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Volunteer for Transformation – a Message of Hope From Patricia Knox

For 4 years I have been a volunteer at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in the Oakdale Prison Community Choir. In the winter of 2009 I took the basic workshop offered by the Alternatives to Violence Project that was being facilitated at the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility in Iowa. That program no longer exists at Mt. Pleasant due to lack of outside facilitators.

In 2010, 3 outside facilitators and 1 inmate (insider) with AVP experience started offering AVP at the the prison in Coralville. There are over a dozen inside facilitators at IMCC now and long waiting lists of incarcerated men wanting to participate in workshops. Currently, 5 regular outside facilitators, 2 special extras, plus all of the inside facilitators, keep this program running AVP workshops every month of the year.

Another facilitator and I toured the Johnson County jail recently. Along with facilitating AVP, she is a mediator in both Johnson and Linn County courts systems, as is another of our facilitators.

During our tour of JC Jail, we sensed a philosophical difference between the two institutions, particularly in the treatment of inmates. The difference we perceived is not just a matter of the additional space at IMCC available for volunteer programs, a garden, exercise yard, as well as more job opportunities for inmates at IMCC; it is the spirit of the volunteer programs peopled by inmates (e.g. hospice) as well as community volunteers. Among the programs currently active at IMCC are the Oakdale Community Choir, Alternatives to Violence Project, Hubbub Job Club, Writers Workshop, Song Writers Workshop, Incarcerated Vets, AA, New Directions, GED tutoring, to name a few. The philosophy behind these programs is social rehabilitation, an important contrast to the punitive motivation for incarceration. We have found the IMCC Warden and his staff to be exceptional people interested in meaningful educational opportunities for the incarcerated people at Oakdale.

You, community volunteers, can drive change if you take the opportunity to go into the jail and start programs similar to those that have been available at IMCC. It should not be left only to government officials and prison staff to determine what treatment and facilities are allotted to volunteers and what constitutes healthy treatment of people who are incarcerated. Folks, these are your grandfathers, brothers, sister-in-laws, children and cousins. To have a healthy society, you need to care ( thank your lucky stars if you did not suffer abuse when you were growing up ) and volunteer for transformation.

Thank you, Patricia Knox

(edited from an earlier version)

Patricia L. Knox, Alternatives to Violence Project, Oakdale Community Choir

Supported By:

  • Mary Trachsel, Writer’s Workshop, Oakdale Community Choir
  • Mary L. Cohen, Director Oakdale Community Choir, Songwriters’ Workshop
  • Marian Klostermann, OSF, Alternatives to Violence Project


Music professor creates prison choir with inmates, faculty, staff, and students

[Source: “Music professor creates prison choir with inmates, faculty, staff, and students,” University of Iowa, FYI, 13 April 2009]

20090413-oakdale-prison-imcc-iowa-medical-and-classification-center-choirThe choir members laugh, joke, and mingle easily as they gather in the makeshift chorus room at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center (IMCC) in Coralville.

Among them are professors, students, administrative assistants, and community members. Another group of about 20 men, indistinguishable except for the orange nametags attached to their shirts, are mixed into the group. These are brothers, dads, sons, husbands, and grandpas.

They are also offenders living at IMCC, known as Oakdale Prison.

However, for one and one-half hours each week this spring, the 20 inmates blend their voices with another 20 members of the community—including eight UI faculty and staff and seven additional UI students—to belt out songs ranging from “Lean on Me” to “Ole Man River” as part of a groundbreaking choral experience called the Oakdale Community Prison Choir.

At this point, the labels blur, and they are all people simply bound by an appreciation of music and human fellowship.

Mary Cohen, UI assistant professor of music education, leads the choir with passion, commitment, and a sense of humor. And her enthusiasm is contagious.

Cohen, who holds a joint appointment in the UI Colleges of Education and Liberal Arts and Sciences, says the project provides an opportunity for the offenders to connect and sing with others. She said singing also provides tools to help them re-enter society successfully.

While she moves about the room, Cohen encourages and cajoles the choir members, offering praise when they do well and support and guidance when a voice strays an octave or is off pitch.

The program has been so popular that since the rehearsals began in February, two more inmates have joined the choir.

Another big reason that Cohen started the choir was to bring choral music education to a population that does not currently participate in it as well as to initiate positive relationships between incarcerated and nonincarcerated people through a common goal of preparing for a choral performance.

The experience has included rehearsals from 5:30 to 7 p.m. every Tuesday since Feb. 3 and will culminate in a concert in the prison gym April 21.

To begin each rehearsal, the choir members sing a simple round called “Beauty Before Me” and conclude with a sung blessing, “May You Walk in Beauty.” John Rapson, UI professor of music in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and director of jazz studies, composed an original song titled “Love, Light, Peace” that the choir is learning.

Cohen also hopes to restart an educational partnership between The University of Iowa and the prison and offer inmates an opportunity to reflect on the experiences of singing in a community choir through writing assignments. Each week, choir members have writing assignments that they share with one another and Cohen.

She also hopes to offer UI students an opportunity to reflect on the influences within this learning/teaching context and to learn about prison education, particularly music and prison-based art education.

Everyone gains something from the experience, Cohen says.

“Choral singing enriches lives like no other activity on the planet,” Cohen says. “The physical, emotional, and cognitive benefits as well as the social perks of singing with others, give these fine volunteers an enjoyable experience in a nontraditional context.”

The volunteers’ motivations for getting involved are as varied as the individuals.

Chad Burmester, an IMCC inmate and choir member from Hampton, Iowa, says he used to sing in his church choir and play the piano.

“I’ve always enjoyed music, and so it gives me an opportunity to use my skills,” Burmester says. “I really enjoy it. It’s fun to get out here, meet some new people, and get involved. I’m happy that they’re allowing this, and hope they continue it.”

Cohen says the choir also enables the visitors to see beyond stereotypes and statistics, recognize inmates as fellow human beings with dreams and desires just like their own.

Mary Trachsel, professor of rhetoric in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, agrees.

“All my notions of prison and prisoners came from sensational media representations,” Trachsel says. “Those notions began to change when Dave (Southard), who facilitates our coming and going at rehearsals, said at our orientation session that most of the inmates were ‘people who have made some bad decisions.’ I could certainly identify with that—I think we all can.”

Still, some choir members say they experienced trepidation when they first got involved.

Kayla Lalor, an administrative associate with the UI Foundation, and her husband, Jerry, got involved when they learned about the choir through their church choir.

“I can honestly say that I was very nervous about this at first,” Lalor says. “I had never been inside a prison, and the only exposure I’ve had is what I’ve seen on TV and in the movies.”

However, after the first rehearsal, her anxieties vanished.

“If you think about it, we are taking ourselves out of our element—going inside a facility that has high security where there are criminals with various offenses, and putting ourselves in the offender’s territory,” Lalor says. “That can seem a little daunting, but it’s not like that. The offenders are very welcoming, nice, polite men who trust us to come into their living environment. I’m sure they were just as nervous as I was, but over the last few weeks, we’ve all warmed up, and come together as a group. I believe there is a mutual respect for each other.”

Patricia Zebrowski, associate professor of communication sciences and disorders in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says she got involved in the choir because she used to participate in a community choir in New York.

“Music is great for self expression, no matter who you are,” Zebrowki says. “It’s a great release, it’s very relaxing, and I think it’s a wonderful idea because these folks are living in our community, and it’s important that they get to meet some of us and vice versa.”

Cohen says she could not have brought this project to fruition without the tremendous cooperation and support of the IMCC staff, including former warden Lowell Brandt, who helped initiate the project but died in December, as well as Greg Ort, Kevin Weideman, Dave Southard, and Kelli Collins.

Cohen adds that she hopes some participants’ writing will be used as introductions to songs or poetry for original songs they can sing at the concert.

An excerpt from one inmate reads, “Since I’ve joined this choir… I’ve taken steps towards something I’ve lost. Or rather left. I’ve left part of me outside these walls and fences…

“Every voice I hear reminds me of what is possible. Togetherness, teamwork, acceptance, and the list can go on. Those voices carry with me as the volunteers leave on their goodbyes, and I return to prison. While we sing I’m not in prison. I’m in peace. I’m in a choir of gifted musicians who share my passions and joys. The choir helps me along my path to find my place in peace.

“So where does my peace reside? It resides at whenever and whatever place I reside. For my place is in peace. Peace is with me always, and I hope you can hear it in our voices. ‘Our place is in peace, therefore peace is in all places.’”

* * *

Faculty, staff can see the show

The rehearsals will culminate with a concert at 6 p.m., Tuesday, April 21, at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center with the theme “Peace and Place.” Although the concert is not open to the general public, if UI faculty or staff would like to attend, special arrangements may be made in advance by e-mailing Cohen at no later than April 15 at 9 p.m.

The concert will be dedicated to the memory of Lowell Brandt, former IMCC warden, who died of a heart attack unexpectedly in December 2008 and who was very supportive of the project.

Faculty who are interested in teaching at IMCC or integrating a service-learning component into their course in conjunction with an IMCC class also can contact Cohen via e-mail.

AVP: An Instrument of Peace

[Source: “AVP: An Instrument of Peace,” Friends Journal, 1 January 2009, by John A. Shuford]


When I became involved with the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), I had no idea how important the underlying principles were. The experience of AVP—seeing myself and others change—was simply enjoyable and rewarding. Since its beginnings in New York in 1975, AVP has spread all over the country and the world. It has been used in prisons with inmates and staff, in schools, in communities, and as the basis of a university course. It has received the President’s 1,000 Points of Light Award, the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel’s 2004 Award of Excellence, and awards for healing in areas of war and genocide.

As I began writing this article, I realized the reason for AVP’s popularity and success: within it lie the seeds of peace—building community through connection. Peace comes when there is a sense of connection, and a community built on trust and respect creates this experience of connection. It is not accomplished by telling people what to do, how to feel, or how to behave; it happens when people experience it. But how does this occur?

Central to AVP is the concept of transforming power, a term derived from the biblical passage, “Be ye transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). Transforming power (TP) is that power that works within us to transform violent, potentially violent, unhealthy attitudes, relationships, or lifestyles into more positive, healthy, nonviolent ones. This power is available in each of us. TP cannot be directly defined or described; it simply works, whether or not we understand it or how it comes in-to being. It cannot be confined to words. It can only be experienced or observed. I will, in spite of this, try to shed some light on the possible processes of TP. This may be helpful in attempting to explain TP to others.

There are three levels from which one could approach an explanation of TP: the spiritual, the interpersonal or social, and the psychological. None of the three is independent of the others, yet viewing each separately reveals many of TP’s qualities. For many, the understanding of TP as grace or the power of God/Spirit is sufficient and no further exploration is needed, nor may it be desired. For others, however, an understanding of how TP might actually work would be informative.

TP can be seen as a spiritual phenomenon, tapping into that which connects us all. We can think of an individual as being a series of concentric circles, with the core being our innate health or goodness. As we let our barriers down or remove them, we move closer to the center of our being. When we tap into that central core, we experience a self-acceptance and a sense of peace that allows us to connect with others without fear or apprehension. It is this connection that transforms us and others. That core can also be thought of as the river of Spirit that flows within us all, and by tapping into it we connect with that Spirit and with the interconnectedness of all. We no longer feel separate or isolated, which changes our experience of ourselves and others, and thus transforms our attitude and view of the world. This change gives us a sense of hope that the future can be better than the present or the past. When this occurs, everything is different.

The perspective of seeing TP as interpersonal has at its core the experience of community. By creating psychological and physical safety, AVP develops a sense of community, with levels of safety and security that allow participants to lower their defenses and barriers. Participants are then able to look into themselves honestly, and as they increase their awareness of who they really are—rather than who others need or expect them to be, or who they think others want them to be—they can more fully embrace and accept their true selves. This new self-awareness and higher self-esteem allows them to be more open to new experiences, thought patterns, and behaviors. Participants realize they are connected to each other in positive, healthy, interdependent ways, rather than negative, disconnected, and manipulative ways. They no longer feel they are alone, but feel connected to something bigger than themselves. Their experience of themselves and others is transformed.

The experience of positive emotions and positive self-regard cannot be overemphasized. An article in May 2006 by Michael R. Bridges of Temple University in Psychotherapy in Practice, a branch journal of the Journal of Clinical Psychology, states that “numerous studies have shown that positive emotions broaden one’s thought-action repertoire while also ‘undoing’ the physiological arousal associated with negative emotions and specific action tendencies.” Also, “It is now clear that the experience and expression of positive emotions such as love, compassion, gratitude, and forgiveness are essential for adaptive and healthy functioning across a multitude of human endeavors ranging from individual coping with bereavement and trauma, to marital relationships, and even to corporate team building.”

Some comments from AVP inmate participants illustrate this transformation:

It made me look at how I relate to other people, that I was doing it on a threat to threat basis, and the fact that that is not necessary. We can stand with each other and experience each other without wondering what the other is going to do, what the threat is, being on the defensive. What I like about AVP is that I look at others differently and I look at myself differently. I look in the mirror and for the first time in my life, I actually like what I see. I like what I’ve become and what I’ve become inside. I never before thought of how I related to other people; the defensiveness and intimidation. It just never occurred to me to think about it, that there was another alternative, not until AVP.

Before AVP I only thought about violence, there was no second option. AVP saved my life, it gave me another option. The violence in my life got worse and worse. I spent most of my 11 years in prison in the hole. I am not a sensitive, caring, understanding individual, but this program has really had an impact on me. During my first basic as a trainer, there were a number of inmates there whom I had been very violent to before. I knew if I was to be a role model, to live AVP, I had to apologize to them for what I had done. It was odd to apologize to someone I had defeated and who had pleaded for his life to me.

It is not fail safe, but it does work 90 percent to 95 percent of the time for me. Guys who knew me on the street come up to me and say I’ve changed, that I’m a new person. That really makes me feel good to hear that. It was inside me all along; I just didn’t know how to bring it out without feeling less of a man.

A comment from a community participant in Russia is also revealing, “I have seen a new side of the Russian soul.”

This experience of feeling connected is very powerful, and it leads us to explore TP from a psychological perspective. We all have a core psychological need to feel connected and not isolated. This connection may be to others, to a group, or to something that is bigger than ourselves. This explains the immense impact religion, gangs, and the military have on shaping behavior and attitudes, especially today when we are more and more disconnected from our neighbors and our communities. The lack of feeling connected is also one of the prime psychological and social factors leading to criminal behavior, according to Daniel Amen in the video Firestorms in the Brain.

Most men and women in prison have been abused physically, psychologically, or sexually while growing up. The impact of this abuse can be very damaging to their ability to develop connections with other people. According to Amen, when a child does not experience bonding with his or her mother or other adult, the child will not develop the capacity for empathy, which is a feeling of connection with others. Without empathy, a person can hurt others and not be bothered by it. This experience may be similar to that of child soldiers and those who experience war and genocide firsthand. One female former inmate who was abused told me, “I would hurt you, I would hurt anybody and it meant nothing to me. I was mean.” While in prison, this woman experienced AVP and the community that came with it. She is now one of the most caring, empathetic women I know. She has devoted her life to helping former inmates when they are released to the community.

Amen’s research using the Single Photon Emission Computer Tomography (SPECT) scan, which measures brain activity levels, shows that physical or emotional trauma can result in reduced levels of activity in specific areas of the brain. These reduced levels are correlated with certain problem behaviors. It is as though these healthy parts of the brain become inaccessible to the conscious mind. Amen has used psychotherapeutic drugs to increase the activity in these areas to restore overall balance. This has resulted in dramatic behavior change. One patient recounted that he didn’t want to be violent, but he couldn’t stop himself. After the introduction of the drug, he had no problem controlling his violence.

Another example involves the prefrontal cortex, which performs functions related to attention span, perseverance, judgment, impulse control, self-monitoring and supervision, problem solving, critical thinking, etc. When the prefrontal cortex has a low level of activity, resulting in hyperactivity, impulse control problems, and the like, the pharmacological stimulant increases the activity in this part of the brain, restoring a more normal level of functioning, and behavior returns to normal. It has also been shown that some people who seek out conflict for the adrenalin rush are attempting to increase the activity level in certain parts of their brain, a sort of self-balancing behavior. Using drugs like Ritalin, which is prescribed for ADD and ADHD, to change the activity level in these parts of the brain may be effective for some individuals, but it may not be the only way to change attitudes and behavior.

We know that thoughts create neuro-pathways or thought patterns in the brain, and when they are continually reinforced they will create habitual thinking and behavior. We also know that established neuro-pathways that are not used will atrophy over time. This is why we are able to change habitual thinking and behavior. When a person is traumatized, he or she develops neuro-pathways that help him or her survive the trauma and the aftermath of the trauma. These new neuro-pathways may not be beneficial or healthy in normal situations. If the trauma is not treated and new, more healthy neuro-pathways are not created, these unhealthy responses become ingrained.

One explanation of this process is that we develop neuro-pathways in our brain that avoid the area of the brain associated with the trauma. By isolating that area, we no longer have access to it and the pain it causes. Sometimes we are so effective in isolating the area, we can’t remember the event ever happening. Because we are unconsciously protecting ourselves from certain aspects of our life experience, we develop protective attitudes, behaviors, or emotional patterns that do not allow us to be fully present or fully ourselves in relationships. One example of an unhealthy thought pattern might be, “When I get close to someone, he or she will hurt me.” This thought might have been necessary while being abused as a child, but now this thought inhibits me from getting close to friends, my spouse, or my children, and I will push them away or avoid them when they begin to get close to me.

The impact of trauma on the flow of our lives has been likened to boulders in a river; they cause turbulence and disrupt the flow of the river. Psychotherapy, especially Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, can reduce or eliminate these boulders. AVP, on the other hand, through the experience of connection and community, raises the level of the water so the river is less and less disturbed by the boulders. Eventually, the impact of the boulders isn’t even noticed. This doesn’t eliminate the need for therapy so much as mitigate the current negative impact of the past trauma and replace it with positive relationships and healthier thought patterns.

Another analogy is to take a pitcher of cola representing negativity and disconnected energy. If it is vigorously stirred, some of the negative energy will spill out, lowering the level somewhat, but most of it remains. Some talk therapies, or simply commiserating, are represented by this stirring. However, if you gradually pour in water (representing TP and positive energy), the liquid will become lighter and lighter until it is eventually clear.

The experience of community motivates people to continually seek it out. Within this AVP environment of trust, respect, caring, and connection, newer, healthier neuro-pathways are developed. As one experiences more and more of this new way of thinking, the old, unhealthy neuro-pathways atrophy, becoming less and less a part of one’s life, and the new neuro-pathways become stronger and more integrated as they are reinforced.

I hope this has shed some light on the workings of transforming power. The interpersonal and psychological explorations do not negate the spiritual aspect of TP. There is no way to know if the transformation occurs because of the interpersonal/psychological changes or if the transformation is spiritual in nature, which then leads to the interpersonal/ psychological changes, and it doesn’t matter. TP works, and it is the most powerful outcome of true community. I believe the more we focus on connection and building true community in our lives, especially with those of us who feel marginalized and isolated, the more we will all experience peace.

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