Compassion Behind Bars

>Rev. Shayna Lester Rev. Shayna Lester

Creating Compassionate Cities Behind Prison Walls
October 3, 2013

Congratulations to All Paths Divinity School faculty member Rev. Shayna Lester, Interfaith Minister, for the extraordinary initiative she sparked as prison chaplain at California Institution for Women at Corona.

by Lia Mandelbaum

From September 11-21, 2013 with the support of the administration at the California Institution for Women in Corona (CIW), the Compassion Games were able to take place behind the walls of their prison. I was very fortunate to get the chance to interview the person who spearheaded bringing the global project and movement to CIW, Reverend Shayna Lester, who is a Jewish woman and an interfaith minister who had received her ordination as a “reverend gabbai” from Jewish Renewal leader Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Although the games were spearheaded by Reverend Lester, and carried out with the support from CIW’s staff members, Lester proudly states that it was ultimately the women that made the profound event a reality.

I recently wrote an article on the Compassion Games: Survival of the Kindest. The games are a part of an annual global project that usually takes place outside the walls of a prison. The “Co-Opetition” (rather then competition) between cities calls for the players to perform acts of service and kindness to create a collective impact. This is done by creating a shared agenda, shared measurement system, mutually reinforcing activities, and continuous communication that builds lasting community.

Instead of the games being between different cities, they were implemented at CIW and held as a “Co-Opetition” between all 8 of their housing units. Throughout the games, the women from each unit performed acts of loving-kindness and recorded them, along with their name and unit and placed the piece of paper they had recorded into a box that was centrally located. At the end of the games, the tallies were counted and the women from the unit with the most acts of compassion were honored with certificates, got to have their own delicious chocolate cake, and their unit be the first to go to dinner for a week. Although these rewards may not sound like a big deal, they are huge luxuries for the inmates and are greatly appreciated.

The most measurable result of the Compassion Games is that there was absolutely no violence at CIW during the 10-day period.

A Calling to Work with Inmates

After many years of being a marriage and family therapist (MFT), Reverend Shayna Lester had been seeking a meaningful volunteer experience that would be “the right fit,” and realized that she had wanted to become a Jewish spiritual director on top of being a psychotherapist. This took place around 20 years ago. Since then, she has become the lead volunteer chaplain for the Jewish community at CIW. She has taught classes to inmates at CIW’s interfaith chapel on the Torah, has taught the spiritual practices of Mussar, explored the Ten Commandments from a psycho-spiritual perspective, and counseled them. Amongst many other incredible projects she has developed or gotten involved with, she also sits on the steering committee for the Southern California Parliament of World Religions.

Reverend Shayna Lester brought the movement to CIW with the conviction that the games would have an immensely positive impact. As her vision became a reality, the prison staff, volunteers and visitors bore witness to an incredibly transformative experience for the women.

Stories From the Inmates

A Jewish inmate of CIW named Tikvah had said, “The ten days of the Compassion Games have come to an end but the positive feelings will linger for months to come. The women of CIW recorded nearly 4,500 acts of kindness during the games. There were many compassionate acts of sharing food, listening without judgment, complimenting one another, hugs, and being available to help the elderly and disabled. A disabled woman reported she had multiple offers each day to take out her trash. Another “Compassionista” was observed standing at the front door of her housing unit applying sunscreen to women before they ventured out into the scorching sun. Mostly, there has been a shift in awareness of how compassion and acts of kindness can change attitudes and our living environment.”

Another inmate said, “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 woman went to every window on the unit and cleaned the cobwebs from the outside of the windows (60 windows). This is big for someone in prison. Inmates are conditioned to pay for everything including acts of kindness. The games helped to break that cycle. This was an excellent learning experience for many. “

She also mentioned how one of the slips submitted into the box said, “I didn’t give (name) the beat-down she deserved.” This woman had gotten into an argument with another inmate, but the Compassion Games helped to diffuse her impulse to use violence.


California Institution for Women at Corona California Institution for Women at Corona

Compassion Behind Bars

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