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  • Damon Azali-Rojas

About Our Work in Prisons

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

CHJL Co-Director Damon Azali-Rojas writes about bringing the Coaching for Healing, Justice, and Liberation approach to incarcerated men in Los Angeles county.

In January 2018, Amanda Berger and I co-founded Coaching for Healing and Non-Violence (CHNV). Almost two years later, we continue to teach men incarcerated in California State Prison, Los Angeles County at Lancaster the coaching strategies they can use inside and outside the prison walls. (This work has been paused during the time of COVID-19 but will be resumed when pandemic restrictions are lifted.)

One day last January, after one of our in-person sessions and near the end of our program, we go outside to take a picture of the group. We gather in rows; some men have their arms around each other; others touch shoulders in front of them– we all smile. A California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation photographer takes several pictures. The experience reminds me of taking pictures with my capoeira group when we commemorate a visit from an out-of-town teacher. In these moments, you want to capture connection, family, and the joy of welcoming someone to your home.

Pictures are hard to get inside of prison. That day, the photographer comes due to some magical behind-the-scenes organizing by the men. He tells Amanda and me to sit in chairs, and invites the men, one at a time, into the chairs across from us. For us as trainers, these pictures can help us paint a picture of our work in a brochure. But, during this impromptu photoshoot, we begin to realize the profound possibility these pictures represent. For these transformative, loving, gentle men, a picture with two trainers from an accredited institution could make the difference between getting out of prison or not.

These men are strong candidates for commutations. They have done the hard work on themselves to address systemic oppression, detoxify toxic masculinity, and sit with emptiness and pain. They take all that distress and turn it into light… a day-by-day, moment-by-moment process. The pictures taken today will go into the men’s “C file” or commutation file. These pictures could influence the very subjective nature of the Parole Board’s decisions and allow the men to get out with time served. Many of the men in the room have served over 20 years, some over 30. In the 45-60 seconds we sit with each man, they tell us how deeply grateful they feel that we continue to come back and share skills with them. They tell us of transformational conversations they have with wives, partners, children, other men on the yard—and the depth of their healing overflows as we talk.

Now, in language that they have never known before, they talk about the transformation of themselves, their relationships, and their communities. I am rarely in conversation with a man anywhere while maintaining unbroken eye contact: where we can present ourselves and our essence without fear of judgement.  Every man that sits in that chair across from me holds an unflinching, compassionate, and grateful gaze with me the whole time. Every one! I can only explain the feeling as one of divinity… of synchronicity… of alignment. The super charged energy of this space behind these walls surrounds the coach training and allows things to evolve in a fluid and exponential manner, unlike anything I experience on the outside.

The pictures we carry back with us tell stories of heartache, resiliency, love, connection, potential, and of the transformative healing that is possible even in the harshest of environments.

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