NYU News and Power Source Research Study

28/10/13 0

NYU Study on Incarcerated Youth Shows Potential for Improving Cognitive Functioning Using Mindfulness Training, Which May Lower Anti-Social Behavior and Recidivism           

Contact: Christopher James – 212-998-6876 – christopher.james@nyu.edu

Cover picture for the book Power Source Taking Charge of Your LifeThe researchers investigated the impact of cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness training (CBT/MT) on attentional task performance in incarcerated adolescents.  Researchers at the New York University College of Nursing (NYUCN), the University of Miami, and the Lionheart Foundation in Boston, found that mindfulness training, a meditation-based therapy, can improve attention skills in incarcerated youth, paving the way to greater self-control over emotions and actions. It is the first study to show that mindfulness training can be used in combination with cognitive behavioral therapy to protect attentional functioning in high-risk incarcerated youth.

Their study, “Mindfulness Training Improves Attentional Task Performance in Incarcerated Youth: A Group Randomized Controlled Intervention Trial,” published in the on-line journal, Frontiers in Psychology, holds promise for new strategies in reducing anti-social behavior among at-risk youth.

The researchers followed 267 incarcerated males, ages 16 to 18, over a 4-month period. The researchers found that participation in an intervention that combined cognitive behavioral therapy with mindfulness training (or “CBT/MT”), called Power Source, had a protective effect on youths’ attentional capacity. This research is the largest controlled study of mindfulness training for youth to date.

“The CBT/MT approach responds to the significant childhood psychosocial hardships that most incarcerated youths have experienced, including exposure to violence, poverty, and physical and emotional abuse by caregivers,” explained principal investigator Noelle R. Leonard, PhD, a Senior Research Scientist at NYUCN. “These experiences impair cognitive control processes, such as attention regulation, which is vital for the self-regulation of feelings and actions. The antisocial behavior prevalent among youthful offenders is the result of an ongoing interplay between this psychosocial adversity and deficits in cognitive control processes, particularly attention.”

Improving attention can lead to better self-control. Reflecting on the impact of the intervention, one study participant stated, “Just yesterday. Got into an altercation with a guy in the kitchen. Guy said, ‘We’re gonna fight.’ At first thought, my initial response was to fight. Then I thought about the consequences – I’d lose my job [in the prison kitchen], don’t want to go to court and don’t want to hear the judge mouth about my fights.” Attention to the goal of staying out of trouble allowed this participant to consider an alternative to fighting.

Why it works:
“Mindfulness meditation can be seen as involving two components: self-regulation of attention and non-judgmental awareness,” said Dr. Leonard. “The practice involves training youth to attend to something as simple as the sensations associated with breathing. While our minds will invariably wander to other thoughts or get distracted by things in the environment, by repeatedly returning attention back to the breath in a non-judgmental way, we are building attentional capacity to interrupt the cycle of automatic and reactive thoughts.”

The mindfulness training is complemented by exercises that focus on taking responsibility for offending behavior and increasing motivation for engaging in non-violent, pro-social behaviors. “Although we don’t have direct evidence for this yet, we hypothesize that this repeated practice can translate into maintaining a focus on pro-social or non-violent goals in the course of youths’ daily lives, amidst the harsh conditions of incarceration or in the context of anti-social peers” added Dr. Leonard.

“Mindfulness training helps youth consider more adaptive alternatives,” added Dr. Bethany Casarjian of the Lionheart Foundation, who developed the Power Source intervention and co-authored the study. “It creates a gap between triggers for offending behavior and their responses. They learn to not immediately act out on impulse, but to pause and consider the consequences of a potential offending and high risk behavior.”

Study design and results:
Study participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups based upon the prison dormitory where they resided: the intervention group received cognitive-behavioral/mindfulness training and the control group received an evidence-based cognitive-perception intervention focusing on attitudes and beliefs about substance use and violence. Participants completed a computerized Attention Network Test (ANT) prior to the intervention and four months later.

The researchers found that this high-stress period of incarceration led to declines in attentional task performance for all subjects. This poorer performance over time might be accounted for by the unrelenting stress on cognitive control which is necessary for complex problem solving, emotion regulation, and behavioral inhibition.

However, the CBT/MT intervention group showed significantly less of a decline in attentional task performance as compared to the control group. Moreover, within the CBT/MT group, the attentional task performance among those who practiced outside of intervention sessions remained stable compared to those who did not practice outside of the intervention sessions. These findings indicate that a multi-session CBT/MT intervention can be effective in limiting degradation in attentional performance in incarcerated youth, thus providing a protective effect on offending youths’ functional attentional impairments during incarceration in a high-security urban jail.

In line with the current findings, co-author Amishi P. Jha, PhD of the University of Miami, has reported that protracted periods of high stress, such as preparing for military deployment, degrades cognitive control functions such as attention and working memory.

“Cognitive control processes like attention are involved in decision making and emotion regulation,” said Dr. Jha. “With degraded attention, the chances of impulsive and risky decision making, as well as emotional reactivity are greater.”

The current results suggest that strengthening attention through mindfulness training may be a key route for reducing recidivism among young offenders, and highlight the need to teach detained youth strategies to improve cognitive and emotional control in the stressful detainment environment. In particular, training methods that allow youth to actively engage in exercises on their own to improve cognitive control may be ideal in conjunction with structured intervention activities or psychotherapy to help youth cultivate resilience by building their capacity for cognitive control while detained and after release.

“Finally”, Dr. Leonard added, “We know that incarceration is not good for youth, and with this study, we have direct evidence that incarceration depletes the very processes youth need to strengthen in order to steer their developmental trajectory in a more pro-social, law-abiding direction.”

The research was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA; R01 DA 024764)

Link to the article: http://www.frontiersin.org/consciousness_research/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00792/abstract

Additional authors who contributed to “Mindfulness Training Improves Attentional Task Performance in Incarcerated Youth: A Group Randomized Controlled Intervention Trial” were: Charles M. Cleland, PhD, Marya V. Gwadz, PhD, and Zohar Massey from NYUCN and Merissa Goolsarran and Cristina Garcia from the University of Miami.
About the Center for Drug Use and HIV Research (CDUHR)

CDUHR, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is the first center for the socio-behavioral study of substance use and HIV in the United States. The Center is dedicated to increasing the understanding of the substance use-HIV/AIDS epidemic, particularly among individuals in high-risk contexts. The Center’s theme is “Discovery to Implementation & Back: Research Translation for the HIV/Substance Use Epidemic.” The Center facilitates the development of timely new research efforts, enhances implementation of funded projects and disseminates information to researchers, service providers and policy makers.

About New York University College of Nursing NYU College of Nursing is a global leader in nursing education, research, and practice. It offers a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, a Master of Arts and Post-Master’s Certificate Programs, a Doctor of Philosophy in Research Theory and Development, and a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree. For more information, visit www.nyu.edu/nursing.


Teen Parents: “Not Together Anymore”

03/10/13 0

Power Source Parenting: Growing Up Strong and Raising Healthy Kids, by Bethany Casarjian, Ph.D., is the centerpiece for Lionheart’s social-emotional literacy program for at risk teen parents.  It gets to the heart of what it means to be a teen parent, the struggles that these young parents face, and practical guidance to help them become loving, effective parents so their babies get the loving start and promising futures they deserve.  Below is an excerpt from Power Source Parenting on a topic that many teen moms struggle with….”The relationship with your baby’s father or mother.”  jp

One of the biggest questions we get during our parenting groups is about how to be a parent with an “ex”.  What’s right for the baby?  What if you and your ex don’t get along at all?  We strongly believe that it is possible to raise a baby with the other parent even if you’re not together anymore.  But it requires both of you to act as mature and level-headed as you possibly can.  Some might say you have to step up to the plate, bite the bullet, turn the other cheek, be a bigger person, or just get the job done.  It’s not always easy to coparent with someone who has cheated on you, let you down, or made you angry.  But having a working relationship will actually help you in the long run.  And it will certainly help your child.  Here are some tips to help you make the best of what can be a tough situation.

If your baby’s other parent is a safe and responsible person (and by this we mean will keep the baby safe while they are together), it’s best for him or her to be in your baby’s life.  Period.  Sometimes we tell ourselves, “Well, he (or she) doesn’t give us enough money, he hangs out with his boys too much, he doesn’t call us for weeks at a time, he makes promises he doesn’t keep.”  All of this may be true.  But is it important enough for you to keep your partner from being a part of the baby’s life?  NO!  Just because you might be angry at him doesn’t mean your child should have to be.  Don’t ruin her relationship with her other parent out of your own hurt and anger.  That means no nasty faces when his name comes up, no hanging up the phone when he calls, and no badmouthing him.  Research shows that kids who constantly hear their dad or mom is bad, think they are, too, because their parent is part of them.  You’re not doing it for him.  You’re doing it for your kid.

Did you know that kids who know their dads do better than average on tests that show how they are growing and learning?  Are less likely to run away?  Are much less likely to be violent, dangerous, and even criminal?  Are better at doing things without help, keep control of themselves, wait longer before they start having sex?  And are more likely to go to school, stay in school, and not repeat a grade?  Boys who grow up without a father are 300% more likely to be put in a state juvenile institution. (Healthy Families San Angelo, 1992)

Being a parent isn’t 50/50.  A young mother, Gina, 17 years old wrote to us and said:  “It just doesn’t seem fair.  We both made this baby, but I’m the one who does all the work.  I have to stay home at night while he goes out with his friends.  Plus, we both have jobs, so why does all my money go to the baby and his goes to whatever he wants to do?” 

We go through life being taught to make things fair.  But when it comes to being a parent, things aren’t always fair.  If you are expecting the other parent to do as much as you (the primary caretaker), you will feel angry and disappointed a lot of the time.  Guaranteed.  If you get stuck in the anger for too long, you begin to pass up moments of happiness and joy.  Soon, you may find yourself reacting to these negative feelings, rather than acting on what is best for your child!”  Don’t let fairness be a reason for keeping the other parent out of your baby’s life.  If you use the baby as a bargaining chip, everyone will lose.  For example, if you keep the other parent away from the baby because he or she isn’t pulling his or her weight, you are training the other parent to stay away.  If you make conditions about seeing the baby that he can’t realistically meet, you are pushing him away.  Sure it would be nice if they paid their share, did as much childcare, and washed as much laundry as you.  But sometimes to be more peaceful and make healthy choices, we have to ignore the score.

Let’s be clear.  You have the right to ask the baby’s other parent for what you want and what you think is fair.  You have to right to tell the other parent what’s on your mind.  But the main question you should ask when making choices about your ex is “What’s best for my child?”  Pushing the other parent out of your baby’s life leaves you with more work, more anger, and a child who sees less and less of his other parent.

One of the best ways to make things work out the way you want is to be an effective communicator.  That means talking in a way so people can listen.  You might be justified in being angry.  But how you express that to the person you are upset with determines whether you’ll get what you want.  If you start screaming at someone, telling him what a no-good loser parent he is, chances are he’ll either tune you out, scream back, or not show up very much.  What if you figured out a way to get him to really listen and understand what you or the baby needs and why it is important?  Think of an Oreo cookie:  chocolate cookie — cream center — chocolate cookie.  Believe it or not, an Oreo cookie can help us be a more effective parent.

Let’s say your baby’s dad was supposed to watch the baby for you while you went out with a friend.  You’d been planning this for a week and you were really excited about it.  When he finally does show up, he’s an hour late and your friend went to the movies without you.  You’re really steamed.  Instead of blowing up and getting into a fight that leads nowhere, try giving him an Oreo.  Before you try this, make sure you are calm and in control of your feelings.  Here’s how it works:

Cookie #1 — Give him a compliment — even if you are angry at the person.  Sounds crazy, but it works.  The best way to capture anyone’s attention is to start off by saying something that’s nice (and also true) about them.  If you start with a criticism, he or she will get defensive and the conversation will turn into a battle.  Start with something he does do right.  Example, “You know, Darryl, you are really good with Orlando.  And when you’re with him, I know he’s safe and happy.”

The Cream Filling — Tell the person how you feel and what you want to have happen.  Use “I” statements.  Don’t start blaming or shaming.  Stick to the facts.  It helps keep the conversation on track.  For example, “I’m so disappointed and frustrated. It’s really important for me to have some time to go out, too.  I take care of the baby a lot and sometimes I need a break.  When you promise to take care of Orlando, it’s really, really important that you show up on time.”  Stay away from statements like “you always” or “you never”.

Cookie #2 — End it with another compliment or something that is good about the person and true.  Example, “I’m glad you want to help out with Orlando.  He’s lucky to have both parents in his life.”

Oreos take practice.  And, they work with all people, not just your baby’s other parent.  Use it with your own mom, dad, sister, or whoever else you need to live with.  It doesn’t solve all problems, but it does make life a whole lot less dramatic, which is good for you and your baby.

To learn more about Power Source Parenting and Lionheart’s other emotional literacy programs, please visit the Lionheart Website.


Creative Commons License

Teen Parents: “Not Together Anymore” by Bethany Casarjian, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.lionheart.org/youth/   The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author is credited and that the original publication Power Source Parenting: Growing Up Strong and Raising Healthy Kids  (Copyright 2008) and excerpts in this blog (www.lionheart.org/blog/) are cited.  No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

Teen Parents: “Creating a Close Bond with Your Child”

30/09/13 0

Power Source Parenting: Growing Up Strong and Raising Healthy Kids, by Bethany Casarjian, Ph.D., is the centerpiece for Lionheart’s social-emotional literacy program for at risk teen parents.  It gets to the heart of what it means to be a teen parent, the struggles that these young parents face, and practical guidance to help them become loving, effective parents so their babies get the loving start and promising futures they deserve.  Below is an excerpt from Power Source Parenting on a topic that many teen moms, sometimes lacking in role models, have questions about….”Making a Tight Bond”  jp

The first and the most important job you have as a parent is to form a healthy bond to your child.  Another word for the close connection you form to your child is “attachment”.  What does that mean?  it means that your number one job from the minute you set eyes on your baby is to make her feel that she can trust you.  Babies who can trust their caregiver believe that the world is safe.  Feeling safe with their parent is absolutely necessary for babies to learn and develop in emotionally healthy ways.  Think about it.  Your baby comes into the world completely dependent on you.  (Did you know that your baby for a long time actually thinks she’s the same person as you? For real!)  You’re her entire world.  If she’s left to cry, treated roughly, not held or rocked or soothed, what is her world like?  How will she feel?

The lessons she learns from you in the first few months of her life will teach her whether she can trust.  And being able to trust is a big advantage in life.  In these very early months, you are giving her a picture of the world that will stay in her brain for the rest of her life.  If she feels loved, she will grow to feel good about herself.  She will feel secure.  We don’t mean to scare you or freak you out, but these early months are incredibly powerful and important.

The good thing about bonding with your baby is that it’s totally in your power.  You don’t need a degree to do it.  You don’t need money to do it.  And you don’t need any special toys or gadgets.  Anyone can bond with their baby if they know what to do.

Denise, a 20 year old mother had this to share with us:  I don’t want my baby to grow up being scared of the world like I was.  I am going to be there for her every step of the way.  When she cries, I will let her know that she’s safe with her mother.  When she hurts, I will comfort her.  I didn’t get that from my mother.  Maybe that’s why I always feel alone.  Or maybe that’s why it’s so hard for me to trust people.  But I’m going to do my best to make sure that my baby doesn’t have those same scared and empty feelings like me.”

So, how do I make her trust me?  For something that is so incredibly important, it’s actually easy to do.  When your baby is very young (newborn to 4 months) this means picking her up whenever she cries.  It also means feeding her whenever she is hungry (whether it’s convenient or not).  If she is upset or uncomfortable, soothe her by rocking her gently and singing in a low, quiet voice.  Always touch your baby gently.  Babies who are handled roughly learn that the world is rough.  If they are treated carelessly or harshly through the first year, they will start treating the world (and all the people in it) the same way.  Even if you are very tired, stressed, or frustrated, dig deep and find the patience to treat her softly and with tenderness.

When she is little, she can’t be ‘spoiled’.  Stephanie, a 16 year old mom wrote this:  “I’m not sure what to do when she cries.  I don’t want to pick her up all the time because my grandmother says that will spoil her.  I got some people telling me to hold her.  I got other people telling me to let her cry it out.  I don’t know what to do.  Help!!!”  It can be confusing when you get a lot of different advice coming at you.  But the real deal is that you can’t spoil a very young baby.  If your very young (0-4 months) baby is crying, she needs your help.  Maybe she’s hungry, tired, scared, or cold.  Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what’s wrong.  That’s okay.  Soothe her the best you can.  Sometimes you can’t make a baby stop crying.  That’s okay too.  The most important thing you can do is to show her that she is safe and cared for.  And remember, no amount of love and affection will spoil any baby.

If your baby is older, like from 5 months and up, take a minute and listen to his cry.  You’ve probably figured out that babies have different cries for pain, hunger, boredom and frustration.  If a seven-month-old baby is frustrated, you might wait a second before rushing into the living room to help him.  Maybe he’ll work it out on his own.  If he does, give him lots of praise.  If a nine-month-old is hungry and crying, explain to her that food is on the way.  Let her know that you understand what she needs — even if she can’t have it right away.  Tune in to your baby and let them know you “get” what they’re feeling.  This isn’t spoiling.  It’s part of building trust.

So why is bonding so important?  Babies who have strong and positive bonds to their parents 1. Do better in school.  2. Make friends more easily.  3. Have fewer behavior problems, like fighting and breaking rules.  4. Are less likely to use drugs when they get older.  5. Feel better about themselves.  6. Grow up to have better relationships.  Your baby is lucky to have a mom or dad who can do this for her.

For more information about Lionheart’s emotional literacy curricula, please visit the Lionheart website.


Creative Commons License

Teen Parents:”Creating a Close Bond with Your Child” by Bethany Casarjian, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.lionheart.org/youth/ The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author is credited and that the original publication Power Source Parenting: Growing Up Strong and Raising Healthy Kids (Copyright 2008) and excerpts in this blog (www.lionheart.org/blog) is cited.  No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

Teen Parents: “Missing Out”

17/09/13 0

Power Source Parenting: Growing Up Strong and Raising Healthy Kids, by Bethany Casarjian, Ph.D., is the centerpiece for Lionheart’s social-emotional literacy program for at risk teen parents.  It gets to the heart of what it means to be a teen parent, the struggles that these young parents face, and practical guidance to help them become loving, effective parents so their babies get the loving start and promising futures they deserve.  Below is an excerpt from Power Source Parenting on a topic that we hear about from many teen moms….”Missing Out”  jp

One of the hardest things to deal with about becoming a teenage parent is feeling like you’re missing out on the best parts of being young — hanging out with friends, having fun, being free.  If you have a baby, you know that it’s almost impossible to do those things like you used to.  And that can be a hard pill to swallow.  Lots of things get in the way, like finding someone to watch the baby.  If your mom is helping you take care of your child, she might feel resentful if you are going out to hang out with friends.  She might feel that it’s your responsibility to stay home and take care of your child.  You probably have less money to spend when you go out than before you had a baby.  Babies take a lot of money to raise.  And most people taking care of children all day are sometimes too tired to even think of going out.

Lisa, an 18 year old mom, shared this with us:  “Once I got pregnant, things really changed with my friends.  Maybe they thought I was slowing them down.  They couldn’t smoke in the car or around me.  I stopped drinking so I couldn’t party with them anymore.  it’s not that they didn’t want to be there for me, but I just wasn’t as much fun for them to hang around with.  Also they got mad because they thought teachers let me get away with a lot at school because I was pregnant.  Everyone was treating me different.  They never called me to go to clubs because they thought that my big belly would chase guys away.  Their families told them not to hang out with me because I was a bad influence.  Once the baby came, things got even worse.  I couldn’t go out ever because I couldn’t find a sitter.  Then they almost never came around.”

Not going out can make you feel like you’re missing out and can even lead to feelings of resentment toward the baby.  All parents need to hang out with people their own age.  Especially young parents.  You probably won’t go out as much and do all the things you did before you had the baby.  But it’s important not to isolate yourself from other people your age.  Being with friends is important.  It’s a chance to connect and refuel and have a little fun.  So what can you do about it?  Here are a few ideas that other young parents have tried.

  • See if you can find activities your friends are into that you can take the baby along for, like going to a park or the mall for a short time.  (But be realistic.  If you have an active two-year-old, the mall might not be a good choice.  He’ll want to run around and you might just be chasing him rather than hanging with friends.)
  • Explain to your mother that you understand what your responsibilities are, but that you’d really appreciate it if she could watch the baby for just two or three hours a week so you could go out.  (Find something cheap to do if you do go out so you’re not broke for the next week.)
  • Swap babysitting with a friend.  You watch her child for three hours one week, she’ll pay you back the next week.  Pick someone you can trust so the baby is safe.  Make sure the street goes two ways so you don’t get walked on — doing all the sitting and getting nothing back.
  • If the baby’s father is also a caretaker, work it out with him so that a few hours a week you get to get out and enjoy yourself and give him the same opportunity.

Gina, 17 years old, had this to say:  “I want to hang with my friends and go to parties and have fun, but with a baby you can’t really do any of those things.  Now everything is about the baby.  My life has changed a lot.  Now it’s baby this and baby that.  The responsibility and the missing out feel hard.  You got to make sure he’s got his food and that he’s okay.  When my friends call up I feel this pull in my stomach to go with them.  Then I look at my baby and realize I can’t.  It sounds like I’m complaining, but I’m not.  I made my choice and I love my baby.  Still, sometimes it’s hard to sit at home knowing they’re out having a good time.”

There might be times when you’re dying to get a break or go along with friends, but no one is there to cover for you and you just can’t bring the baby.  These are the times it might really feel like you’re trapped or missing out.  These are the times that you might even regret having a baby.  But there are some ways to look at the situation that can bring you peace and remind you of your mission.

Having young children who need you all the time won’t last forever, even if it feels like it.  Little kids grow up fast, and at some point you’ll have more time for yourself.

Every sacrifice you make is worth it.  Doing right by your baby sometimes means you sacrifice something you want.  And missing out on something you want for the sake of your baby is a wise and mature action.  It’s your gift to her.  Give yourself credit for doing it!

To learn more about Lionheart’s emotional literacy programs please visit our website


Creative Commons License

Teen Parents: “Missing Out” by Bethany Casarjian, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.lionheart.org/youth/   The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author is credited and that the original publication Power Source Parenting: Growing Up Strong and Raising Healthy Kids  (Copyright 2008) and excerpts in this blog (www.lionheart.org/blog/) are cited.  No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

Guest Blog: A House of Healing Within the Walls of San Quentin….

13/09/13 0

Editor’s Note: From time to time, Lionheart welcomes guest bloggers to write about topics aligned with our mission. If you would like to be considered for an upcoming guest blog, please contact us at: questions@lionheart.org  

Many thanks to Susan Shannon and the OG (Original Group) Houses of Healing for contributing the following article and sharing their experiences.  Please check out “Stories from Lifers” at the bottom of the page.

Working in San Quentin State Prison has opened me up to so much wonder, often inspired by the pain and suffering I witness daily, the outgrowth of very difficult, often inhumane and unconscionable childhoods.  Have you ever pondered the bamboo shoot that has grown undergrounds for tens of feet before it finds that one crack in the sidewalk, or that one area of soft ground, then spires to the sky?  Welcome to the fruit I have witnessed from the Houses of Healing program.

I was blessed to take a Prison Ministry class in the final year of my Masters in Divinity program. This class was taught by Father George Williams, a Jesuit Priest, who is also the Catholic Chaplain at San Quentin. I initially took this class because it was offered on the one day I was on campus, but it quickly became much more than that. This class was the first trail of breadcrumbs leading me to a life-changing journey.

An astrologer told me 35 years ago that I would find my right-livelihood in “institutions.” I figured that the 20 years of work I had done with a few monasteries in India and Nepal had fulfilled that. I also had acquired a number of skills and tools in my toolbox having to do with Emotional Literacy and Restorative Justice. I had worked with middle school kids and adults in both fields for some time. As well, 40 years of Buddhist practice had hammered me into a good working vessel of compassion, insight, listening skills and a non-judgmental approach to life. I was blind to the fact that entering San Quentin would mark all that had come before as floorboards in my own growth and ability to embrace humanity in all its forms; floorboards which were lifted and transformed, one by one.

After the first year of attending Restorative Justice meetings with the inmates, I was ready for more. I asked Father George Williams if he would allow me to expand my hours at the prison and supervise me through the next leg of my chaplaincy program, a 2000-hour internship. To my delight, he agreed, and suggested that I start a Houses of Healing group there. He had taught the Houses of Healing curriculum on the east coast, knew Robin Casarjian, author of Houses of Healing and Executive Director of The Lionheart Foundation,was confident in my grasp of  Emotional Literacy and my spiritual dedication– plus he had 12 Houses of Healing books ready to go!

I had already gotten involved in three other groups at San Quentin, two, which were yearlong, groups dealing with in-depth soul searching and self-disclosure. Each group went deeply into the core teachings of Houses of Healing, but were differently focused-one on understanding victim awareness and one on domestic violence prevention. I had developed a sense of what “being ready” looked like among these inmates, as well as a sense of what “almost ready but not quite” looked like. Over the nearly 9 months of groups I had also seen how ripeness for the journey to one’s core self, one’s heart space, has its own timing. 

I decided to offer my Houses of Healing group to men who were not quite ready for the yearlong programs. I had hoped for at least some who had never done programs, but were at a crossroads in their life and were ready to test the waters. Father Williams had taught this whole course in 8-12 weeks. It seemed a perfect “training wheels” program. I asked the men in my existing groups to spread the word of this new Houses of Healing group to men who fit that description. I quickly had a list of twelve men. Father Williams granted me the boon of one highly skilled and seasoned inmate as a co-facilitator, later adding on another seminary student.  We had a room assignment of the small but cozy library in the Catholic Chapel.

Our Houses of Healing group began in September of 2012. To my delight I had a great mix of a few men who had never done any programs, but had “been down” for years, along with a few men who were veterans of several programs. We had a good age spread as well. I left our first meeting absolutely thrilled at the mix.

Little did I know that I was embarking on what has become one of the most powerful of tribal councils, peace summits, monastic meetings, sangha of truth, teaching circle and family of soul that I have ever known. Keep in mind that I have a history of doing lots and lots of groups, so I don’t say that lightly. Now and then with group work, the people in attendance almost seem to be calculated by some Divine Chef, as each adds such an exotically special flavor that the whole broth becomes an otherworldly elixir. This was so with my first Houses of Healing group.

It soon became clear to me that nearly everything I have ever learned about group facilitation had to be thrown out the window. As “each one teach one” became the theme of the class, I learned quickly to De-Facilitate. Simply to sit in the presence of these brave souls as they bore witness and taught each other through their own examples of storytelling prompted by the altruistically based curriculum of Houses of Healing. Night after night I came home and waded in wonder as I integrated the equal power of the truths of doing as well as not-doing. I witnessed the power of Wu-Wei, as the Taoists say, the path of “not doing” that can lead all present to their true nature.

As weeks led into months, I realized this was not going to be any 8-12 week group. We continued on as long as we got traction out of the teachings of the book. Discussions ripened into tears long held and easily released into our trusting tribe. Stories emerged as buried treasure chests which had been masquerading as a ball and chain around the ankle of a person who formerly viewed themselves as condemned, but now sprouted wings and saw themselves as liberated.

Robin responded thoughtfully, carefully and immediately to any questions I had. Father Williams was content that our “container” was strong and consistent enough to prevent any of these guys from ending up in The Hole or Ad-Seg due to lack of integration. My co-facilitator and I had agreed that we would end when we felt we were darn ready to end. That said, he was positioned to be released as one of the first of the Three Strikers to get out after Prop. 36 passed. Plus, our waiting list was growing.

Four months in I asked the guys for their first and only real assignment, though they had been given “pause and reflect” handouts all along. After hearing so many comments about how “this book” had turned their thinking and their lives around, I decided one day to make a request. “Please, guys, pick something, anything from the HoH book that moved you. Give us a 2-4 minute presentation about that topic in any form you want: writing, song, drumming, mime, art, whatever.”

Week by week went by of presentations, each one absolutely mind-blowing in the articulation of the transformation and integration hat had occurred in time together! I suggested to the guys that we make a booklet of these amazing testimonies and send as a thank-you to Robin, and as a testimony to the incredible living and healing document that Houses of Healing provides; a guidebook to the soul.

As the stories unfolded, so did the ideas for this booklet. I had the men visualize images they wanted to include. Later I went home and found matching images online. We shared the tragedy of our second co-facilitator’s sudden death. We shared the mixed emotion of joy and loss when my inmate co-facilitator was released, and later, another member. Finally, our booklet was completed and shared with Robin-and now all of you.

The men hope that their “Stories from Lifers” (Click Here to View Stories) will be inspiring to others. (If you have trouble viewing pictures on page 1,2 etc. please click Open with a Different Browser on top right of page and open with Adobe Reader) They have given me full permission to share this booklet with all of you. They also hope that somehow this booklet will grow, including other stories, maybe even one day helping to fund the purchase of HoH books for ongoing classes. All of the men from this group are now mentoring our second HoH group. Each One Teach One.

I hope you all enjoy these profound stories and can utilize your inspiration for the work you are all doing in other prisons around the United States and around the world utilizing the Houses of Healing curriculum.

May all beings benefit by our efforts!

Much Respect and Many Thanks,

Susan Shannon, M. Div., and the OG (Original Group) of Houses of Healing in San Quentin, CA.

Photo of San Quentin Prison







Guest Blog: Shutting Down the School-to-Prison Pipeline

13/08/13 0

Editor’s Note:  From time to time, Lionheart welcomes guest bloggers to write about topics aligned with our mission.  If you would like to be considered for an upcoming guest blog, please contact us at: questions@lionheart.org   Many thanks to Denise Tomasini-Joshi for contributing the following article.

Four Thoughts on Shutting Down the School-to-Prison Pipeline

by Denise Tomasini-Joshi

On December 2012 the US Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights held a hearing on the school-to-prison pipeline.  After years of research and attention to this phenomenon by academics, non-profits and advocates, focus by the highest levels of government seems overdue.   As the hearing’s chair, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), noted: for many children the schools are increasingly a gateway for the criminal justice system, depriving them of their right to an education.  While we wait for the glacial pace of federal action, is there anything that cities, municipalities, and even individual schools can do?  Here are 4 broadly supported recommendations that can be implemented at the local level:

1.     Eliminate “zero-tolerance” school discipline policies – In a landmark study titled “Breaking School’s Rules” the Council of State Government’s Justice Center revealed that 23% of children with a disciplinary action – which included suspensions ranging from 1 class to several days – had contact with the justice system as compared with only 2% of children not disciplined.  The study looked at every student in Texas in the seventh grade from the years 2000 to 2002, and found that “frequent violators” – students with more than 11 disciplinary actions – had a 50% chance of having contact with the justice system. 

 One troubling finding of this study is the arbitrary nature of disciplinary actions.  While “zero tolerance” invokes an image of uniformity and consistency, the reality is that disciplinary actions are highly subjective and applied most often, and more harshly, to certain types of students; namely, children of color and children with educational or psychiatric disabilities.  The study found that controlling for other factors, black youth where 32% more likely to receive disciplinary actions than white or Hispanic students. 

 While these finding are upsetting the study also points to signs of hope; the most significant being that schools with similar demographics have used different modes of school discipline to different results.  This means that schools can reduce exclusion without sacrificing safety. 

The implications of the study are clear: “zero-tolerance” policies ultimately hurt particular groups of children as well as the system as a whole.  These policies and the ensuing suspensions should be replaced with other forms of behavior assistance.

 2.     Invest in Restorative Justice Programs – While the first point above, signals a need to reduce the number of disciplinary actions leading to suspensions, schools struggle with addressing misbehavior, particularly when that behavior has consequences for other students. In these cases it’s important not just to discourage and correct the behavior, but to provide recourse to the person affected and send a message of institutional responsiveness.  One tool for accomplishing this is restorative justice.

 Restorative justice is a form of conflict resolution in which those harmed by crime or conflict, and those responsible for the harm, are brought together into communication, enabling everyone affected by a particular incident to play a part in repairing the harm and finding a positive way forward.  It’s a method that can work without involvement in the criminal justice system, but also along with a criminal justice proceeding, and at different stages of that process (pre-trial, pre-sentence, post-sentence).  For youth, restorative justice at the earliest stages of conflict can serve as a form of diversion from the criminal justice system. 

A group of California educators recently spoke to the need for restorative processes at a State’s Senate Education Committee hearing in favor of a bill to ban suspensions for “willful defiance”.  They explained that “California schools urgently need strategies for discipline that help children learn from mistakes, make reparations for harm, and go on to succeed.”  While that bill was approved and sent to the full Senate for a vote, the legislation only prevents suspensions and does not require the type of restorative function that educators endorsed.  Restorative justice school programs can serve as an alternative to suspensions for educators and help interrupt the flow of the school-to-prison pipeline. 

 3.     Improve After-School programs – It’s well known that arrests for juvenile crime peak between 2pm and 6pm on school days.  One reason, is that 69% of all married-couple families have both parents working outside the home, while 71% of single mother households and 85% of single father households have the custodial parent working outside the home.  The gap between in-school time and work schedules means that children spend 20-25 hours per week unsupervised.  There is therefore a great need for supervised, constructive activities during the post-school hours.

 After-school programs (ASP) provide this service and have been shown to reduce delinquent behavior, but like any other program, the quality of the ASP will determine the level of impact.  Research suggests that positive outcomes are strongest in programs that incorporate a high emphasis on social skills and character development – such as the curricula currently offered by the Lionheart Foundation.  ASP’s that incorporate emotional literacy would be a great tool to eliminate delinquency and keep kids in school.

4.     Improve Educational Services for Children Already in the Justice System – The Sentencing Project notes that despite the strong connection between school truancy, dropouts, and delinquency, reenrolling youth leaving detention into school is a low priority for the justice system. Most children involved in the criminal justice system will eventually get out.  As noted, failure to attend school is strongly co-related with delinquency, making linkages with education a vital part of reducing recidivism.   A number of barriers prevent justice-involved kids from availing themselves of the benefits of education.  For example, education within prisons and jails is generally substandard, and children locked in adult facilities often receive no education services at all, making reintegration to school upon release intellectually and emotionally overwhelming.  The result is that two-thirds of children leaving closed detention never return to school.

Reentry programs that focus on school reintegration are a crucial component of preventing recidivism.   It’s important to note that around 70% of youth sentenced to some form of confinement have been convicted of strictly non-violent acts.   It is therefore imperative to ensure that those children stay out of prison to prevent them from adopting the behaviors of other incarcerated persons who may be engaging in higher levels of violence and offending.

 In 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the joint Supportive School Discipline Initiative, which includes, among other things, the development of a consensus report on strategies to block the school-to-prison pipeline.  There is already consensus on the recommendations above, let’s not wait another moment to begin implementing changes that can improve children’s lives.


Denise Tomasini-Joshi is an attorney of Hispanic descent and expert in
criminal justice policy.  She has most recently worked on issues
related to vulnerable populations involved in the criminal justice
system, and on alleviating the harms of unnecessary pretrial
detention.  Ms. Tomasini-Joshi is a graduate of Columbia Law School
and the Columbia University School of International and Public
Affairs.  She has worked on criminal justice reform globally, and has
published in English and Spanish.  In September Ms. Tomasini-Joshi
will join the International Harm Reduction Program of the Open Society
Foundations as Deputy Director.  Follow her on Twitter @DMTJoshi.


Guest Blog: Core of Goodness: A Homecoming

25/07/13 0

Editor’s Note: From time to time, Lionheart welcomes in guest bloggers to write about topics aligned with our mission.  If you would like to be considered for an upcoming guest blog, please contact us at: questions@lionheart.org   

Many thanks to Marie Jackson for contributing the following article.  To learn more about her work, please visit http://www.mariejackson.net


Core of Goodness:  A Homecoming

by Marie Jackson

Merriam Webster defines “core” as “a central and often foundational part, usually distinct from the enveloping part.”   That “distinct from the enveloping part” is important to consider when we’re tempted to judge or condemn another person.  If we only see their enveloping part, we miss who they really are.  We miss their Core.

As human beings, our Core is rooted in our heart.  It is loving, kind, courageous and forgiving.  It is supportive and open and safe.  This core is the wise way of nature, the creative impulse of the Universe, its Intention.  We are part of that intention, this spiritual compulsion of life to develop and grow and progress.  From our beginning as a single cell to a fully formed human being, our intended impulse is to evolve and expand, and is just as natural as grass growing, eggs hatching and planets circling the sun.  Nothing needs to be fixed.  Nothing needs to be undone.  Nothing needs to be changed.  Nothing needs to be forgiven.  Our lives as human beings are perfect.  This perfection is not easy to remember or celebrate when we’re surrounded by iron bars and razor wire.

The perfection of our lives get lived in the imperfection of our life situations.  Our life situations include our bodies, our relationships, environment, occupation, school, families.  For some of us, our life situation is prison.  As babies, then as young people, and then as adults, our life situations were always the stage, the setting for living our lives of promise and love and wisdom – our core.  When our core is allowed to express itself, we blossom, we thrive, we go on to serve and contribute; we fulfill our intention of perfection.  When our life situations include abuse or neglect or abandonment, our core gets blocked, denied, obscured.  This denial of who we are teaches us who we can trust and count on in our environment with our families, at school, in our neighborhoods.  We learn how, where and when to lie, how to choose what protects us and what makes us feel worthy:  we learn how to keep ourselves out of harm’s way.  With each lesson, we layer on the deception, the bad choices, the hurtful behavior, all in an effort to feel safe and protected.  Our beautiful Core is soon forgotten, lost, as our need for protection takes over.  Instead of celebrating our Goodness, we have learned to deny it, and for some of us, this denial has become our habit, our value structure, and we stray far from the home of who we are.  We spiritually starve; we wither and fade; we get brittle and harden.

But here’s the good news:  even in our brittleness and starvation, our Core never leaves us; it might be hidden or blurred or forgotten, but it never leaves.  Never.  Not with our choices, not with our behavior, not with our history, not with our environment.  Our Core of Goodness never goes away.  And nowhere can this be clearer than in the prison environment.

Houses of Healing, A Prisoner’s Guide to Inner Power and Freedom is a program in hundreds of prisons across the country, touching the lives of thousands of prisoners.  Created by Robin Casarjian in 1988, this program and book offer meditations, exercises, and prisoner accounts designed to remind inmates of their Core of Goodness.  The impact on the quality of lives of men and women behind bars is profound, as inmates heal and grow with the tools enabling them to live lives of beauty and love and wisdom.   Robin states “Life is like a stone mill:  the people and experiences we encounter either grind us down or polish us up, depending on the way we relate to them.”   Inmates who sign up for Houses of Healing are motivated to use their time of incarceration to find ways to live lives of peace, and support and contribution, whether they are ever released from prison or not.  Instructors can be staff, volunteers or even other inmates.  Feedback comes in all forms – poetry, letters of gratitude, personal stories, assessments, from male and female inmates alike:  From Leonard – “I always knew I was a good person, but I thought I couldn’t live my true self in here.  I’m learning to live that part of who I am better now.  I’m choosing better friends, activities, work.  I’m practicing living from my center, and it’s working.  I feel more peaceful.”   Or from Camille, “I learned to hold still, to see with new eyes, to know that other inmates are trying to find their way just as I am.  I’ve become more patient, a more dependable friend.” And from Diane, “My prison was out there…not in here.  The drugs, the abuse – I felt like I was tossed around in an angry sea, and couldn’t find my way.  I felt like my arrest was really the storm that threw me up on a rock…where I could dry out, get clean, learn to respect myself. ”

 Living from our core begins with knowing it was there all along, waiting for us to come home.  Anger, grief, loss, betrayal and abuse are not particular just to inmates in our prison system.  We have all suffered some degree of this denial of Intention.  Maybe we didn’t all land in jail, but our confinement was real just the same.   If our brothers and sisters on the inside can come home to their core, anyone can.  Admitting our mistakes, forgiving others, forgiving ourselves, seeing ourselves and others through the eyes of compassion and understanding instead of judgment and condemnation can bring us to peace on the inside, and joy on the outside.

In “The Wizard of Oz”, Glinda the good witch tells us “Home is knowing. Knowing your mind, knowing your heart, knowing your courage. If we know ourselves, we’re always home, anywhere.”


Interview with Robin Casarjian

17/07/13 0

Robin Casarjian, Executive Director of the Lionheart Foundation, discusses the importance of forgiveness  and emotional literacy in an interview with Dot Walsh, long-time supporter and former board member at Lionheart.  Robin talks about how these critical skills help us take control of our lives and gain peace of mind.  In her book, Houses of Healing: A Prisoner’s Guide to Inner Power and Freedom, emotional literacy is key to helping prisoners gain self understanding and transform their lives.



Television Interview with Dr. Bethany Casarjian

12/07/13 0

Bethany Casarjian, Clinical Director of the Lionheart Foundation’s Youth Programs,  discusses the Power Source Program for at risk youth, and the Power Source Parenting Program for at risk teen parents during an appearance on Oneness and Wellness  — a program airing on local television in Dedham, MA.  During her interview with Dot Walsh, a long-time supporter of Lionheart, Bethany speaks to the importance of teaching self regulation strategies to at risk youth, helping them master these emotional regulatory skills and passing them on to their children. 



Labyrinth Project at Hampshire County Jail, Massachusetts

10/07/13 0

Doing time and wasting time need not go hand in hand.  At the Hampshire County Jail, staff and administration are creating innovative solutions, helping inmates address the issues that got them into jail in the first place. To this end, a recently completed project, the building of a labyrinth on the prison grounds, gives inmates the opportunity to stop and think, to reflect in a safe, quiet, and relatively stress-free zone.  The prisoners supplied the labor for this project which brought about a collaboration of prisoners, community volunteers, the Sheriff’s Department and one very generous donor.  To learn more, please watch the video below.

Judith Perry, Chief Operating Officer, The Lionheart Foundation


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