Doing Hard Time

HIPP (Help Increase the Peace Project) is a conflict resolution program adapted for teens from the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) and developed by American Friends Service Committee. Doing HIPP with teenaged boys incarcerated in county jail who are certified as adults, and waiting for sentencing, is hard. This is not because it is difficult to get past the boys’ hard exteriors—HIPP does a great job of that. It is difficult because HIPP provides healthy glimpses of the boys’ soft interiors. One day during a break I came back to find these phrases written on the board: "I’m just a kid . . . I don’t deserve jail . . . I hate jail . . . I want my mommy."

In the last two years I provided HIPP training at the invitation of the Philadelphia public school program located in the House of Corrections. The groups were classes of eight to twelve boys who are otherwise scheduled for academic courses. Special arrangements with the principal were made so that the boys got academic credit and Basic HIPP workshop certificates for their participation in 20 hours of training.

While I have had ten years of experience working with inmates in AVP and three years working with corrections officers, I find these teens to be the most challenging and in some ways the most rewarding. My major challenge is that of language. As a college-educated, white, middle-class woman, I speak a dialect that is distinctly different from theirs. They use vocabulary that Webster has yet to define, right on the cutting edge of hip-hop culture, marked by rap music and low-slung jeans. They use expressions like "don’t play me" (don’t tease or lie to me) and "you’re prehype" (one step away from acting out in anger). They care less for a linear than a circular style of communication, marked by layers of subjects and multiple simultaneous conversations. When I’m not confused, I relish the chance to participate in their highly complex culture.

And, indeed, HIPP allows me to participate! Community building exercises give me entry into their world. I’ve learned about juvenile jail experiences that range from getting rid of hot guns on the street to smoking weed on the block. I’ve learned that most come from broken homes and poor neighborhoods. Most have fallen behind, or out of school. Many are acutely aware of being black or Puerto Rican and harbor anger about the injustice of whites more often getting money for bail or getting lighter sentences. Some have fathered children, and most like to talk about sex. Some badger others at every opportunity to get attention and secure a higher status in the hierarchy.

James Garbarino, a psychologist and youth violence expert, tells a story of how his teenage son had no fear of going out in their high-crime neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. While Garbarino urged caution, his son thought himself immune, pointing out that the victims of violence were (according to a newspaper account of the last year) all nonwhite.

In his book, No Place to Be a Child: Growing Up in a War Zone, Garbarino names at least eight risk factors and argues that the presence of four or more of them almost guarantees criminal activity. The juvenile population in Philadelphia prisons typically includes boys whose lives are marked by several of Garbarino’s factors: they have been poor, abused or neglected, are of color, and are from violent neighborhoods.

Each HIPP group seems to need time for self-reflection. Once we have established what the boys have in common (and then what we, including me and the corrections staff, have in common), we can get more detailed. I like to use a body map (a simple outline of a person) to begin to raise self-awareness. Participants list life experiences outside of the figure and connect them to corresponding emotions inside the figure. In a variation I ask them to describe how they are today on the exterior of the map and to describe their potential on the inside of the map. We often remark upon the transferability of skills from the work of selling drugs to that of legal trades.

By and large, groups frequently break ground rules. This requires patience and persistence on my part. Often someone is disrespectful to another, and the group encourages an even more disrespectful retort, as this type of serious "prehype" bantering is accepted and encouraged in the culture. In several cases we’ve been able to transform the prehype into opportunities to successfully mediate conflict.

Attention spans are short. Deception and cheating seem to be expected and accepted. Self-esteem is badly lacking. Thus, even HIPP Lifts (cooperative games designed to energize and build community) can be difficult. Tinker Toy construction (a team-building exercise) falls apart because members quickly lose interest in the small group project and build their own. Participants who are asked to close their eyes in games can be expected to cheat by peeking. Pattern balls (a cooperative game that requires team-building to be played successfully) falls apart because too many pay attention to and badger the one who is dropping balls. "It’s a What?" (a game requiring concentration) ends prematurely because the group gives up. In all cases I work extra hard to establish an atmosphere where it is safe to make mistakes, and where one can be both manly and have fun.

Officials made it possible to do a three-day, intensive, Advanced HIPP/AVP (I introduced the acronym "AVP" for the benefit of those who would be sentenced to another facility where we have AVP volunteers) workshop on the juvenile block between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Thirteen graduates of Basic HIPP volunteered and earned certificates (in addition to a marvelous corrections officer, who seems to serve as mentor and father figure). In "Speak Out," an exercise designed for voicing concerns about discrimination and bias, we heard some very deep sharing about being black, male, and young. Role-plays produced great enthusiasm and some fine props and plots.

Transforming Power is a concept central to HIPP and AVP. It is the belief that there is a power available to those who welcome it. It is a power that changes negative to positive, transforming a potentially violent outcome to a nonviolent one. Most juvenile inmates are open to the idea of Transforming Power, welcoming alternatives. They subscribe to the TP guide that says, "Be willing to suffer for justice."

With all groups I let them know that I recognize there is injustice in society and that it will continue to affect their lives. I am glad to be able to testify that AFSC and other progressives are working to change this sad fact. We practice "I messages" that help them to stand up for what they believe to be fair and right. I testify to the effectiveness and spiritually sound philosophy of civil disobedience and passive resistance as practiced by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Once, after a vigorous discussion of unfair use of force by corrections staff, our entire group demonstrated with a rhythmic rap, repeating "You’ve gotta be willing to suffer for justice," rising in volume and intensity until staff came to quiet us.

Even so, a few stars of my groups have managed to make their way into the hole afterwards. I have no illusions about the effectiveness of this work. I know that lives are transformed on a divine schedule unavailable to me. I do, however, provide some practical aids for spiritual development. I believe we all have the power to make choices and generally lead to positive or negative outcomes. When we get into a conflict we have the choice to "walk it out, talk it out, or fight it out." We are responsible for our choices. It is for all of us to grow spiritually so that we might make the best possible choices.

In light of the Columbine High School shootings, Garbarino tells the story of how his teenage daughter came home from her high school in a new neighborhood, a relatively affluent section of Ithaca, New York, saying, "I wonder when it (Columbine) is going to happen to us!" Garbarino has helped to define a newly identified category of at-risk youth, some who seem at first glance to have above-average capacity to make good choices in life. He calls this risk factor "fragility," an emotional state stemming from a kind of fierce protection from parents that leaves a child vulnerable in the harsh world of his or her peers. This need not be coupled with poverty and race or any other factors to produce violent behavior.

Both the classic and newly identified groups of at-risk youth experience what Garbarino terms a kind of spiritual disconnectedness. They do not feel loved or valued, but instead, rejected and isolated. He cannot say what we should do to restore them. With HIPP we can make an attempt.

Often during a HIPP sharing about power or choices, I tell the story (and often translate it into Muslim terms) of the nun who claimed she was conversing with Jesus. A priest wanted to test her and requested that she ask Jesus what the priest’s worst sin was before entering the priesthood. The nun returned and reported she had talked to Jesus about this and that Jesus had simply said, "I’ve forgotten." I often take a large monetary bill, hold it up and ask who wants it. I crumble it and do that again. Finally, I step on it with dirty shoes and ask again. All hands go up every time. "You are just as valuable and desirable as this money," I say. "And don’t you forget that, whether you go home or upstate." I remind some that "there is life after life."

The enlightenment that comes with every session of HIPP shines bright for me in places where violence has taken a heavy toll. Still, it is hard to maintain and provide hope to youth who are greatly at risk of spending most of their lives in prison. It is not enough for them that we should just conduct HIPP, or even emphasize social justice in HIPP. We’ve got to demonstrate a willingness to transform ourselves in order to give our children a fair chance. We’ve got to take the tenets of Transforming Power very seriously, always questioning whether our own actions or lifestyle make us complicit in a violent society. And ultimately, in the immortal words of my favorite rappers, "We’ve gotta be willing to suffer for justice!"

Kaki Sjogren

Kaki Sjogren is a social activist living in a disadvantaged neighborhood and bringing AVP/HIPP to the needy there. She's a member of Southampton (Pa.) Meeting.