Nonprofit Leader Tries to Bring Compassion to the Prison System

by Benji Hardy, 2015

There is a growing consensus across much of the political spectrum that nonviolent offenders need to be diverted from prison, or at least serve shorter sentences. Significantly fewer politicians and activists are agitating on behalf of the thousands of others who are serving time for violent offenses.

That's a problem, Morgan Holladay says. "We need to change discourse. We need to work on rehabilitating and empowering all people in prison." As executive director of Compassion Works for All, she is confronting that disparity with healing, hope and compassion as her tools.

CWFA has roots stretching back more than two decades, when Little Rock Buddhist and psychotherapist Anna Cox heeded a call from the Dalai Lama challenging his Western students to do more outreach in U.S. prisons. After Cox began mentoring prisoners, she decided to start Dharma Friends, a monthly newsletter filled with Buddhist teachings. Ultimately that led to the formation of Compassion Works for All as a nonprofit to more broadly help prisoners find spiritual healing.

Holladay, a Buddhist who interned with CWFA while she was obtaining her master's degree in social work at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, is following the path Cox has set. She mentors prisoners one on one, teaches a compassionate communication class based on the teachings of Marshall Rosenberg at the Tucker Unit and does re-entry counseling.

"We talk through their [post-release] plans. We talk through the emotional aspects of going home. Sometimes we role-play things like how to talk to your kids about where you've been. We talk about resources and what's available. A lot of them don't know about the Affordable Care Act, or where the nearest community health clinic is."

Meanwhile, Holladay is also working to expand CWFA's reach by turning it into something of a training institute. One program she hopes to soon train others in is called Letters from the Inside. It's a 20-session group workbook for at-risk kids filled with letters from adult inmates.

"Kids go around the room and read the letters. Then we talk about some of the core themes. Some things that might come up: 'This guy is using drugs because he was beaten as a child by his father. So he starts using drugs. Starts hanging out with a lot of people who're using drugs. Then he starts stealing so he can buy drugs, and then he ends up in prison.' Then we ask, 'What are some other ways that he could have coped with this abuse?' And we come up with strategies." What often comes out in discussions is that the kids have experienced similar abuse, Holladay said.

Also on her wish list: working with the Arkansas Department of Correction and the Arkansas Community Correction on sensitivity training.

"If someone who is working directly with inmates thinks they're subhuman, then nothing is going to change." LM