World Trust

Incarcerated Men Talk about Race in a Successful Prison Diversity Initiative

Posted by Valerie Fulton on February 25, 2015

A while back, World Trust received an email from Madeleine Trichel, a volunteer facilitator working with theprison Horizon Prison Initiative at the Marion Correctional Institute. She wanted to let us know that she was using our diversity film, Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible, to get prisoners in the program talking about white privilege, unconscious bias, and their experience with systemic racism.

We're grateful that Trichel was happy to speak with World Trust further about this ongoing diversity initiative. Here's what we learned from our interview with her.

Realizing the Need for Conversation

The work Horizon does at the Marion Correctional Institute is on a small scale; just 48 prisoners out of the total population are enrolled in the program. In order to let them focus on the extensive rehabilitative work that the program entails, they are housed together in "family" groups of six to eight inmates -- men of different races, criminal backgrounds, and faiths. Each group is overseen by an "Encourager," an inmate who already graduated from the Horizon program and lives alongside the men to resolve conflicts and provide support.

These Encouragers approached Trichel asking for a program that addressed systemic racism, one that would help to diffuse racial tension rather than put prisoners on the defensive. Because she already had decades experience as a peace trainer, Trichel agreed to facilitate the diversity workshops.

The need to understand systemic racism is part of Horizon's larger objective to foster respect for diversity in all forms. Understanding how society has institutionalized racism helps inmates to gain perspective on their own experience of white privilege and racism and gives them a foundation for mutual understanding.

Thus far, Horizon has conducted two sessions. The participants have expressed unanimous support for continuing with the diversity workshops and for making them a required part of the Horizon program. Their one big complaint is that there was not enough time to talk!

Using Mirrors of Privilege to Effect Change

Trichel showed the last two clips of Mirrors of Privilege. She used the anecdotes from the film in conjunction with Peggy McIntosh's work on white privilege to spur conversation among the participants.

Many of the participants come from mixed race families. "They could really relate to "The Life I Would Lead," which told the story about the guy with the black stepfather, whose family fell apart because of racism," Trichel says.

She also noted that the video clips were the catalyst for discussion about the different way that whites react to lighter and darker skinned black men. "They were able to talk about the disproportionate amount of fear whites have of dark-skinned black men and relate that to white privilege and institutionalized racism."

"They absolutely loved the film," Trichel says, because it gave the black inmates a broader perspective to things they had already observed. For white participants, it was a welcome alternative to hostile racial conflict. "White guys are used getting yelled at and blamed," she explains. "The film promotes thoughtful conversation instead."

Advice for Undertaking a Diversity Initiative in a Prison Setting

"Tread carefully, " Trichel says. She notes that the men in Horizon have already gone through a rigorous application process; participants who are accepted into the program are highly motivated to make positive changes in their lives.

"We have discussed doing this type of program for the general prison population," she says. But she acknowledges that it would be far more difficult, given the prevalence of racially-identified gangs and the natural inclination of inmates to keep their experiences to themselves.

"You also need the full cooperation of the warden and administration," she adds, "to make an initiative like this one successful."

More About the Horizon Prison Initiative

The Horizon Prison Initiative is a multi-faith organization that sponsors programs in three Ohio correctional institutes -- Marion, London, and Chillicothe. Their mission is "to transform prisoners who transform prisons and communities."

The one-year-long program is open to any prison inmate regardless of his criminal sentence. It has a combination of mandatory and elective programs, including community building, spiritual awakening, and character reformation. Inmates hold meetings daily with their prison "family" to discuss topics agreed on by the group and hone non-reactive communication skills.

In order to help members forge a connection to the outside world, Horizon also has a mentorship program called "Outside Brothers" that lets participants receive weekly visits from someone in the community.

The program works. The recidivism rate for graduates is just 10 percent, far lower the 35 percent rate of re-offenders in the general prison system. And it is inexpensive -- just $1600 puts one inmate through an entire year of the program. In spite of that, the program receives little funding other than donations and relies heavily on volunteer support at all levels.  At World Trust it occurs to us that the funding challenge that Horizon faces is yet another outcome of the system of inequity.  In the system of inequity, our internal biases such as our fear and disregard for the incarcerated play out in external ways, in this case the lack of funding.

World Trust believes that film and facilitated conversation can be powerful catalysts for change. To learn how your institution can schedule a screening of one of our diversity films please contact us.  Our videos help people learn about the system of inequity. To learn more, click below:

Download pdf of System of Inequity


Topics: Film: Mirrors of Privilege, Talk about Race, Diversity Workshop, Diversity Initiative, Faith