In the wake of the devastating riots at Attica State Prison in 1971, activist convicts in correctional facilities around the country began to seek help from local religious, mental health and community organizations in developing nonviolence training programs to help reduce the level of conflict among the prison population. One such group of motivated inmates right here in New York, at Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, reached out to the Quaker Project on Community Conflict to assist them in designing workshops to train themselves to act as youth counselors when they returned to their hometowns, with the aim of disrupting the cycle of juvenile crime that can lead to decades of incarceration. The program, launched in 1975, was so successful that it was quickly replicated in other prisons and other states.
The Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) is now an international effort, active in 35 states and more than 55 countries. Its trainees use their skills to deescalate conflict in plenty of other situations besides correctional institutions: in schools, workplaces, public spaces and even at home. But the most critical work is still focused on enabling motivated prison inmates to cope more creatively with situations conducive to conflict, and to share these new skills in their personal toolboxes with others around them.
“You look around and see all this unutilized potential in the room,” Eugene Lebwohl, an AVP facilitator who lives in Highland, says of these workshops. “These are people who still have a lot of life left, who still have a lot of time that they’re going to be back in society. Through the workshops, they can get engaged with the best parts of themselves and can bring that back to their communities.”
Like most folks, Lebwohl thought of prisons as “a different planet” and felt no particular inclination to do work there – until his wife, Ruth Matthews, a member of the Quaker congregation in New Paltz, got involved in an interfaith worship group that held services at the Otisville Correctional Facility in Orange County. Matthews became an AVP volunteer and encouraged Lebwohl to take the training program as well. What he found there was an opportunity that resonated deeply with his previous career as an educator.
A native of Yorktown Heights, Lebwohl was a professional naturalist in his early post-university years, “studying monkeys in Africa. I was an ethnobotanist on Native American reservations.” That led to work doing environmental education, college teaching and founding an alternative school for high school seniors called the Walkabout Program. “It was experiential – half in the classroom, half in the community. The students did a career internship and community service. There was also a wilderness component.” Lebwohl ran the program for 30 years, eventually collaborating with 21 school districts, before retiring in 2008 and moving from Westchester to Ulster County in 2014.
The target group for participation in the Walkabout Program was “people with underutilized potential,” he says – “young people who are bright, but in too small of a box.” When he arrived at Otisville to undergo his basic AVP training, he quickly discovered that the prison population had much in common with the gifted-but-unchallenged students he had taught on the outside. “Many are incarcerated in their late teens or early 20s. It made me think about how, if they’d had good mentoring and guidance, many wouldn’t have made the choices they did.”
He also found, to his surprise, that the environment for the workshops was “a lot safer than I would’ve supposed. I discovered that the work is profoundly meaningful, intellectually stimulating – and actually a lot of fun!” AVP’s pedagogical model felt familiar as well: “The workshops are very experiential. They consist of about 90 percent activities, followed by a debriefing in which the participants share what they’ve learned.” Basic techniques include group-building activities, self-awareness exercises, roleplay, practice at using communication skills such as attentive listening, “I statements” and so on. “This is not therapy, but it has therapeutic outcomes,” Lebwohl observes.
Inmate participants are carefully vetted by their peers to ensure that they are strongly motivated to work on their ability to handle conflict better, and also to screen out those inclined to be disruptive to the process. Everyone’s life experiences and contributions to the discussion are treated as valuable – not to mention confidential, to create a safe space for articulating personal values and goals, for sharing ideas. “You’re always mining the room,” Lebwohl says. “You’re a team.” Consequently, much progress can be made in the course of a three-day weekend workshop, and many who complete the basic program are eager to go on to learn more advanced techniques – even to train to become a facilitator.
The 47-year track record of the AVP program has been impressive. Those who take the workshops are much better equipped than the average person, inside or outside prison, to “dial down their inner reactivity,” as Lebwohl puts it. “When they’re out, I see the way they stay connected and support each other. They create a lasting support community. It costs the Department of Corrections nothing, and it saves society a lot… Recidivism is really expensive.”
Whereas the average five-year recidivism rate for ex-cons in New York State is nearly 50 percent, says Lebwohl, it averages between two and five percent for former inmates who completed the entire AVP program of basic and advanced workshops, facilitator training and apprenticeship. Many alumni are active in their home communities, both helping recently released prisoners start new lives and steering younger people away from bad choices before they end up in prison.
“They come out with their hope rekindled, their enthusiasm for doing some good in their lives rekindled,” he says. “We have hundreds of thousands of people who are all coming home. Do we want them to be broken or less broken? Do we want them to be part of the solution or not?”
AVP workshops in the prisons went dormant for two-and-a-half years during the COVID shutdown, but are now well into the process of being revived, according to Lebwohl. “We restarted last May, with a ‘spring training’ to rebuild the team. By July we were doing workshops every other month. We’re getting back up to speed.” But many of the outside facilitators dropped out during the hiatus: “People got involved in other things.” The Mid-Hudson chapter is now looking for new volunteers to train as facilitators, whether to help run workshops at Otisville or elsewhere. “It’s open to anybody,” he says. “There’s no cost, no obligation.”
To learn more about the Alternative to Violence Project, visit www.avpny.org. To inquire about volunteering, e-mail New York State AVP coordinator Shirley Way at firstname.lastname@example.org.