Instruments of peace


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.

            Ulin, 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.

            The 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 conflicts.  

            Ulin 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 of them. 

            “When 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.

            Ulin discovered AVP while attending a national Quaker meeting in 2008 in Johnstown, Pa.

            “I was just really, really interested to learn about it and to learn about another side of life,” Ulin said.

            That 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.

Three workshops 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

            This 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.

            The 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.

            “I 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.

            “Sometimes we hear about incidents in which they use their communication and conflict-resolution skills on the compound,” Ulin said.

            Those 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.

            “I 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.

            “People 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 society. 

            “The administration at the prison is incredibly supportive of what we do,” he said.

            Associate 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.

            Ulin 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 story).

            Weber previously taught creative writing to teens at a juvenile correctional facility in Indiana.

            “I 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.”

            Weber 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.”