APLP leadership challenge: Treating Prison as a Place of Healing

Life behind bars can be a never-ending struggle to survive anger and violence, or a place where all hopes are gone. However, it could also be a place where hearts are healed and the past becomes a bridge to the future.

EWC leadership students visit the women's prison on O'ahu

EWC leadership students visit the women’s prison on O’ahu

For Toni Bissen, the Executive Director of Hawai‘i’s Pū‘ā Foundation, healing takes priority when working with women behind bars at O‘ahu’s Women’s Community Correctional Facility (WCCC). Seeing inmates’ misconduct as a result of their past traumas such as sex abuse or domestic violence, community leaders are helping WCCC residents share their stories, learn from the past, forgive themselves and move on.

In an effort to deepen their understanding of how prison can become a place of healing, nine fellows from the Asia Pacific Leadership Program (APLP) recently visited and talked with residents of the Women’s Community Correctional Center (WCCC) alongside Toni from the Pū‘ā Foundation. Their goal was to learn how leaders are helping WCCC women reconcile traumatic pasts with the present and facilitate healing in the community.

The WCCC women, the APLP group discovered, have much to heal from. Over 75% have a history of trauma, over 30% are on medication for psychiatric disorders, and over half are mothers. However, all were open to share their life stories and were just as confident presenting as anyone of the APLP fellows.

For APLP Fellow Pearl Angeli Pacada, an entrepreneur from the Philippines, the case study was also about being a forgiving leader.

“For the prison to be considered as a healing place by the inmates defines another level of understanding human nature,” according to Pearl. “I now understand the Pū‘ā Foundation’s mission to give the offenders a second chance through forgiveness, which will allow them to become productive citizens after their term.”

The strategy of the Pū‘ā Foundation and the WCCC, recently recognized as a model for the nation by The New York Times, emerged from the adaptive challenge facing Warden Mark Kawika Patterson. With increasing need to rebuild WCCC women’s spirits to prevent recidivism, but also cuts to the prison budget, Patterson adapted to the challenge by turning to the larger community for help. The Pū‘ā Foundation answered the call.

“Certainly, empathy itself is good, but what the Pū‘ā Foundation does goes far beyond that. It’s a long-term commitment,” observed APLP Fellow Thao Nguyen, an educator from Vietnam.

For APLP Fellow Ang Zhao, a journalist and environmentalist from mainland China, the open-mindedness and cooperativeness of WCCC leadership made it possible for the Pū‘ā Foundation to mobilize various social resources to provide series of services for the inmates. “It gave me an education that leadership can be applied in any small corner of big society,” Ang said.

One of the most important questions for these compassionate leaders to answer might be how they measure their success. As the visiting cohort of APLP discovered, every positive response from the inmates, no matter how small it is, is counted as success and keeps them motivated to carry on what they are doing.

APLP fellow Hoa Thi Minh Pham, a Buddhist nun and social counselor from Vietnam, recognized that there is still a long journey for the women to be successful in the program. “However, it is important that now they are more prepared and more confident that they can change, forgive thyself and move forward,” she said.

For Kyungmin Jo, a high school teacher from South Korea, the women’s “excitement, nervousness, courage and hope to overcome their trauma reminded me of my students struggling for their own hardship in Korea. They helped me realize how powerful and meaningful education is.”

For further information about the APLP, a residential leadership learning program at the East-West Center in Honolulu with fellows from approximately 20 countries and a broad range of professional and academic backgrounds, visit EastWestCenter.org/aplp.

For further information about programs such as those with the WCCC and issues related to female incarceration, read the New York Times article “Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work.”