by Fred Magondu and Sharon Browning
Fred Magondu and Sharon Browning are listeners and facilitators with the JUST Listening Program at SCI Phoenix, and both serve on the project’s Core Team.
JUST Listening is a program that fosters personal, organizational, and social change and transformation. It is premised upon the beliefs, among others, that being heard empowers the speaker and that people hold the solutions to their own problems.
In 2018, 2,648 men were moved from SCI Graterford, a maximum-security prison in Collegeville, PA, to SCI Phoenix, the new prototypical detention facility located four hundred yards away on the same property. Even before the move, high levels of anxiety and uncertainty prevailed in the old prison, heightened by the intimidating presence of black-clad special security guards brought in months in advance to facilitate the move. Tension and fear, both precursors of violence, permeated the place. When the move finally happened in July, the staff tasked with searching the two boxes each man was allowed for moving their personal possessions, vandalized, destroyed, and discarded many items. Religious books, keepsakes, and pictures of family, including one man’s sole photo of his daughter, taken as her still body lay in her coffin, were defaced with sexual, racial, and hateful images, symbols, and epithets. To make matters worse, the administration initially refused to acknowledge the violations. Even after devising a compensation scheme, there was never an official apology or acknowledgement of wrongdoing, and the perpetrators were never sanctioned. During that time, everyone in the prison was emotionally traumatized.
For some of the men, practicing nonviolence skills learned over many years was spiritually and emotionally salvific: meditation, yoga, Alternatives to Violence skills. Among these tools, JUST Listening (JL) became a saving grace.
Plans to implement the JL program at Graterford began in 2014 and were fully implemented in January of 2017. 1 JUST Listening is a transformative communication program premised on the belief that Listening is an act of justice: social interactions are just when they embrace mutuality, respect, fairness, and honor our common humanity. At the root of JL is the belief that people need to feel heard for their dignity to be affirmed: when this does not happen, unresolved grievances fester, self-esteem plummets, and interpersonal tensions escalate. A cascade of stress hormones floods our bodies and pushes us into primal flight/fright/freeze and fight behaviors. Incipient violence is the poison in this toxic stew.
The events surrounding the move were merely an exacerbation of the normative level of dignity violations found in prison environments: daily experiences of being ignored, belittled, and discriminated against are wounds to human dignity. Here, people generally feel unvalued. Many dignity violations originate from interactions with staff, whether words or tone of voice interpreted as disrespectful, or a request not honored or even acknowledged. Among prisoners, it can be as simple as stepping in front of someone in line for the phone, or not respecting someone’s property or space. Some violations, like those surrounding the move, are worse than others; over time, these violations can escalate into violence. Experts suggest that at the root of every conflict, whether interpersonal or corporate, is a real or perceived violation of dignity. 2 If we are to transform conflict and promote peace, unity and harmony in our communities and society, a simple place to begin is with ourselves and our interpersonal interactions. JUST Listening is a foundation on which to build this essential work.
Both before and after, the harshness and intensity of the move created an opportunity for all of us on the JL Core Team to Walk the Talk, forming bonds of love and community that none of us expected. During our first session after the new prison was open for outside volunteers, it quickly became apparent that our usually-brief circle “check in” would not be a simple one. Hearts were heavy and all the listeners knew there would be no other business for the day. We quickly agreed to, in one member’s words, “…take time and share what’s on our hearts”. Just as contained steam pressure must be released before there’s an explosion, we “vented”. As each person shared what they had been experiencing, we could almost feel the weight being lifted from burdened shoulders. A sense of safety, acceptance, recognition, and empathy slowly filled the room and our spirits. It is an understatement to say the session was therapeutic. It gave those of us on the “inside” strength and resilience to go on even though we knew the indignities might continue. It helped many of us deal with bitterness. Most importantly, to know that we were heard, acknowledged, and accepted meant that we could regain our dignity in a significant way. There had been thoughts and even verbalizations of violence and retaliation. JUST Listening sessions provided an opportunity for us to visualize a different outcome, mitigate potential escalation and carry this peacefulness with us when we left the meetings.
The move story is just one example of the ways in which JUST Listening is seeding peace and nonviolence within the prison. Despite enrolling voluntarily and being personally oriented about what to expect, those who attend our workshops for the first time come with a lot of skepticism, often viewing other participants with suspicion and mistrust. We address this from the onset with a curriculum and activities designed to break the ice, affirm the dignity and value of each person, and build community. We also address power imbalances by making clear that all facilitators, both inside and outside team members, are not teachers and do not impart knowledge, but are there to serve the group. Everyone’s input is critical and no point is insignificant.
This initial groundwork produces amazing results, and a single session is usually enough to build community and ease tension. At the end of one training, Omar , an especially reluctant participant, approached Co-Author Fred and said, “I didn’t know what to expect. I always looked at some of these guys as phony but that exercise we did together made me realize how deep they are. I want to keep coming to this.”
Such comments are common. JL offers something that people in prison find refreshing: a no judgment zone where they can feel safe enough to be themselves. We have learned that when we feel valued and heard, we are more open to seeking life affirming, rather than violent solutions. We feel empowered to be creative rather than reactive and have more faith that these solutions can work. We are more able to visualize the good not only in ourselves, but in others.
If nurtured, this tremendous change in perspective can lead to transformation, and we have witnessed such changes in many of the participants who keep coming back and want to be included in more workshops. Fred sees this regularly in observations of men on the block who participate in JL. Jake, a young man who was hanging out with the wrong crowd, is an example of this. He finally accepted an invitation to a JL workshop, reported that he loved the skits and promised to come to the “alumni” meetings: skills reinforcement workshops held monthly. He came once, then stopped, but periodically sent men to tell Fred what he had learned and shared with others. He began distancing himself from the old crowd and joined other groups. Over time, he has matured and attributes his change to JL. He told Fred: “That group changed me. I realized I’m in jail because I never listened to anyone before. And the crazy thing is I didn’t even notice until I learned about listening filters in your class.”
The JL approach has worked well in prison, an inherently violent environment where tensions are high and violent escalation is the rule rather than the exception. But it is also potentially transformative in any place or circumstance where human dignity is violated, whether interpersonally or communally.4 This work is not flashy, requiring only two ears, a willing heart, some training, and caring, dedicated people who love their communities and are willing to take the time needed to build relationships at the grassroots level.
When we look at the prevailing level of violence throughout our social structures, we can be tempted to despair. But radical listening goes to the root of the problem by addressing the underlying taproot of dignity violations. We do this by bringing the community together, creating a space where everyone feels safe, valued, and listened to. The solution lies not within one person or viewpoint, but in our collective minds and hearts. All are encouraged not only to air their grievances and hurts as they perceive them, but also to share their hopes, dreams, and vision for the future. Not only does each of us hold the solutions to our own issues within, but together, we hold the vision and transformative capacities for humanity.
1 For further reading:
Can Radical Listening Transform Prison Culture? Philadelphia Inquirer, November 9, 2019 Strategies and Tips for Incarcerated Persons: How to Thrive During Covid 19
2 Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict. Donna Hicks, Ph.D., 2013
3 Other than Co-Author Fred Magondu, names have been changed for this article.
4 For more information on the work of JUST Listening, visit www.justlistening.net Fred has been in prison since 2008 where he is serving a 12 ½ to 25-year sentence. He hopes to be released on parole this September. Fred leads various groups focused on issues of personal responsibility and transformation. On release, Fred plans to return to his native Kenya and establish JUST Listening Africa (JULIA), a nonprofit providing JUST Listening skills training and services in marginalized communities.
Sharon serves as coordinator of the JUST Listening project.