Angola Prison Compassion Program: The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, LA
Mass incarceration is one of the urgent moral challenges and civil rights issues of our time, and compassionate approaches can inform reform.
The Angola Prison Compassion Program is designed to bring the language and practice of compassion into a system overcome by violence, anger and grief.
Vision Statement: Our vision is to build a culture of compassion at Angola through mindfulness and the daily practice of compassion. By recognizing our common humanity, free and incarcerated people will cultivate and nurture the value of self, others, and togetherness.
Compassion in Corrections
Human nature is in part expressed by the ability to heal, transform, and grow beyond present circumstances or points of view. Neuroscience proves the ability of the brain to change. It is, of course, the right of a harmed individual to heal. It should also be the right of the responsible individual to heal, and for the prison environment to be one of hope and renewal.
The compassion program at Angola is based on the premise that harmed and responsible people, along with criminal justice professionals and community members, can be partners in a compassionate system of justice that addresses the needs of everyone.
A compassionate framework doesn’t let people who have caused harm off the hook. It holds people accountable for their past as well as their future. Cultivating compassion for ourselves and others reminds us of our common humanity, helps us recognize others’ suffering as well as our own, and informs restorative action.
Compassion Corps Grant
The Angola Prison Compassion Program began in 2017 when Lara Naughton (certified CCT teacher) received a Compassion Corps grant to fund the inaugural Compassion Cultivation Training 8-week class at Angola. The first group of participants were prison mentors: incarcerated men who serve as social and vocational mentors to other incarcerated individuals within the prison. From this group, approximately ten men chose to serve as teaching assistants and collaborators in designing, implementing, assessing, and growing a prison-wide compassion program.
The Compassion Institute, under the direction of Thupten Jinpa and KC Branscomb, provided a grant to expand the program. Founding Faculty Margaret Cullen served as supervisor to the program and oversaw adaptations to the curriculum. Erika Rosenberg conducted an informal research study in the first three CCT classes. In the first class, there were statistically relevant changes in the cultivation of common humanity. In the second class, there was no discernible change. In the third class, there were substantial, highly significant increases in Full Scale Self-Compassion.
With this support, the program quickly grew.
It is important to note that the compassion program did not bring compassion to Angola. There is incredible compassion and care among men within the prison, right alongside the harsher realities. However, the compassion program has been beneficial in providing structure, a shared language, and specific practices around mindfulness and compassion.
Personal Connection: Lara Naughton, Founder of the Angola Prison Compassion Program
I became interested in compassion within corrections after surviving a violent crime. While traveling in Belize, I was kidnapped at knifepoint by a man pretending to be a cab driver. I couldn't run or hide or overpower the man. All I could do is turn toward his pain. Compassion became my defense. Compassion is recognizing suffering and being motivated to help. I wasn’t thinking about compassion at the time, but the man’s pain was palpable and I instinctively felt that if I wanted to be okay, he would have to be okay. My wellness depended on his; we were that interconnected. So I gave him my full attention, counseled him, prayed over him, and eventually it worked. I didn't get out untouched, but I got out alive. I never saw the man again and I don’t know his fate, but I became obsessed with these questions:
• When proximity changes, does interconnectedness change? Or is my wellness still somehow connected with his?
• If compassion is powerful enough dissolve violence in the moment, what happens if compassion is applied on a much larger scale over time?
These questions led me to study compassion at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), and then they led me to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Here, we are exploring these questions – and more – together.
Why Compassion in Corrections?
"Why compassion in corrections? It fits. It is easy for the men and women in our prisons to come to the conclusion that no one cares. Now, I am not declaring anyone innocent, nor am I declaring anyone guilty. I'm simply declaring them...human. And compassion is at the very heart of what it means to be human. It is in us all to receive it and to show it. We are born to connect. And this connection is of individuals to the rest of humanity. The men and women in prison, at some point, disconnected. This disconnect may cause calloused and hardened hearts.
Compassion in corrections is a way to help them reconnect. Reconnect to what it means to be human. Because we are all born with compassion woven into the fibers of our very being, it becomes a matter of bringing them into touch with what is already there. Hence, the use of cultivation.
Every day I wake up I understand that there are people who need to see beyond themselves. So, my involvement is in the giving of myself to the larger vision of humanity's connection. This is my 'why'. And it is very enriching to share in this journey of being fully human.”
Eric, Teaching Assistant
“I am grateful to [CCT] for opening my mind to the reality that everything I require to be happy is already in my possession. That is forgiveness and compassion. I cannot say that after 57 years of not knowing peace and joy I have suddenly arrived. However, I can say that after this CCT course I have begun the journey – finally! May the whole world be happy. May the whole world be free from suffering. May the whole world know peace and joy.“
KM, class participant