Self-Help Where it Can Really Help

In the overpopulated and sometimes silly field of self-help books, one of the most intelligent and socially significant new entries isn't likely to get reviews, hit the best-seller list, or even show up at your local bookstore. In fact, you'll be hard put to find a copy anywhere -- unless you land in prison. But for anyone doing serious time, this new paperback might prove to be a saving grace in punishing circumstances.Houses of Healing: A Prisoner's Guide to Inner Power and Freedom is the first self-help guide devoted entirely to prisoners, and is distributed free of charge by Boston writer Robin Casarjian, founder of Lionheart Press. Author of the successful trade book Forgiveness: A Bold Choice for a Peaceful Heart (Bantam), Casarjian is a counselor and educator who began working in prisons in 1988, helping prisoners develop greater emotional self-awareness and personal responsibility. Under the auspices of her National Emotional Literacy Project for Prisons, Casarjian has set a goal of distributing 65,000 copies of her new book, including a Spanish translation, to prison libraries nationwide.Houses of Healing is a simply written, pragmatic self-help guide that introduces prisoners to techniques for handling anger, resentment, and grief, as well as learning to forgive themselves and others and regain personal dignity. Replete with simple exercises, meditations, checklists for self-reflection, and prisoners' own accounts of personal change, Houses of Healing provides prisoners with a rare resource for psychological and spiritual self-healing.A rape victim who opposes capital punishment, Casarjian also advocates a complete reversal in prison objectives -- from the present emphasis on punishment to a focus on rehabilitation and education. Plain-spoken and well-informed, she's difficult to bait from the right or left. When I take the conservative tack and suggest that giving prisoners the opportunity to change is a hopelessly romantic (and liberal) ideal, she replies simply, "People change. And people in prison change. They are either going to change for the better, in terms of emotional healing, maturity, and personal responsibility, or they are going to become more wounded, more despairing, and more enraged in a way that fuels striking out against others in the future."Pointing out that over 90% of the nearly two million people incarcerated nationwide will someday get out, Casarjian adds that "the kind of experience people have in prison is going to determine their success or failure when they return to society. Real public safety can only be achieved if we're willing to give prisoners the opportunity to turn their lives around."Then I suggest that liberals might criticize her approach for trying to save individual trees in a poisoned forest. By encouraging prisoners to be self-reflective and penitent, isn't she ignoring the broader social problems that give rise to criminal behavior?"Ultimately there has to be change at every level," Casarjian replies. "Although there's no doubt that poverty, racism, and violence breed more of the same, there are still many individuals who rise above their circumstances to become caring and contributing members of society. We cannot let prisoners languish psychologically until we 'fix' society. Regardless of what's going on outside, ex-offenders are not likely to succeed after they leave prison unless they've done some personal work on healing and forgiveness."But of course emotional healing is not the whole answer," Casarjian continues. "Prisoners need education and meaningful employment training opportunities, and the rest of us need prisoners to have these things too. Why? Because the recidivism rate for prisoners who get a college education is about five percent, compared to forty-plus percent for the general prison population."That's the main reason Casarjian would like to see mandatory education programs in prisons -- as well as mandatory counseling. "I think it's outrageous that batterers or rapists can be released in six months, or five years, without ever having been required to do penance," she says forcefully. "I believe release should be contingent on participation in counseling groups and individual treatment. Just 'doing your time' is not adequate justification for getting out. That's like showing up for work, doing nothing, and still getting a paycheck."Recently the free distribution of Houses of Healing has faced financial difficulties in part because of an unanticipated expense: Increasing numbers of prisoners are requesting personal copies of the book so they can work with it longer than prison libraries will allow them to keep it. One prisoner wrote Casarjian that her book had been "an eye opener to me that I am not a bad person"; another pleaded for a personal copy because "I need it like I need air to survive, but most of all because I want to better myself for me and my family."Donations to support the book distribution project can be sent to the National Emotional Literacy Project, Box 194, Back Bay, Boston MA 02117.

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