Communities of belonging: Compassion and circle with the formerly incarcerated

“Travel Poet” Kristie McLean beautifully describes how her work with incarcerated men led to the creation of a communities of belonging both in, and out of the correctional complex. By applying components of The Circle Way into prison-based nonviolent communication workshops, and in the weekly community circles for the formerly incarcerated residents of Restorative Home, the men in grew in compassion towards themselves and each other.

Communities of Belonging: Compassion and Circle with the Formerly Incarcerated

I remember my first visit to the Twin Rivers Unit of the Monroe Correctional Complex. It was 2014, and I felt anxious and slightly sweaty filling in the logbook, handing over necessary paperwork and my driver’s license to the officer behind the front desk, holding out my arms and legs for the metal detector and security screening, pushing though 3 series of heavy, buzzing, interlocking doors and across two courtyards of pavement and plants before finally arriving at the threshold of a classroom for our Non-Violent Communication workshop.

 To my surprise, all of the men, clad in khaki pants and white shirts, were already seated in a tight circle of chairs. It wasn’t a large room, and the density of maleness felt slightly overwhelming. A few had big muscles and facial tattoos and looked like the stereotype of a “felon” (a word I no longer use,) but for the most part they looked remarkably ordinary: people I could pass on the street or sit next to on a bus, or be friends with. A few said hello and shook my hand, the only physical contact allowed, and our afternoon unfolded.

That day I was a guest, and later would become a regular volunteer facilitator, later still would introduce the concepts of The Circle Way into the typical curriculum and workshop design. We began using a center fabric and talking pieces, check-ins and check-outs and a rotating Guardian in charge of the bell. We discussed agreements and safety and how to speak “I” statements to the center rather than hurling poisoned darts towards one another.

For not the first time, it became clear to me how powerful the modality of circle can be for marginalized populations. Few like systems of power and control, so to pass a talking piece, especially one like a beautiful stone or a curious object that otherwise they’d not be able to access, that allowed for each voice to be heard was powerful. So many voices are not allowed to be heard. So many perspectives are simply dismissed.

One of the most poignant lessons from my 2.5 years visiting the inside of the razor wire (work that now continues on the outside with the development of a Restorative Reentry Program) was not that the men were hesitant to share personal experiences or display vulnerability, but often that they shared their stories and pain with such rawness that the content could be as difficult to hold as a burning coal.

In one artistic exercise on “Past, Present and Future,” class members were invited to draw something from their past they were proud of that had helped shape their life. We put on a cd of background music and arranged paper and markers. Once the instructions were given, most participants were eager to begin. On my left, a young man remained frozen in his chair. “Do you need any help? Do you have any questions about the exercise?” I asked softly.

He looked at me with tears in his eyes. “I was a bad guy, Kristie,” he said. “I did terrible things. If you knew, you wouldn’t want to be my friend. There isn’t anything at all that I’m proud of. Not one thing.”

It’s times like that when there aren’t any words. The suffering is real. One can only try to keep breathing. Breath in tap-rootedness. Breathe out compassion. We are in this circle together.

For the last 11 months, I have been hosting and co-hosting a weekly community circle as well as a Sunday night potluck and house circle at our first-ever Restorative Home for 5 formerly incarcerated individuals. These smaller circles provide the opportunity to develop deeper relationships over time, and to witness ongoing challenges, as well as transformations, from those who have moved from one side of the razor wire to the other.


Since one of the basic tenants of the Non-Violent Communication classes inside the prison was a focus on mindfulness, we start each of our circles with a meditation. The men take turns leading this: inviting each person to focus on his breath, to place her feet firmly on the floor. I’m consistently amazed by the skill with which individuals can transform a classroom with fluorescent lights or a living room with mismatched couches into a forest glen with light-filtered leaves. The agility to retune one’s awareness from concerns into feelings and needs, into appreciation for the body, into gratitude towards oneself and the other, is a gift. As I’ve learned in dozens of countries, those with the least, and in this case, those who have lived in confinement for decades, are often the most grateful for the most ordinary moment in the “free world.”

Lately we’ve been working on identifying strengths in ourselves and each other. It can be daunting to work with individuals who have experienced abuse and trauma, which can flare unexpectedly. And how does one deal with people who have been marginalized so long, or whose institutionalized mindset seems to prohibit any real sense of meaningful contribution? As someone who is collaborative by nature, I want all of the wisdom and the richness to be heard and harvested. I want everyone to believe in his own inherent worth. I want a victimless world. Most times it starts close in. Sometimes, as Christina Baldwin says, “World peace is what happens in a 6 foot radius.” Indeed.

Sometimes there truly are moments of light. There are tears and vulnerable confessions and admittances of fear and group embraces reminding us that we’re all family. We’re in this together: incarcerated or free, straight, gay or transgender, employed or not, older or younger. We can breathe and enjoy manicotti and snickerdoodles and club soda. We can learn how to ride a bus or open a checking account or try for a job, even with past mistakes. We can dream the big dreams of our own organization, our own campus with a garden and a pay-it-forward café and a labyrinth and classrooms and an art studio and a swimming pool and transitional and permanent housing and our own Community of Belonging.

And we know this work is messy, and uncertain, and occasionally chaotic. Which is life. Which requires the fire to continually burn away our dross and disappointments, and a bell to remind us to pause, to breathe, to ground, to be grateful. For me, I also need beauty: even a flash of it by way of an African fabric, a daisy in a glass, a rock painted in a child’s hand. “Be Brave.”

This journey is comprised of life, and death, and life again. As much as I long for every circle to be perfect, for all the elements to play together in harmony, for everyone to feel included and whole, sometimes it needs to be enough simply to show up. And again, to show up. And again, to keep showing up. Sometimes we’re the fire. Sometimes we’re the bell. Sometimes we’re the silent on the perimeter and can only hold on to the edge of the fabric by our toes. And all of us, each one of us, are not just welcome, but vital.  


Kristie McLean is a circle practitioner, coach, documentary photographer and writer who creates safe sanctuary, deep taproots and beauty within challenging environments and communities who are largely overlooked. She is actively engaged in hosting work (The Circle Way, Non-Violent Communication, Emotional and Cultural intelligence, Appreciative Inquiry and multimedia storytelling.) She has spent more than 20 years profiling social issues such as child brides in Afghanistan, access to clean water in Kenya, Unexploded Ordnances in Laos, and conditions of garment workers in Haiti. Since 2010, she has championed a project in Ethiopia that supports women suffering from the childbirth injury Obstetric Fistula. Locally, Kristie is developing a re-entry program for formerly incarcerated individuals. She hosts weekly community circles, a “Community of Belonging” conversation series, and helped open the first-ever “Restorative Home” for 5 justice-involved individuals committed to living lives of non-violence and mindfulness.