There are certainly more than seven ways to increase compassion in any individual, but I would like to share the seven ways that I saw make the most positive impact on men who society had chosen to keep behind bars. I had the unique opportunity during my 30 years as a prison doctor to witness what increased compassion in inmates and feel that compassion benefits both the inmate and society.
1. The most important way is for the prison to model compassion so they can see it in action. Many inmates did not experience compassion in their lives and tend not to expect it in a prison. That is why if staff truly listens to their issues, can empathize and take action (when appropriate ) to alleviate their problem or suffering it makes a huge impact.
2. Psychologic help for inmates who have at their core abandonment issues and have coped by developing an identity that they are not good, and not worthy of love or compassion. An individual has to be compassionate toward themselves before they can really be compassionate to someone else.
3. A program which can teach and foster compassion in inmates like the program ‘puppies on parole.’ I had the opportunity to see that program’s affect on inmates who were taught to care and train pit bull mixes that the SPCA felt were unadoptable due to their aggressiveness. The dogs were given a second chance and with the 24 hour, 7 day care they were given by the inmates the dogs changed and responded by giving unconditional love to the inmates which not only changed the inmates, it decreased the violence on the prison yard. The ability to become compassionate has to start somewhere, and empathizing and caring for animals is one that I saw that was highly effective.
4. Educational programs and stories that expose the inmate to other perspectives and encourage them to value compassion and give them the tools to discuss and write about it. One of the programs that I saw in my prison that was effective in this area was a creative writing and poetry class taught by a compassionate professor who mentored and believed in his students’ worth. He understood that expressing fear, grief, self-loathing, depression and hopelessness put them in a vulnerable position in prison. He also understood that a safe way of expressing those types of emotions could be done through writing, sharing and caring. His students that took his classes and left prison did not come back.
5. Programs where an inmate can learn to be of service to another, besides themselves. In my prison I saw it in the hospice program, the True Grit program ( a structured senior living program where older men lived together and made crafts for the community and helped each other), the incarcerated vets chapter (the inmates in that group put together fund raisers where the proceeds went to help organizations in the community) the Toastmasters group (where they helped each other become better communicators) and religious groups ( when they focused on being of service to others who were not in their group).
6. And 7. There are two other items that I have seen the research on that increases compassion in inmates, though they did not occur in the prison system I worked for. One is restorative justice where an inmate interacts with the victim of the crime in a setting where both parties want to do it and it is mediated. The second is teaching meditation in prison.