to heal the young men on the streets, in the gangs and in the juvenile correctional system. They want to build job programs and start ex-con businesses, especially environmental ones. He infects these men with his desire "to replace the pyramid of domination with the circle of equality and respect."

This program -- which elegantly integrates indigenous and modern co-intelligent approaches -- could drastically reduce violent crime in the U.S. for only a fraction of the money we now spend on our tragically ineffective "corrections" system. It is a taste of the kind of culture we could build using co-intelligent approaches. Why don't we already use such a demonstrably beneficial, affordable program? There are many lessons in that question.



"Ending Violent Crime" by Manitonquat ($8 from Another Place, below). Also available online from


Mettanokit Prison Program, Another Place, Inc., 173 Merriam Hill Rd, Greenville, NH 03048 USA, (603) 878-3201,, Fax (603) 878-2793.