Dr. Don Ulin
will tell you that he doesn’t work with prisoners out of the goodness of his
heart. His motives are more selfish, and he thinks that’s a good thing.
associate professor of English, works with inmates at the Federal Correctional
Institution, McKean, in a program founded in the 1970s by inmates and Quakers
at Green Haven Prison in New York state.
program, the Alternatives to Violence Project, is an intensive three-day
workshop Ulin facilitates several weekends a year at FCI-McKean. It is an
introspective, gut-wrenching process that helps participants come to grips with
the violence from their past and to seek non-violent solutions to future
says that the long hours he spends preparing and conducting workshops are
repaid as much by what he gets out of the workshops as what the inmates get out
giving is only a one-way street, then it’s a losing proposition,” he said.
That’s a concept that reflects Ulin’s roots growing up in a Quaker community,
where group process is more important than hierarchy. The workshop facilitator,
he says, cannot be in a position of superiority.
discovered AVP while attending a national Quaker meeting in 2008 in Johnstown,
was just really, really interested to learn about it and to learn about another
side of life,” Ulin said.
fall, he and Jessica Kubiak ’06 began working with a facilitator from State
College, Pa., who had just begun AVP sessions at FCI-McKean but found it
difficult to do so because of the distance.
are required to become a facilitator, and since completing the third workshop
about four years ago, Ulin and Kubiak have facilitated about 10 workshops
inside FCI for a combination of inmates and the occasional community member
spring, Ulin co-facilitated a third-level AVP workshop at FCI-McKean,
graduating a dozen or so inmates who are now qualified to help facilitate
future workshops. Dr. Dani Nier-Weber, director of the writing center at
Pitt-Bradford, also participated in this workshop and joined her first
facilitation team in May.
possibility of more workshops should be welcome. Currently there are more than
100 inmates on the waiting list to take the 21-hour workshops. No one is told
to take an AVP workshop or given any reward for doing so, and it is promoted
strictly through word of mouth.
hear from inmates and prison staff that this is one of their favorite programs,”
Ulin said. He said that inmates have encouraged some of the most influential
inmates – those with the social capital to lead others -- to take the workshop.
we hear about incidents in which they use their communication and conflict-resolution
skills on the compound,” Ulin said.
skills are coming in handy for Ulin, too, who said, while he may never have
faced the kind of violence experienced by the inmates, he faces conflicts at
work, at home, and in other areas of life, where people can be hurt by words
and actions, if not by more physical weapons.
try to practice AVP every day,” he said. “I like to think that doing AVP has
made me a better person, a better teacher, a better parent, a better colleague
and a better partner.
are skeptical at first of AVP because they think it’s a bunch of do-gooders
trying to turn murderers around, but that’s not our attitude or our goal.” Ulin
said. Nevertheless, AVP has collected
some evidence that participation reduces recidivism, helps inmates and prison
administrators cope with violence, and helps with an inmate’s re-entry into
administration at the prison is incredibly supportive of what we do,” he said.
Warden Susan Folk praised the work of Ulin and AVP at FCI-McKean. “They have
such a commitment to the program. It’s an outstanding communications program,
and it’s great for the inmates’ self-confidence. The inmates appreciate it and
believe it’s one of the most valuable programs,” she said.
and Weber both plan to be spending more time at FCI-McKean through another
program, Inside-Out, which teaches college courses to inmates alongside college
students in a prison setting. Dr. Tony Gaskew, associate professor of criminal
justice, taught the first Inside-Out class at FCI-McKean last fall (see main
previously taught creative writing to teens at a juvenile correctional facility
really enjoyed working with these teenage boys where you see a different side
of them than the system sees,” she said. “I have always run counter to
narratives of worthlessness.”
sees writing as a chance for inmates to communicate with the outside world. “I
see value in the men that we work with at FCI McKean,” she said, “and writing
is our strongest vehicle for change.”