Typically, kindness doesn’t top the list of survival skills needed in a women’s prison.
But this week, inmates at a California facility who call themselves “the compassionistas”are teaming up to see who can perform the most acts of compassion, and competing with inmates in prisons around the world.
In previous years, as part of Compassion Games International, prison inmates at the California Institution for Women (CIW) tallied 4,500 acts of kindness that included sharing food, cleaning each others’ living spaces, and helping apply sunscreen before going outside. Even when temperatures climbed to 108 degrees in the Corona facility in 2013, the women avoided irritable exchanges and encouraged one another to stay hydrated.
“The Compassion Games allowed gang members, or those who need to maintain an image, to step outside of their ‘roles’ and be kind to others without ridicule,” one inmate said.
For this year’s games, four nonprofits inside CIW, which run dog training and sewing programs, have organized the activities for Compassion Games. One of them entails sewing and knitting on overdrive for 11 days to create as many items for charity as they can. They’ll create whimsical hats for critically and terminally ill children and pillows, blankets, and scarves for the homeless or hospitalized veterans.
With every stitch, the inmates are practicing making “living amends” and giving back to society, something they have expressed as being fundamentally important to them.
The organizing committee at CIW intends to wrap up this year’s Games with a “Day of Compassion,” inviting the entire 2,000 person prison population to take part in a day free of negative energy with a special evening meal prepared by the culinary department.
Reverend Shayna Lester, who played a key role in bringing Compassion Games to CIW, views the multi-year project as an enormous success, and something with the potential for widespread replication.
While it’s difficult to measure the long-term impact of the inmates involved in the Games, Lia Mandelbaum wrote in the Jewish Journal, “Having the women engage in the Compassion Games is what I believe to be one of the most powerful forms of restorative justice and healing.”
An inmate named Tikvah also told the journal, “Mostly, there has been a shift in awareness of how compassion and acts of kindness can change attitudes and our living environment.”
Playing in the Games, which run every year from Sept.11-21, has also offered them a vital lesson: though constrained by the walls of the prison, they still have a choice as to how they want to show up in the world.
Founder Jon Ramer created the games in September of 2012 as a way for people to band together to make the world a kinder place. Last year, 159 teams participated, including community groups, faith congregations, schools, families, government agencies and business teams in Australia, Botswana, Canada, Europe, India, Israel, Mexico and across the U.S.
For more information, or to register an individual or team, visit the Compassion Games website.
Story by Laura Zera.
Laura Zera is an author, consultant, speaker, and Licensed Facilitator of The Desire Map.
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