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How Mindfulness Impacts a Prison with Trime Persinger

Updated: Mar 20

In this episode, Trime Persinger speaks with cohost John MacAdams on her work as a prison chaplain with the Oregon Department of Corrections.

  • Seeing Yourself and Loving Well in prison work.

  • Stable, Caring Presence: providing environments where practice can flourish behind bars.

  • Mindful Communication: the program, how it started, and what happened when the pandemic hit.


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Trime Persinger has practiced meditation for 35 years and has been a prison chaplain in Oregon for 15 years. She leads a meditation group inside the prison that meets weekly, and she has coordinated three week-long meditation intensives. For the past two years she has recorded weekly mindfulness videos that are broadcast to inmates on a prison TV channel. These videos are also available online for staff viewing. In 2010 Trime developed The Art of Communication, a mindfulness-based course that teaches inmates skills for building relationships and resolving conflicts. Prior to the COVID pandemic, this course was offered in seven Oregon prisons.


Prison Mindfulness Podcast Transcript


John MacAdams: 

Hello, and welcome to another session on the Prison Mindfulness Summit. My name is John McAdams, and I'll be your co-host for this session. I'm very happy to be here today with Trime Persinger. Welcome, Trime. 


Trime Persinger: 

Thank you. Glad to be here. 


John MacAdams: 

Well, thank you so much for being part of our summit. I've been looking forward to speaking with you for the summit for some time. I'm going to start by reading from your bio to familiarize our audience with you and your work, and then we'll just jump into the conversation. Does that sound good? 


Trime Persinger: 

Sounds fine. 


John MacAdams: 

Okay. Trime has practiced meditation for 35 years and has been a prison chaplain in Oregon for 15 years. She leads a meditation group inside the prison that meets weekly, and she has coordinated three-week-long meditation intensives. 


For the past two years, she has recorded weekly mindfulness videos that are broadcast to inmates on a Prison TV channel. These videos are also available online for staff viewing. In 2010, Trime developed the Art of Communication, a mindfulness-based course that teaches inmates skills for building relationships and resolving conflicts. Prior to the COVID pandemic, this course was offered in seven Oregon prisons. 


Okay. Again, thanks for joining us. Let's just start. You've been working in prisons, as we just said, for about 15 years. I'm just going to ask you, how has mindfulness helped you? 


Trime Persinger:

Oregon has one of the better prison systems in the country. It's still a prison. There is a level of stress working inside of prison that mindfulness practice helps me to stay centered. It helps me to come back into my body into my present experience as I navigate my world. I don't consider myself to be a calm person, but I somehow have a calming effect. It has to be mindfulness practice. People tell me that they appreciate the stability that I bring and my cheerfulness. That comes from repeatedly coming back into the present moment and showing up. Someone once said that our job is to show up with heart. In prison, that's very helpful for myself and for the people around me. 


John MacAdams: 

Trime, can you give us a little, just kind of a little scenario? Help us to visualize how you are working out. I've spoken about a couple of different ways that you have been working with the Oregon Department of Corrections. So for this weekly meditation class that you were doing in person, when you've been able to do it in person, can you let us know what that actually looks like? How long is it? How do people set up? What are they sitting on? How did you make that work? 


Trime Persinger: 

I'm a member of the Shambhala Buddhist community. And so we have the setup of the Shambhala centers following. We use the chapel, the main religious room in prison, which is quite large. We have storage cabinets that were made. We keep the cushions in there, plus shrine supplies. We have a shrine. We set it up and take it down every time we meet. We meet on Sundays for two hours. I have a setup crew that comes in ahead of time and sets everything up. And then, at the end of the two hours, we take 10 minutes to take everything down and put it away. So, it's a travel. It's the equivalent of a traveling shrine room because everything goes away at the end. 


John MacAdams: 

What do you do in those two hours? 


Trime Persinger: 

We have some opening remarks. I give announcements. In Oregon, inmates are called Adults in Custody. We abbreviate that to AIC. If an AIC anywhere in prison has passed away in the preceding week, then I'll make an announcement about that. We memorialize that AIC. Anyone who knows that person will speak. I'll talk about upcoming events, or right now, we're preparing to do a class for people who are wanting to take refuge. That's an ongoing saga of getting permission to stream video off the internet, which I update them on every week. 


So, the announcements. And then, we don't have a post-meditation hall, so we are shifting gears now by moving locations. I just kind of took that and said, "Let's get started." I sit up straight, and the room/people settle. And then, I take off my microphone. I stand up. We have a drum that was built early on by the Native American group inside the prison. And so, we do the opening chants. 


We've had AIC requests. We've included The Heart Sutra in our opening chants, so we do drums. And then the Shambala Buddhist opening chants, plus the Heart Sutra. And then we practice for a while if there's anybody new in the room, which there often is, and I will, at that point, be replaced on the cushion, the leader cushion, by one of my trained AICs, and take the new person across the hall to my office and give meditation instruction, and then we come back, and so we have sitting and walking, and then either we'll do an hour, hour and 20 minutes, and that more often we have some kind of teaching. 


Occasionally I give a talk. Mostly we do video teachings. So right now, we are showing different lessons from the science of meditation series that was done at Shambhala Mountain Center several years ago. So, we're going to show that. Or they'll do with the Pema Chodron sequence or a second welcome sequence of, you know, something. Or just a video, a random video. And then we do the closing chants. Sometimes there are discussions. I've actually increasingly been doing discussions, dyad and triad discussions, because those are really helpful, especially post-COVID when people don't really know each other anymore. 


We've had some new people come. And so, the dyad and triad discussions have been much appreciated, and so I started doing them more, creating time for that. So there could be 20 minutes of discussion with two and three. I've given a contemplation, and they discuss the contemplation, then we gather together and the group, and we do closing chants, and then we'd have takedown, and the takedown is also a time for socializing. 


John MacAdams: 

Okay. Well, okay. I actually was lucky enough and honored to be at one of these gatherings four years ago, four or five years ago, with you. It was really incredibly impressive. The swiftness and the sort of ease and conviviality of the setup, the program, the way it ran, and then the teardown, and it was very pleasant for me to be there. It was really pleasant. 


You gave us a very clear understanding of what that aspect of your work is. So, for our audience, what has drawn you there? I mean, what actually brought you into and made you go through whatever steps and hoops you needed to in order to become a member of this industry or however you want to look at it? You're a professional chaplain in the State Department of Corrections. This is a career choice. Can you tell us what drew you to that? 


Trime Persinger: 

I got lucky. I happen to have the qualifications. I did not set out to be a chaplain. My degrees are in Mathematics and Business Administration. So, this has nothing to do with theology. I have put a lot of time and effort into studying Buddhism and practicing Buddhism. They had done that for a long time prior to getting this job. 


I was actually exploring opportunities in restorative justice at the time. I was looking for work. I was out of work, and I was in Oregon, and I was making phone calls to get any kind of a job, but on the side, I was looking for jobs in restorative justice. Jobs in restorative justice are impossible to get and very rare. I just kept poking at that topic. One thing led to another, and I ended up in a conversation with the administrator of religious services to talk about restorative justice. In that conversation, he said, "Well, I don't have anything in restorative justice for you. But could you be a chaplain?" 


It was just a life-changing moment. And I said I don't know. I'll find out. I asked him what the requirements were and discovered that I could patch together the requirements and apply because, at the time, there were a number of chaplain openings. I applied and was interviewed and was successful in getting a job as a chaplain. It was like a gift. It felt like a gift. 


I could never imagine a job that I was better suited for, and that was a more rewarding career for me than being a prison chaplain. It's just been a marvelous 15 years. I'm really grateful. So there was no strategy involved. It was following my passion, getting an education and putting a lot of effort into my Buddhist practice and community, and then just being in the right place at the right time. 


John MacAdams: 

Okay. Well, from my understanding and experience, Buddhism is a path of transformation. And so, what would you say? How do you see the transformation, the growth, that you had experienced from when you stepped in as a chaplain to now in these 15 years? 


Trime Persinger: 

Oh, my gosh. In prison, you have to walk the walk. I've discovered in my Buddhist practice there's nowhere to hide, but we still find places to hide. We do. Our egos are tricky. And there's nowhere to hide in prison. You're up against bureaucracy. You're up against a very structured environment where there are a lot of power issues. My buttons get pushed, and I encounter situations that can be frightening. Not that often, but they're there. 


And then, the whole prison environment is challenging. I have no illusions that my own hang ups are fewer than I had at the beginning. You get to see yourself in technicolor. Your buttons get pushed, and there's nowhere to hide. You have to kind of take a step back and really look at what's going on. I look at my relationships with AIC and with other staff, and I apply endlessly the lessons that I've learned in my Buddhist path. Just endlessly. 


We talk about the transformative path, the path of Buddhism. It's very much a path looking in prison. I have learned so much in the 15 years just by paying attention, just by not ducking and being humiliated and learning and being humiliated again and learning again. The mistakes and successes and mistakes and successes and just leaning into all of it and learning about love. It's a great place to learn about love. Accurate love. Love that isn't squeamish and isn't indulgent, but how to love well. It's a wonderful place to learn about how to love well. Hands-on. 


John MacAdams: 

Wow, thank you. So, in terms of transformation or path or growth, the folks that you're working with. I also want to talk a little bit about just the language of adults in custody. In many different facilities and incarcerated environments, adults in custody are referred to in so many different ways. When I first encountered the term adults in custody, it sounded to me to be very respectful and very just accurate. This change in terminology. Tell us about that because it happened during your tenure. Can you just talk a little bit about how you've seen it affect maybe the administration, the frontline COs, the adults in custody themselves, and yourself? 


Trime Persinger: 

There's a different feeling about "Adult in Custody," and we always abbreviate it AIC. Then, there is something about the word "inmate." I think it's a subtle difference. I don't think it's part of the Oregon Way, this effort by senior management to humanize the prison environment and to humanize the AICs in the eyes of staff. And to create a more prosocial world, as is said over and over. Most AICs are released from prison. We try to do our best to have healthier people released from prison than when they came in. So, that's part of that philosophy. 


John MacAdams: 

Okay. So then along those lines, in terms of the work that you're doing with adults in custody and the meditation that you're guiding them and training them in mindfulness, that they're doing their own personal work. So, that's sort of the next interest for me. How are you seeing that growth personally, individually, and your part in it? 


Trime Persinger: 

Leading the meditation group and being a stable, caring reference point is really important. For my first eight and a half years as a chaplain, I was the Chaplain for special housing, which is the segregation unit. My prison is the largest prison in Oregon. And we have right now seven housing units that are in isolation. 


John MacAdams: 

So special housing, known in the vernacular as the hole or solitary confinement? 


Trime Persinger: 

Yeah. And so I would walk the tier down there every week for eight and a half years and have amazing conversations with individuals. I think there's the group element of my work. The AICs are immensely grateful to have a place where they can go that is safe. And the ones who are drawn to a Buddhist path they're just really grateful for that. And the fact that I show up, and some of them do amazing work on the cushion in the group context, and then they take it back to themselves. It helps them to reorient their lives there. 


And then some of those I see individually as well, as well. It's only at their request. I only see people individually when they request it. And then, as I said, for eight and a half years, I walked the tier in special housing, and I would have individual conversations with people cell side. If they wanted it, I would give them meditation instructions. We will talk about meditation practice and answer questions. When I was doing it, I used to print some kind of meditation-related article. I would hand it out to anybody who was interested when I went. 


Every week, I would usually have five or six or even more conversations with folks that any meditation instructor would salivate over. They were so deep and so impressive how these guys were starting to work with their minds and really come to terms with their lives. It was extraordinary. 


Having had a fairly challenging life myself and having worked with my own demons, I started this job when I was in my 50s and had covered a lot of territory by them. I think when I connect with them, there's a sense of a shared understanding. I bring to the work a sense that these are fellow travelers, and I've done work, and I've got some wisdom that I can share from my own journey. Just walking the tier down there in general, just showing up with a smile. 


At the time, people could be down there for a long time. Sometimes, more than a year. Now they're down there less because of this change in the whole prison culture actually around the country. But at the time, I would see the same person every week, sometimes for more than a year, sometimes two years or more. And just being, again, this steady, reliable presence, showing up every week and taking an interest in them. It's remarkable how a simple thing like that, how much that can help people know that somebody cares. I'm sure in your prison work, you've discovered the same thing. It doesn't take much. 


John MacAdams: 

Showing up. 


Trime Persinger: 

Showing up. Showing up with a heart with a smile, and really showing up. Sometimes people can present. They look mean, or they look nasty, or they look scary. I have learned very early on to just not give that much mind. I always look into their eyes, and I have various techniques for seeing the human being on the other side of that. You just smile at someone, and they look fierce and scary and smile at them, and everything changes. They smile back, and it's like, "Oh, there he is." I work in a male prison. Most of them are men. We have some transgender AICs who aren't in a male prison. We've adjusted our language. 


John MacAdams: 

Okay. Well, thank you. That was quite vivid. And this was your work pre-pandemic, pre-COVID.


Trime Persinger: 

I did that until the fall of 2015. 


John MacAdams: 

Okay. 


Trime Persinger: 

So, yeah. Way pre-pandemic. 


John MacAdams: 

Yeah. And then, so then, what shifted from 2015 up to the pandemic? 


Trime Persinger: 

I was told I had to give up special housing because I'd been there. I've been down there so long that I was told by the prison administration that I needed a break. I needed to not do it anymore. I was really unhappy about that. I protested. I protested loudly. In the meantime, along the way, I developed this training program that you mentioned in my bio called the Art of Communication. 


The shorts to my boss, who was not in this system, my boss is statewide. He supervises all the chaplains across the state. I had complained loudly and forcefully to him that I did not want to give up special housing, but he was in a difficult position because the prison administration wanted me to, having been down there for so long. Most staff have to rotate out of special housing after two years. I was only down there a few hours a week. So, I didn't think that that should apply to me. But anyway, they did. 


He discovered a carrot that would draw me away from special housing, and that was to take my Art of Communication program statewide. So when he made me that offer, I said, okay, I'll give up special housing. So, I did. 


John MacAdams: 

Great. So tell us about that. Tell us about that program. 


Trime Persinger: 

Before I was a prison chaplain, in the late 90s, I did training and conflict resolution and did it at the Justice Institute of British Columbia in New Westminster. It changed my life. It was an extraordinary program, and I developed training programs in it subsequently because it really landed for me. 


When I became a prison chaplain, one of the chapel clerks and prison people had jobs. And we have like eight AICs who work for us, these chapel clerks. And so one of the general clerks I was, you know. And you get to know these people. So I told them what I had done, and he said, "Oh, can you teach us?" "That sounds good. Can you teach us?" I said no. I was a new chaplain at the time. And that three and a half years after I figured it out. I had felt some degree of comfort and familiarity with my chaplaincy. He kept asking, so I adapted my material to a prison environment and put on the first Art of Communication class in December 2010. 


People signed up. Many of them said more than once, "This won't work here. This won't work here." I said, "Maybe. You might be right." I said, "But you won't know until you try." And so some of them tried it and knew that these skills work in prison and work with other AICs. They work with family. They work with staff. It's simple listening and speaking skills. 


Anyway, after the very first class, I recruited AIC co-facilitators. So, people who would really embrace the material and were really trying to use it in their own lives. And so, from that point forward, anybody who said this wouldn't work in here then was a very credible person standing in front of them who said, "Yeah, it does. Get over yourself." So, moving forward, I've always had an AIC co-facilitator helping me present the material. 


John MacAdams: 

That was ongoing up 'till 2020 early 2020. 


Trime Persinger: 

Yeah, the beginning of the lockdown due to the pandemic interrupted it. We were seven classes into the 10-week course. 


John MacAdams: 

So you were kind of a traveling show because you went across the street.

 

Trime Persinger: 

I trained facilitators in Salem on two different occasions. I traveled to two other prisons to actually teach classes. Prisons that are, you know, just a few hours away. Several sessions at one of them and one or two sessions at the other. But then, I trained facilitators, who would then deliver the material. When I was invited to take the program statewide, I developed a facilitator guide. I'd been working on it over the years, but I developed a facilitator guide that is very specific. It says to do this, then do this, then do this. 


And that references the workbook. And so, I've written a workbook from the very beginning. And so, it evolved. It was fine-tuned over several years, and then the facilitator guide, and it's now very complete. I think it's a package, and people just haven't been trained. They can teach from the facilitator's guide in a very straightforward manner. I had a conversation last week with the facilitator, who is a counselor at another institution. She's very successful at teaching it. 


John MacAdams: 

Great. Great. Okay. So, that is up and running. COVID hits, and the virus does its thing. What did you do? 


Trime Persinger: 

Art of Communication was suspended. 


John MacAdams: 

Because they were meeting in groups.


Trime Persinger: 

Yeah, in groups. Yeah. And AICs released in Oregon don't have access to the internet. There's no possibility. They can do video visits with family, but we don't have the ability to do any kind of Zoom meeting or anything with AICs. 


And, of course, in the beginning, we thought it was going to be over soon. Remember those days? So we kept waiting for things to open up again, and then they didn't. And finally, I started recording services to just go through the motions of our normal Buddhist service with a shrine and Gong and opening chants. I always talk. I didn't do videos. I would always give a Buddhist talk. And then, they would be shown on our internal AIC channel on Sunday mornings when we had the Buddhist service. 


And after doing that for a month or two, it was suggested that since I was all set up to record anyway, why not do a video on secular mindfulness? That sounded like a good idea. Talking to a camera for the first time, and the second time, and the third time, and the 10th time was really weird. It just felt so weird to talk to a camera and have nobody live on the other side, but I got over it. I mean, we do, don't we? We've gotten used to all kinds of things that are surprising. So now I'm really comfortable talking to a camera. I've continued. Since we reactivated, we're having a bit of service again. I've continued. 


And these mindfulness videos are shown on the same channel. I record one video a week, and it's shown. It's looped. It's looped from seven till eight every morning. The new talk starts on Sunday and then runs through the following Saturday. So from seven till late, it'll be the same talk for a week. And then, on Sunday, a change. They change the reel. It's run by AICs from a central location but along with the rest of our programming on Channel 53. 


John MacAdams: 

How long are these presentations? 


Trime Persinger: 

Twenty-four minutes to 30. Something in there. 


John MacAdams: 

Do you do guided practices or silent practice? 


Trime Persinger: 

I give a little talk. I talk about something that is real in my own life at that moment. I usually record on Monday mornings. I talk about something that's real for me. I don't care about the specifics of my situation. It is not a YouTube video. This is going out to AICs, and it would be completely inappropriate for me to share the specifics of my story. And then it's also going out to staff, but I talk about something that is real for me at that moment. 


I talk, and sometimes I cry. Sometimes I cry when I'm talking to the camera if it's a very emotional subject. And actually, I recently sent a video with me crying to the person who sends them out to the staff in the state, and I said, "If you think this is inappropriate, I'll send you another one." She said, "Oh, no, it's great." So they like it. 


A big one for me is gentleness. It was huge for me to learn to be gentle with myself. And, of course, it's an ongoing thing. I bring gentleness into almost everything that I've talked about stress reduction, gentleness, disappointment, a fresh start, sense of humor, letting go, never giving up, boredom, getting real, courage, practice every day, not special, sadness, dropping resistance to things as they are, feeling/loneliness. So I've got, you know, two pages of this. 


I talk about something, as I said, that is real. And, of course, in many cases, it's the same message, just in different packages. The AICs eat it up. I get told many times how much people appreciate it. They'll watch it every day as a way to start their day. And, of course, now when I walk down the corridor, you know, "Oh, there's the movie star." 


I think that people who come to the Buddhist service, I'm not even sure they watch it, but it's everybody, you know, not everybody else, but other people find it really, really helpful, and it's completely secular. I make no Buddhist references at all. I have, on occasion, done tonglen practice because it fits, and I thought I'd just experimented. 


I've grown in my confidence over the almost two years I've been doing this. I'm on video number. I just recorded number 93. And so, now I've ventured because I didn't want to introduce any Buddhism at all, but it just fits, and it worked. I wanted to talk about that practice as it felt relevant at that moment, but I'm very much doing this based on inspiration at the moment. 


John MacAdams: 

I've learned these sending and taking practices at the compassion practice. 


Trime Persinger: 

The compassion practice. Yeah. 


John MacAdams: 

Well, I don't know. I think I'm hearing the makings of a TikTok star here. 


Trime Persinger: 

After I retire. 


John MacAdams: 

Okay. Well, that gives you something to do. Yeah, if TikTok is still going in three months. So, what do you see for yourself and for this position? We just touched very briefly on the Oregon Way and that there's some amount of movement, transition, shifting, or at least an intent to humanize the people who are there in custody. Oh, what do you see as opportunities, potential shifts and change, and growth? 


Trime Persinger: 

That had happened, or that could happen? 


John MacAdams: 

No, that could happen here in the future going forward from here. 


Trime Persinger: 

I would like to just back up a moment and say humanize the people who are in custody. I think I would be more comfortable with the word humanizing our view of them. They're already human. Humanizing is how we view them, which helps to invoke their humanity. So it's not something we're doing to them. It's something we're doing to ourselves. And it's helping them to find their own humanity. 


There's a big emphasis on staff wellness. The correctional staff has health issues and mortality issues. Correctional career, especially to be a correctional officer, you have to be really careful if you're in that career to take care of yourself and balance your life because it's just very stressful. I think there's an undertone of stress. I don't have experience. I'm not responsible if there's a fight or if issues happen. Correctional staff is. So, there's a sense of a lot of boredom, a lot of repetitive activity, cell searching, you know, running line movement, running child line, with a sudden requirement to be on and dealing with the dangerous situation. 


Mindfulness practice has been introduced for staff as well as a way to calibrate as a way to manage that. So, staff wellness is huge. Really encourage people to attend to any health issues that they have. Their weight, their lifestyle, and diet, introducing mindfulness practice. That's definitely part of the Oregon Way. 


And then when people are healthier and stronger in their own being, then there's a sense that it's less of a stretch to see the AICs as human as well. And so, there's this full humanizing this for all of us. We're all working with challenges, and we're all, I think, working at dropping the barriers that we put up guarding ourselves against the world. 


In prison, you have to be able to draw on it. You have to be able to create a barrier and deal with emergencies. They don't happen as often as one would think. And in the meantime, It works better if it's just a more relaxed environment if people are connected and happy. Staff. Does that answer your question? 


John MacAdams: 

Well, are you seeing this as something that is gaining traction that you see is starting to help mold or reshape the culture? 


Trime Persinger: 

Yes, I would say overall, yes, especially the senior management. It's been pushed repeatedly for years now. I think they've got that mindset in mind when they hire new staff. It's sad that people come to prison as punishment. They come to prison because they have broken the law. That's the judicial determination of their punishment, but they don't come to prison for punishment. Being in prison is punishment itself enough. They don't need further dehumanization when they're in prison. Now, if they cause problems, they've got to be dealt with. I mean, clearly. At the same time, if they don't cause problems, and even if they do cause problems, they are still human beings. 


We have a remarkable example of an AIC who's been in segregation for years and years and years because he has been so violent and so disruptive, and powerful. He's pulled up steel out of a concrete floor and done all kinds of things that are beyond offensive. They've been working with this man using the principles of the Oregon Way to the point where he's been out of his cell and restrained. They took him to a gym and played basketball with him. 


The staff never do this with other AICs. When other AICs are around, there's a lot of staff. A lot of very well-trained staff are with him because he's done some really awful things. I saw a video of this guy when I was doing special housing, and I knew him well. He was unreasonable. He was loud. He was offensive. He was demanding. 


As I knew him, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I mean, wait to see them working with this guy and really treating him like a human being and maintaining safeguards, always maintaining safeguards and speaking to his humanity. I'm going to cry right now that I think about it. It's just such a joy to be part of a system that's oriented that way. 


John MacAdams: 

Well, this makes me want to ask you for people in our audience who maybe haven't spent time working in prison and are interested in entering those environments. What sort of advice or essential pieces of information? So, you talked about safety. Right. And we know that safety is really a high key interest and need. I mean, that's what the administration is there for. That's one aspect. 


Trime Persinger: 

That's the first priority. 


John MacAdams: 

That's always the first priority, safety. 


Trime Persinger: 

First priority. If anything is unsafe, then it trumps everything else. 


John MacAdams: 

Right. And then we have kind of the rest of it, which, depending on the institution and the administration and the state that you're in, there's the potential for growth of the individual, of the incarcerated individual. And from what you're saying, to COs as well. So just kind of that as a context, if you ran into somebody at a party, and they said, "Well, that's so cool. I've really been thinking about this for the last four or five years, so I want to volunteer in prison." What would you feel is essential for them to understand? 


Trime Persinger: 

I think of it in terms of hard and soft. Especially delivering human-centered services in prison, like most volunteers want to do. One has to maintain a kind of human emotional availability and humanity and appreciation for the individuals you're working with, AICs or inmates, depending on where you are. And to know that you can be conned, that you have to follow the rules. You have to maintain boundaries and follow the rules. 


You can't do favors for AICs. What you say you have to do for one, you have to do for all. So somebody hands you a letter and says, "Can you mail this to my mother?" No. The answer's no. Because then, that AIC has gotten you to do something that you weren't supposed to do. And then, they'll ask for more favors. I mean, there are books about this. And then, they can compromise you. And then they can have you bringing in contraband because they can report you, and then you'll lose, you know. 


It's this spiral that you can get caught in, so maintaining one's humanity and seeing the people that you're serving as human beings, recognizing the environment, recognizing that we can be manipulated. So following the rules. I have been blessed. I supervise a number of volunteers, and I have been blessed with really great volunteers, and I train them. They know that if anything happens that arouses their suspicion in any way, anybody asks them to do something they're not supposed to do, they come to me. 


So it's not like you as a volunteer in prison; you don't have to be the arbiter. I'm guessing this is anywhere. There's somebody who supervises you, who's a reference point. You can go and say, "Look. They asked me to do this. Is this okay?" Or, you know, "We want to do this. Is this okay?" And so, to be aware of this dance, you know, the razor's edge. It's a Buddhist image. The razor's edge is not too tight, not too loose, not too hard, and not too soft. To just walk that every day and every time you go in. And that's true for me as a staff member too. 


John MacAdams: 

There are some pitfalls, and there are some learning curves. 


Trime Persinger: 

Yes. As I said, in some cases, we learn the hard way. Never enough, of course, to have a seriously bad consequence, but I've definitely had some learning moments. In my case, actually, usually, I'm too tight. Sometimes I've been too loose. 


John MacAdams: 

Well, I don't think it's uncommon for the compassionate heart to start to kind of win over and blur the boundaries. I mean, in the particular jail system I work in, we have a very clear contract that I sign. It's very clear. It's like if I breach that contract—I'm just a volunteer. I'm out. They've got thousands of volunteers. I'm just going to blacklist drops down. So, for self-preservation, you know. 


Trime Persinger: 

And also, it's actually also, most of the time, for the AICs' benefit. We live in a very permissive society. And there's a lot of people in prison who have not had good boundaries around them, you know, for parents who were gone, or who were very agreeable and would do anything that kid wanted. Or no parents at all, or whatever. So, actually, I would say, overall, the setting of boundaries is for everybody's benefit. And anybody in AIC who is inclined to try to manipulate you. 


I love one of the benefits of bleeding a Buddhist service is that people can't talk. So if they go to the religious program in order to meet up with their friends and talk to them in most services, they are singing, they are talking. It's a kind of social experience. And mindfulness practice, they come there to talk, I don't allow it. And if they keep talking to each other, whispering, I separate them. And then, you know, the next step is you can't be here, bye. Then, I take them off the call-out. 


I want people in my service who really want to be there for the right reason, not so that they can meet up with their friends and do their business. My prison is very large. There are different complexes. People come to the Buddhist service from all the different complexes, so it can be used as a way to meet up with people they wouldn't otherwise see. And so I say, that's fine. We have 10 minutes of social time in the end. You can do it then. 


In fact, I found somebody doing some business. He came in, and he talked to somebody, and then he turned around and laughed. And so that was when I said, "No, this isn't going to work." So this is when I had a very large group. I had like 50 people, 60 people on the call out. So we shifted, and we started. Instead of having social time in the beginning, when people arrived, we were all sitting. So they had to come in and just into like coming right into the meditation room, and they had to sit down. 


People self-select for the Buddhist service, which is fine with me. I don't want anybody there who's not there because they want to learn about Buddhism or meditation. 


John MacAdams: 

We're going to wrap up soon, but one of the questions that come to mind as you spoke a little bit about, obviously about the number of people who find themselves justice-involved, chaotic upbringings, chaotic childhoods, and the accumulation of trauma and potential accumulation of a great deal of trauma. And you know, there's a lot of talk in terms of mindfulness and secular mindfulness and/or Buddhist practice and the potential to trigger traumatic reactions or responses and/or how to guide people and train people in a trauma-informed way. And so, I just would like to ask you, in your work and in your life, what have you found in terms of triggers? Have you seen folks get triggered, and how are you working in general around trauma-informed approaches? 


Trime Persinger: 

I don't see it in the room. So again, it's not too tight, not too loose. And if people tell me that they can't do it, then they can't do it. I mean, I will meet with them individually. And if things get triggered individually, then the teaching to be gentle with oneself has helped me to allow room for whatever's happening in their experience to be there and to provide a safe space for them to be triggered. If they can't stay there, they don't have to stay there. 


One thing that's been important for me in my work as a chaplain is to empower people and to help them to move away from seeing themselves as a victim. When people first discover their traumatic response, of course, they're going to remember their victimization. It's a natural and necessary part of their journey for them to stay there. It doesn't help them. So there's a sense of owning one's experience and claiming it. And then working with where to go from here. 


I'm not trained in trauma. I mean, I've read books and so on. I think there's a lot of intuition in how I work with people. I try to meet them where they are. I've not had disruptions in my service from people having trauma triggers as they practice mindfulness. I think that some people have chosen not to come back because it was too much for them. I'm just there for folks offering what I know and what I've learned, and I try to meet them where they are and offer whatever help I can. 


John MacAdams: 

Well, I think that it's wonderfully helpful to hear from you as an experienced professional. There can be a potential for folks who don't have this level of experience to be very cautious, maybe overly cautious, with the potential to trigger traumatic responses and to be very shy about presenting mindfulness. And so, I think hearing from you to trust in one's intuition, to lead with gentleness. 


Trime Persinger: 

And if anything happens, you've got security staff available. If anybody starts to get really out of control, you've got people trained to address that kind of situation. It's a remarkably safe environment. I tell you what? AICs are beyond grateful for volunteers coming in. I'm sure you've experienced that. I mean, they're grateful for me. I'm a staff. I'm coming in. I'm getting paid to be there. They all know that. 


Volunteers come in on their own time. They all know that, and they are so grateful for the people who volunteer their time to come in. I've never been concerned about that. It's never been an issue for me about having someone act out. I'll tell you. If there was ever an act of aggression against me, it would be one person, and the other people in the room would make sure he never got to me. 



John MacAdams: 

Well, you've had a wonderful career, and I know that you have mentioned to me just in our preamble that there may be a big shift and change for you in the next little while. So we, of course, wish you all the best. 


Trime Persinger: 

It'll be a while. It's a year and a half. Yeah. Something's coming. 


John MacAdams: 

That's great. Now, the Art of Communication. Is there any way folks can learn about the workbook or learn about the program itself? 


Trime Persinger: 

It's proprietary right now. It's been with the Oregon Department of Corrections. I don't know if you're going to put contact information, but they could write to me. I developed it actually on my own time, but because I've developed it from my prison work and it's now offered within the DOC, I don't know what's going on. I mean, I had great dreams for it. I was going to, you know, change the world. 


COVID hit, and just really. So, I'm going to do another staff facilitator training next spring. It's in the works. It lost a lot of steam with COVID. I've yet to see, at this point in my career, how much. There is this one woman teaching it at another institution who's passionate about it. Maybe she can pick up the reins and take them somewhere. I don't know. I don't know. I'm happy to answer general questions about it. I can send the overview of it. In terms of the actual material, I don't know. 


John MacAdams: 

Well, that's interesting. I wonder if there was another staff member in another state Department of Corrections who might be interested. 


Trime Persinger: 

Contact me for sure. And I'm guessing the Oregon Department of Corrections would be willing to share it. That would be exciting for me. That would really light my fire. Even a volunteer to teach it in another state, right? 


John MacAdams: 

Well, yes. If we can spread it to other institutions, other cultures. 


Trime Persinger: 

Yeah, that would be amazing. If that leads to that, that would be amazing. 


John MacAdams: 

Well, thank you so much, Trime, for taking your time. And thank you so much for all of your amazing work there in Oregon. 


Trime Persinger: 

It's been my pleasure. I enjoyed this. Thank you, John. 


John MacAdams: 

Good. Take good care. Bye. 


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