Jewish Journal

Creating Compassionate Cities Behind Prison Walls

by Lia Mandelbaum

September 29, 2013 | 3:43 pm

From September 11-21, with the support of the administration at the California Institution for Women (CIW)  in Corona, the Compassion Games were able to take place for the first time behind the walls of a prison.  I was very fortunate to get the chance to interview the person who helped bring the global project and movement to CIW, Reverend Shayna Lester, who is the lead volunteer coordinator for the Jewish community at CIW.   She had brought the idea to two inmates, and supported their efforts as they spearheaded the program for all of CIW. 

The Compassion Games: Survival of the Kindest brings a culture of kindness to life through the power of co-opetition, catalyzing tangible acts of compassion and organized service projects in our communities. The games look different in each community, but each includes a shared agenda, shared measurement system, mutually reinforcing activities, backbone support, and continuous communication.  

The "Co-Opetition" at CIW was between all 8 of their housing units.  The women would record their acts of compassion onto a slip of paper, and then submit them each night to the "Compassion Ambassadors" of each unit, who would then tally the results.  The unit with the most acts of compassion was honored with certificates, got to have their own a chocolate cake iced with their unit color , and be the first to go to dinner for a week.  Although these rewards may not sound like a big deal, they are luxuries for the inmates and are greatly appreciated.

A total of 4,700 acts of compassion had been counted by the end of the 11 days.  The most measurable result of the Compassion Games is that there were no records of infractions for violent behavior at CIW during that period.

A calling to work with inmates

After many years of being a marriage and family therapist (MFT), Reverend Shayna Lester had been seeking a meaningful volunteer experience that would be “the right fit,” and realized that she had wanted to become a Jewish spiritual director on top of being a psychotherapist.  This took place around 20 years ago.  Since then, she has become the lead volunteer chaplain for the Jewish community at CIW.  She has taught classes to inmates at CIW's interfaith chapel on the Torah, has taught the spiritual practices of Mussar, explored the Ten Commandments from a psycho-spiritual perspective, and counseled them.   Amongst many other incredible projects she has developed or gotten involved with, she also sits on the steering committee for the Southern California Parliament of World Religions.  

Reverend Shayna Lester brought the movement to CIW with the conviction that the games would have an immensely positive impact.  As her vision became a reality, the prison staff, volunteers and visitors witnessed an incredibly transformative experience for the women.

Stories from the inmates

One inmate shared,  “The eleven days of the Compassion Games have come to an end but the positive feelings will linger for months to come.  The women of CIW recorded nearly 4,700 acts of kindness during the games.  There were many compassionate acts of sharing food, listening without judgment, complimenting one another, hugs, and being available to help the elderly and disabled.  A disabled woman reported she had multiple offers each day to take out her trash.  Another “Compassionista” was observed standing at the front door of her housing unit applying sunscreen to women before they ventured out into the scorching sun.  Mostly, there has been a shift in awareness of how compassion and acts of kindness can change attitudes and our living environment.” 

Another inmate said, “The Compassion Games allowed gang members or those who need to maintain an image to step outside of their “roles” and be kind to others without ridicule.  One woman went to every window on the unit and cleaned the cobwebs from the outside of the windows (60 windows).  This is big for someone in prison.  Inmates are conditioned to pay for everything including acts of kindness.  The games helped to break that cycle.  This was an excellent learning experience for many. “ 

She also mentioned how one of the slips submitted into the box said, “I didn’t give (name) the beat-down she deserved.”  This woman had gotten into an argument with another inmate, but the Compassion Games helped to diffuse her impulse to use violence.  There was another instance where two women were about to fight, but stopped when someone jumped in and said, “Wait, it’s the compassion Games!  Don’t do that now!”

One of the inmates who spearheaded the games mentioned, “the games humanizes people, and when you treat a human being like a human being, a lot of times, they are going to behave.  But if you treat a human being like a piece of dirt, they are going to live up to your expectations.”  She also said, "the games created a joyful feeling in the air, and that the energy was lighter, because for the eleven days of the games, the focus was on compassion, kindness, and unity."  She found that there was a residual effect from the games that lasted about three months, where there was more kindness and less fighting.

A great impact on America's criminal justice system

Having the women engage in the Compassion Games is what I believe to be one of the most powerful forms of restorative justice and healing.  Many of the women at CIW see themselves as incapable of being a compassionate person, or unworthy of being treated with compassion. The Compassion Games helped to open many of their eyes to the truth of how they are absolutely capable and worthy.  

Aside from purchasing a limited amount of supplies and chocolate cake mix, the games cost close to nothing.  For the betterment of America’s criminal justice system, I hope that the games at CIW will continue, and that other correctional facilities will follow suit.

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Lia Mandelbaum is known for her advocacy, passion, creativity, and empathy, and is fiercely driven to make a difference.  She is especially passionate about impacting our...

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