TEDx Talk: Transcript, slides, extended notes, and source material


Last Saturday I had the great honor of giving my first TED talk to TEDxCU!  I thought you might be interested in hearing - what is this process like?  I have given a good number of talks before to audiences, particularly at my last job as program coordinator of Jail Education and Transitions program.   But TED talks are sort of a different class.  For one thing, being filmed and knowing the exposure you're going to achieve.  You have one shot to present your idea worth spreading - and that's that.  So what I didn't realize is that one 15 minute talk is worth about 100 hours of preparation.  When I first heard this number it seemed a little steep - but the truth is - after various stages of editing, speech coaching (highly recommended), presenting it to others to get feedback, recording yourself, narcissistic commitment to listening over and over, editing, re-recording, listening, practicing...  then you finally have a polished talk!  And all of that can get thrown off that moment you step on stage and there is a blinding spotlight in your eyes, your slides are off somehow, and the pressure alters your brain.  On any given 15 minute talk that comes across as polished and perfect - I think it's insightful that the best speeches that seem off the cuff and personal were practiced over and over (and over) again to get to that point.     

After going through that process myself - I feel pretty good about how it turned out.  But there are a few lingering regrets... TED talks are meant to be concise and anything that doesn't follow the throughline of intent needed to be cut.   This makes for a good talk but the reality that you can't say everything that you want to say is difficult.  I would have loved to have talked about the actual programming that takes place in a jail and the jail staff that are foundational to the fact that any of this exists.  These ideas and this model certainly don't belong to me - it's built on the labor that countless other courageous people have done, including (but not limited to): deputies, sergeants, commanders, chiefs, sheriffs, lawyers, district attornies, judges, volunteers, and people throughout county governments.    I would have liked to have talked about the program I ran for 5 years, the immense cooperation that made that happen, but to be honest - these vital bits would have gotten in the way of driving home the point.  There is a saying in writing that you have to be able to kill your babies... well I had to kill a lot of babies in order for this final version to be able to make the time cut and keep people engaged.

Last but not least - a speech manuscript needs to be written to be spoken rather than read.  I never realized just how different these intents are.  I have posted it here both to allow you to grab those little details you might have missed but it may seem a little funny for someone else to read.  I would recommend reading it like your reading a script from a play - imagine me (or some other character speaking it) - it will help your brain digest it.  At the of the manuscript, I list my references and links to further reading.  I highly recommend the deeper dive.  There is a lot of fascinating material out there.   Without further ado - enjoy!

The Value of Compassion to an Incarcerated Population

Version 7.0

Presented by James “Jahmaya” Kessler, MA on April 21st, 2018 to CU's Glen Miller Ballroom.


The Value of Compassion to an Incarcerated Population

Time: 14:30


When you walk into a jail for the first time, I don’t care who you are – it’s a rather tense experience.  On my first day - I had the advantage of being on the civilian side, trained as mindfulness based counselor and filled to the brim with altruistic intentions about the transformative work I was about to do.  As someone trained in stress reduction, I was a bit shocked by the physical tension I felt, the sluggishness of my thoughts, the difficulty speaking, and I’m embarrassed to confess - an inner battle not to stare at my future clients.  Because despite all those positive thoughts - my nervous system called my bluff - I was scared that first day.  (beat)  

Jails and prisons are extremely challenging environments no matter what side of the bars your on.  A vital step in understanding how all human beings react to situations like this is to give you a quick crash course in how trauma impacts the human brain:



If a stressor is overwhelming to the point that our “safety” is breached, trauma is occurring.  Consider abuse of a child. (beat) Most people know that physical violence to a child is traumatic, but many don’t know that even the threat of violence - the imagined breach of our safety can be traumatic.


When trauma occurs our normal human thinking is hijacked and we react automatically with our three go to survival mechanisms: “fight”, “flight,” or “freeze.” We will instinctually fight our way out, run like hell, or remain frozen and numb.


This catalyzes our brain to change rapidly.  Our brain is programmed to learn all it can when trauma is present - so it becomes more malleable and adaptable in direct response to the experience.


We become sensitized by that particular danger and henceforth our three survival mechanisms will be triggered by any “similar” stimuli.  Let’s say someone has had a lifetime of abuse where their power felt taken away from them… How would you imagine that person might be sensitized and in turn triggered by spending significant time in a space like this: 

Cell 1.png

For the last 5 years - this is where my work begins.  

As a disclaimer in regards to my career choice…. What you should know about me is that I have a bit of a hero complex -  I always had a calling to work in the hardest of places, helping the people who are the hardest to save… And if you really knew me - you’d know that on any given day of my childhood - I was dressed like this:  


But what I can own is that this heroic fantasy didn’t actually serve me in the beginning.  Some part of me still thought jail is where criminals go (beat) and criminals are the “bad guys.” (beat)

But after years working inside of a jail and witnessing so many desperate souls getting vulnerable with me, I stopped seeing bad people.  All I see now is a lot of hurt people. People who are struggling to get better within the incarceration system as it exists today. Because incarceration is traumatic, (beat) trauma makes people worse,(beat) and healing trauma requires compassion.

Before I go on, I want to acknowledge that this subject in general and my stance on it pushes sensitive boundaries for people.  If you are a victim of any crime - know that I am not asking you to forgive or throwing away accountability to offenders.  If you are working within the system - I’m not here to argue against what hard work those jobs are and how much respect you deserve. 

And to everyone here - just take a moment and notice what happens to you when you see this picture:

Cell 2.png


Notice what you feel inside when I pair the words “compassion” and “inmate.”   (beat)  Is there any tightness or tension? (beat) Whatever you feel as I speak, I ask that you please just notice and honor these feelings.  

Imagine yourself …. or a loved one sitting in this small space….

For many, this small confined space, is excruciating.  And sometimes when facilities are too full - a 6x8 space like this may have a bunk bed and a bed on the ground to accommodate 3 people.  Imagine trying to get used to the overwhelming stress of being trapped, your heart pounding, your body shaking, your mind racing.

You’ve entered a Para-militaristic environment….

Paramilitaristic Environment.png

There is a rule in regards to every aspect of life.  There are bright lights, loud noises, shouting, there is often a tension in the air, a feeling that violence could break out, and sometimes it does – and even if it’s skillfully broken up in under 30 seconds – you’d be surprised how bloody and brutal 30 seconds can be.  Most of your choices are out of your control. If you try to fight it, you will swiftly have even more freedom taken from you.

Smock held down.png

I know from experience that guards and deputies are often well-intentioned and friendly - but when all of these primal instincts are being triggered - there is often a lot of thick tension between the jailers and the jailed.  Whether you’re living in this kind of environment for a period of days, months, or years – knowing now what trauma actually is and how it occurs – I think we can agree that this is traumatizing. 

And you may be surprised to hear that:

75% of the offenders in jail and prison are there for non-violent offenses.  

1 in 4 nonviolent.png

And a majority of people incarcerated have already experienced physical, emotional, or sexual trauma before they came to jail or prison.

And remember how trauma creates sensitization?  Consider how someone sensitizes and gets triggered when their sense of safety is breached again and again.  Their brains are very quickly altered quite considerably. Multiple studies suggest that someone incarcerated for 2 years is 50% more likely to commit a violent act, to have mental health disorder, and to have a substance abuse problem.   

50% more likely.png

And now for perhaps the most important fact you may not have considered: NEARLY ALL of these people have a release date.  

95% released.png

Of the estimated 2,220,300 individuals incarcerated in the US - about 95% of them are eligible to walk out those doors someday.

Who do you want to walk out of those doors?  (beat)

Are all these people walking free someday going to be more violent maladapted people?…..   Or could there be a different way of walking out those doors?...

Consider that there are some other options that people in the world has been exploring…..

Halden Prison.jpg

This cell is from Halden Prison, Norway’s Maximum Security facility.  

This particular prison has programing, social services, healthy food, and the deputies are trained to treat people politely.  People passing through this facility are treated like clients, and thus it’s geared toward service rather than punishment. The idea behind this model is that if you reduce the traumatic elements, people are less triggered, and this makes for a safer and more successful rehabilitation.

San Diego 1.jpg

The US has just begun to experiment with this model as well… This is a relatively new women’s facility built in San Diego.  The architects wanted an environment that was pleasing to the eye. They wanted it to be spacious, to have lots of natural light.  

San Diego 2.jpg

They wanted there to art on the walls (particularly of outside environments).  It was designed as a nice space for kids to come and visit their parents.

Now some of you might be thinking “If we put someone in something like this – why would they want to leave?”  I have one simple argument to that – Imagine the nicest hotel room in the world.  Now go into that beautiful bathroom and lock the door.  Don’t leave for 6 months. Or 2 years. Or 20 years. Humans really don’t like to be locked up and have their control taken away.  

Scandinavian countries were the first in the world to decide to adopt a compassionate incarceration model going on 50 years ago.  The aftermath: Their recidivism rate is much lower than the United States': Norway’s is as low as 20%. In the United States: 76.6% are rearrested within their first 5 years.  

The estimated cost of incarceration in the US is cited as $80 billion dollars.  But that’s just the cost of running those facilities and keeping people in cells….  A recent study at Washington University in St. Louis actually took the time to painstakingly estimate all the other costs that fall on families, children, and communities to be closer to 1 trillion dollars.  No matter where it falls on that spectrum - I feel rather secure saying this is a steep cost for something that fails to correct 76.6% of the people who go through it.  If the Department of Corrections wants to own the word “Correction” - I think it’s time to give this more thought.

As an alternative to much of what we’ve been talking about - the justice system doesn’t always require a jail or prison.  Many county governments are starting to divert non-violent offenders before they go to jail to various court-supervised therapeutic and social service programs.  More and more are choosing this option because they save time, they have much higher success rates than locking people up, and the financial savings is the best part...

For the cost building of one prison, you can build about 30 community-based programs.  And for each person we incarcerate, we could be sending 4 people through nearly any kind of therapeutic treatment.

Finacial saving of alternative sentencing.png

As a professional counselor who works on the fringe of what’s acceptable to the mainstream, at this point the problem isn’t convincing county governments whether this is a good idea. The biggest obstacle in getting these types of programs is that it tends to be rather unpopular with the general public.  

I perceive that we have a shared goal: We all want Safe Communities and to live in a Safe World.  But our ingrained core beliefs about how people should be punished can get in the way of hearing the facts.  When we talk about building one of these programs near their neighborhood - people get pretty passionate about it.   

Not in my Neighborhood.png

Honestly - I understand... As someone with two young kids - when I consider anything I imagine could be putting their safety in jeopardy my rational mind begins to shut right down.  But I have had some time to think about the long-term investment and challenge my imagined sense of danger here.  By having something like this in a community - it’s serving people who are already a part of it or who will be soon.  The only difference is that now they have ways to actually heal.

Consider the impact of changing how we approach this problem…

Compassionate incarceration has the potential to offer all of us safer communities because inevitably there are more nourished and whole human beings within them.  It has the potential to free up a billion or perhaps a trillion dollars for our country to invest in healing rather than harm. It offers the possibility of a correctional system where people arrested have the opportunity to become physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually healthier.  Imagine a system where people check in and it’s not assumed they’ll be coming back. (beat).  

Earth hands.png


How does the whole world change when the revolving doors of incarceration begin to slow to a halt?  (beat).

It what you want is a safer community, a safer country, and a safer planet, it requires extending compassion to the people we might think deserve otherwise.

The public has the power to decide who walks out those doors.  Who do we want it to be?



Cost of incarceration and facilities:






Incarceration crisis and comparisons to European Model:







Trauma and Incarceration:



An interesting snapshot of non-violent offenders exiting prison: https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/pnoesp.pdf 

This is an excellent complimentary TED talk: 

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Deanna Van Buren : https://youtu.be/m6X1i8khmt8   

I saw this a couple weeks before my big day and I was so happy to see that others in the world had a similar vision and that there cause was getting attention.  I credit her to giving me the idea of representing my prison to program slide.  I did the same math and got a slightly lower number than her.  What a world without prisons could look like | Deanna Van Buren : https://youtu.be/m6X1i8khmt8 

Fleet Maul, someone else you should really get to know: https://fleetmaull.com/integral-transformative-


A quote I really wanted to use but didn't have time:  “Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is the ancient and eternal law.”  – Dhammapada

The Original Trauma "crash" course and guided walkthrough was much too long - but it was still sad to cut it down so much.  Here is the longer version:


If a stressor is overwhelming to the point that our “safety” is in question, trauma occurs.  Consider abuse to a child. (beat) Most people know that physical violence to a child is traumatic, but even the threat of violence, or the imagined or perceived breach of safety is traumatic.  Given that we are highly social animals consider also that sudden loss of loved ones is also a breach of safety - known as attachment trauma.  


When trauma occurs we react automatically with our three go to survival mechanisms: “fight”, “flight,” or “freeze.” These ancient responses are the things that keep us alive.  Fight is the odd part of us that will suddenly rise up courageous and stand up to a predator. If that’s not possible, flight gives us the ability to run like hell like we never have before.  And if neither of these options are available, freeze produces a numbing response to keep us from the pain of whatever we might have to face. 


This catalyzes our brain to change rapidly.  Our brain is programmed to learn all it can when trauma is present - so it becomes more malleable and adaptable in direct response to the experience.  


An essential aspect of that programming is that we have become sensitized to the danger.  What this means is that henceforth our survival instincts will trigger much quicker when we react to any “similar” stimuli.  A veteran of war is, over time, likely to be traumatized by the sound of gunfire. Unfortunately, gunfire gets translated to loud sounds, and the sound of fireworks or the backfire of a car may bring someone internally back to a war zone .  Our capacity to learn from life-threatening incidents by becoming sensitized and triggered to react quickly to similar threats- has been a great asset to the long-term survival of our species. But it’s also one of the difficult symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. (click next slide)

I want to paint a picture of how trauma occurs within incarceration…. Please imagine yourself with these lights behind your car for a moment…

police car.jpg

Can you feel something arise with this picture?  Or how about this sound: (QUICK SOUND OF SIREN)

This moment is usually quite vulnerable for most people.  Anytime I’ve been in this spot I’ve felt my heart beating faster… I’ve felt my senses get alert and my thoughts sluggish.  Whoever you are - this is a moment where a lot of your power has been taken away. The breach of safety is that you’re trapped and can’t run,  and it might cost money you don’t have. Oftentimes it’s a really friendly well intentioned person on the other side of that window, but those primal instincts are hard to shake… like your shaking hands as you hand over license and registration.  

Most of us get out of this scenario within the next 15 minutes… but imagine this scenario escalated now.  Put yourself in the shoes of someone who has done something that is necessary for an arrest…. If it seems out of place to imagine yourself – imagine a loved one.  Imagine that old friend of yours, your sibling, or your child…

Imagine sitting cuffed in the back of that police car.  As the cuffs dig into your wrists, your thoughts are racing about how your life is all up in the air.  When will I go back home? When can I go back to work? What did I need to do today? This week? This month?  You’re on a path that is out of your control. If you try to fight it, you will swiftly have even more freedom taken from you.  

Now you get dropped off at jail booking where someone takes all of your possessions and eventually the clothes on your back.  Your picture is taken, your given a bracelet you will be wearing as your only identification, and you’re told to wait up to 12 hours..  

Now I want you to imagine that moment when you’re walking down terrifying hallway like this.  (beat)


And you’re brought to something like this:

Although this is a real LA cell - I thought it was a little too dingy and many in the system would argue this as being a bad representation of what many cells look like.

Although this is a real LA cell - I thought it was a little too dingy and many in the system would argue this as being a bad representation of what many cells look like.

CLICK (play the actual sound of door shutting), the door gets shut.  For many, this small confined space is excruciating. And sometimes when facilities are too full - a 6x8 space like this may have a bunk bed and a bed on the ground to accommodate 3 people.... 

Boulder County Jail

Boulder County Jail

The script carries on from here as it did in the manuscript.

A section that followed my hero complex portion:

Over the course of my life my subconscious was filled with the accumulated effects of comic books, action movies, crime dramas - and I held a core belief in the dichotomy of good versus evil. Some part of me still thought jail is where criminals go (beat) and criminals are the “bad guys.” (beat)

But all it took to flip all of that on its head was sitting down that first day and doing some group counseling work… Within no time at all - I remember being shocked as someone broke into crying during their check-in. The group as a whole was pushing themselves to bare their souls to the strangers there to help them because they were desperate for help. And as their witness, I found myself tearing up at
people’s stories, feeling overwhelmed by empathy and surprised by how privileged I felt to be spending some time with these human beings people rarely get to know. That was the day I began to empty the subconscious trash of all that programming garbage my mind had been filled with. And after years inside of a jail, hearing a lot of painful stories and witnessing gallons of tears, there
has been a metamorphosis from the man I was that day. (beat) Today, I’d like to share some of this perspective and why I believe there is immense value in offering humanity in the hardest places. Not just why it’s valuable for them, but more importantly,
I’d like you to know why this is of value to you.

A bit about children and families of incarcerated people:

In addition to the physical and emotional traumas to this person, consider all the people involved in this scenario (beat).  The families that are torn apart, (beat), the children that have no real idea of what happened to their mom or dad, the unknowns while in the midst of a court process that can take up to years.   What I want you to consider is that for every one incarcerated human being, there are innumerable innocent human beings from a wide variety of life situations and backgrounds impacted by this process.  They will inevitably also carry trauma by what happens to this person. All of these people are actually more likely to live in poverty and to get incarcerated later in life.

Slightly more thorough Scandinavian comparison:

Arne Wilson, psychologist and prison governor once said: “In the law, being sent to prison is nothing to do with putting you in a terrible prison to make you suffer. The punishment is that you lose your freedom. If we treat people like animals when they are in prison they are likely to behave like animals. Here we pay attention to you as human beings.”

Norway adopted a humanely centered restorative justice approach to their incarcerated population for the last 30 years.  Some things they do differently:

  • Maximum sentence of 21 years.

  • Cells are modest but aesthetically pleasing and have natural light.

  • Prison is a place to learn new skills and be rehabilitated.

  • Prisoners are treated like clients, as if they were there for a service (to rehabilitate).

Scandinavian countries were the first in the world to decide to adopt this model going on 50 years ago.  The aftermath: Their recidivism rate is much lower than the United States': Sweden is around 40% of their population ever being rearrested after serving a sentence, Norway is at a remarkable 20%, meanwhile, Finland and Denmark are in-between these.  Additionally, we should note that after being somewhat close to our numbers 50 years ago, their rate of violent crimes is about half of ours now and still going down steadily.  The result of this model over time is that all statistics point to countries that are safer and that imprison far fewer people than any other country.

In the united States: 76.6% of people released are rearrested in their first 5 years...