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Oregon Prison Project Teaches Empathy,
A Key in Lowering Recidivism

Wheels of Change feature article by Tim Buckley

David "Gator" Robidoux was released this summer after 23 years being incarcerated for felony murder, stemming from a "drug deal gone bad."

Among the last classes he took while imprisoned at Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) was Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a year-long program being offered through the nonprofit Oregon Prison Project.

"Learning how empathy works and being able to use it in practical ways was the key for me," Robidoux said. "I've got many thousands of hour of counseling, classes and group work, and all of it contributed to my learning and personal growth. But NVC was what connected the dots for me… being able to identify and truly care about what someone else is feeling and needing."

Fred Sly developed the year-long NVC program while teaching at San Quentin prison in California. He witnessed the behavioral change in men after only a few concentrated sessions where empathy was the centerpiece. "There's a marked shift towards pro-social behavior, in a very short time," he said. Sly used his eight year teaching gig at San Quentin to pursue a Ph.D. Meanwhile, he moved to Portland and was invited to develop a similar program at OSP.

NVC is based on 40 years of work by Marshall Rosenberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist and protégé of Carl Rogers. Rosenberg's landmark text: Nonviolent Communnication: A Language of Life, is accompanyied by a workbook written by Lucy Leu, the founder of Washington State's highly acclaimed Freedom Project www.freedom-project.org.

Over the past two years, the OSP program has attracted many more men than the classes can contain. About 75 men are involved in the four classes and at least that many are on a waiting list. Each 12-week class (2 hours each) provides men with opportunity to deepen their empathic connection to others. But the process also leads them to discover their own feelings and unmet needs. "When trust is created, even the most guarded begin to open up," Sly said. By the end of NVC III (36 weeks), each of the men have told others about the crimes they committed, and have been able to express empathy for the victim, the victim's family, the community in which the crime took place and lastly, even themselves. "Once that shift happens, these men find it easier to reestablish healthy relationships with their wives, children, the corrections officers and the community into which they will return, upon release."

The Oregon Prison Project continues to train volunteers interested in teaching NVC in prison. More than 30 trained volunteers now teach at OSP, Columbia River Correctional Institution, and Coffee Creek Correctional Institution for women. Meanwhile, the project has also established the same training in a "reentry setting." In Portland, NVC is being offered through the PHOENIX Rising Transition program and through the Mercy Corp-supported Metropolitan Alliance for the Common Good. The program is also being rolled out this fall in Salem, through the Mid Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, at their Pine Street Resource Center.

For more information about NVC or OPP, contact Fred Sly at: fsly@pacific.net


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