Yesterday I had the great honor of delivering a talk to TEDxCU!  I will share the video as soon as it becomes available, but in the mean time - here is the manuscript for the talk.  At the end you will find references and links to learn more.  Enjoy!


The Value of Compassion to an Incarcerated Population

by James “Jahmaya” Kessler, MA

Presented to TEDxCU, Glen Miller Ballroom on Boulder's CU campus on April 21st, 2018

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 to 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 instinctively 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 for you when 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 (beat), to have mental health disorder (beat), and to have a substance abuse problem (beat).   

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…..

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

Halden Prison.jpg

This particular prison has programming, 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.

The US has just began to experiment with this model as well…

San Diego 1.jpg

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.

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.  

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.  

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 in 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 supervised 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 people's neighborhoods - people understandably passionate about it.   

Not in my Neighborhood.png

Believe me 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?


References and Links to Learn More:

Justice System:





https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/pnoesp.pdf. 70% non-violent.












“Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is the ancient and eternal law.” 
– Dhammapada

James KesslerComment