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Compassion Behind Bars

Written by Emma Seppala, Ph.D. and Maaheem Akhtar of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), for The Huffington Post, September 11, 2012.


Our staff at CCARE was moved by this letter and gathered reading material to mail to him immediately. In particular, we were touched that, rather than playing the victim card or being angry at his fate, he instead aspired to education and wisdom out of a desire to help others. Whereas anger or victimhood would have weakened him, his compassionate stance has empowered him. In fact, he displayed more enthusiasm behind bars than many a free man. Why? An altruistic vision and goal is not only empowering but also leads to well-being. As we have explored in our last postsresearch is showing that not only are compassion and altruism beneficial to others, these qualities also improve our physical and psychological health.

Compassion is the ability to move past judgments and to see others as human beings similar to us, and to then act to alleviate their suffering. Research by Northeastern University Professor David DeSteno suggests that, if we see a commonality between ourselves and someone else, we are more likely to act with compassion toward them. The stereotypes we often hear about prisoners is that they are “hardened.” Some people believe that criminals are “born bad” and that they cannot change. If they commit a crime because they were not able to see the humanity in someone else, then who is to say they will ever see it again? Science.

Developments in neuroscience have shown us that the brain is plastic and malleable, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. What neuroplasticity teaches us is that change, growth, and understanding is always possible. A criminal is often a person who has experienced hardships and violence that led to a life of crime. Similarly, just as experience may have turned them into criminals, in the same way experience can help them turn around. This touching tale of Arno Michaels, a former skinhead turned passionate humanitarian, is just one of many examples. “It was getting more and more difficult to deny the humanity of the people I was supposed to hate,” said Michaels.

So what does it take to turn criminals around? A number of non-profits offer programs they hope will facilitate compassion through recognition of common humanity. How does such a program work? Gabriella Savalli, director of Prison Smart, a non-profit that provides secular yoga-based breathing and meditation practices to prisoners, explains that even some of the toughest inmates can develop compassion if given the tools to relieve trauma and anxiety. Savalli explains that many hardened criminals grew up in inner city environments ripe with violence and bloodshed. Raised in warzones, many suffer from the trauma of accumulated stress and anxiety. They are unable to move past the trauma and remain stuck in a cycle of violence, crime, and substance abuse. Savalli says that addressing that trauma by teaching methods to gain peace of mind can lead to life-changing shifts for men and women behind bars.

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