Cover Stories

Finding Freedom in Prison

GTW090513From despair to hope. An inside look at the local men whose sea-changing efforts offer prisoners a voice and an opportunity to make significant personal transformations.

The facts are staggering. Between 1982 and 2000, California’s prison population grew by 500 percent, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). The CDCR spends almost $11 billion annually, funding 70,000 employees to oversee and supervise inmates at 33 state prisons at an average cost of $49,000 per prisoner. No other country incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than the United States. Equally disconcerting is that within the gray walls of these monolithic structures, the voices, stories and rights of prisoners are rarely heard or acknowledged.

The sobering reality has fueled the makings of a sea change for one local entity called the Inside Men’s Foundation, which is committed to the inner personal growth of men in prison. The assembly of trust is the brainchild of several local men: Mohan Siegel, Paul Henri, Lucas Roy Lehman , Jay Saber, Marc L’Ecluse, Malcolm Dydo and James Urgo. The men met more than a decade ago while undergoing a training offered by the ManKind Project (MKP), a global nonprofit, which, among other things, empowers men to “missions of service” and supports them to “make a difference in the lives of others.”

“Anybody who is breathing has a right to compassion and a right to have somebody who says to them, ‘you matter,’” says Inside Men’s Foundation member Paul Henri. “You might not matter to society at large, but you matter to me. People need to know that somebody cares about them no matter what they have done.”

But how does that play itself out within the prison system, particularly with the work the local men are doing with the Inside Men’s Foundation?

One of the first steps is actually “connecting” with the prisoners.

But the idea of voluntarily going into a maximum security prison, sitting in a circle with men who have been incarcerated for several decades, and sharing deep personal feelings with them may seem like a fool’s journey. For many people, it is nearly impossible to imagine the monotony, fear and isolation of those who are incarcerated. Emotions such as vulnerability and sadness may be stowed away and a tough persona is often cultivated by those who are incarcerated in order to survive. Now, imagine for one hour a week, prisoners are able to let their guard down, and share and connect in a safe environment. That is what the Inside Men’s Foundation offers at both the Salinas Valley State Prison (SVSP) and at the Santa Cruz County Jail.

Born from the testosterone-drenched poetry of Robert Bly’s seminal work, “Iron John,” the 1990s men’s movement inspired many groups and workshops, including the ManKind Project, where Leham et al first met. And, like King Arthur’s knights, they gathered in a circle in a flagship training program called the New Warrior Training Adventure, which encourages men to missions of service.

According to Lehman, the format of the circle is that it has different rounds (or topics of discussion) based on such theories as the Jungian archetypes of the masculine (the King, the Warrior, the Magician and the Lover, for instance). The Inside Men’s Foundation and MKP draw their philosophy from an esoteric palette of sources, including Carl Jung, Native American philosophy and Joseph Campbell, whose own series of archetypes include the Hero, the Mentor, the Herald, and the Trickster. The Inside Men’s Foundation uses some of these devices to guide prisoners through visioning, accountability and responsibility to get to the core of how decisions are made.

Within the sanctity of the men’s circle, five principal human emotions are dealt with in a very succinct manner. The members of the local nonprofit believe all behavior can be distilled to fear, anger, sadness, shame and joy, and that it is a matter of becoming aware of where those feelings live in the body, and why certain feelings arise, that helps men achieve integrated personalities. Lehman used Bly’s terminology when explains the process: “Becoming aware of the shadow helps one realize what is causing certain behaviors and what actions to take.”

The Inside Men’s Foundation casts no judgment on prisoners, but instead invites them to question their actions and motivations, asking such questions as: Why didn’t you follow through with what you said you were going to do? What was the impact on yourself from the decisions you made? What was the impact on the group? What was the story you told yourself where you said, “I’m not good enough”? And then, what is the new story you want to take on?

This inward journey, according to the Inside Men’s Foundation, keeps men accountable by having them focus on simple, tangible, realistic steps towards how they envision themselves in the world.

Collectively, the six core leaders have a combined 50 years of experience facilitating men’s groups, with each seasoned professional bringing a unique life history to the process.

But to understand the roots of how this all plays out, it is best to go deep into the psyche and look at the men—and the archetypes—who are striving to generate positive change.

A local physical therapist, Mohan Siegel started his own men’s circle inside Soledad State Prison in 2010, but he had heard about the Inside Circle Foundation, which launched in Folsom State Prison (FSP) in 1997. Siegel, who went to the prison to take a four-day intensive training, says, “I went to Folsom with the conviction of solidifying the work.”

The work to which he is referring is called “emotional intelligence,” and he believes the process to achieve this deep self-exploration is critical for all men, and particularly necessary for men who find themselves incarcerated. As a physical therapist inside Soledad, Siegel was able to interview prisoners whom he thought would be a good match for participating in the circle. While talking to these men, he found several who had already been involved in the circle while incarcerated in Folsom.

“It was great to find some people who already had some experience, so they weren’t coming in green to a men’s circle,” he says. “I wanted guys to sit in a circle who were dedicated to personal growth. The reason we got together was to better ourselves and be the best men we could be.”

Currently at SVSP, the Inside Men’s Foundation works with maximum security prisoners—some are serving life without parole (LWOP), and some have been in prison 20 or 30 years, and still have the hope of getting out one day and walking the streets as free men. According to Siegel, the men with whom he spends many hours a week are not what society has painted them to be. In fact, he says, “They are well educated, they are well read and very well informed.”

Of the men that went to prison when they were teenagers, Siegel found that 25 years later, they are not the same people. Some have dedicated themselves to serious inner work, some have studied Buddhism and some of them meditate.

The Inside Men’s Foundation also seeks to provide men who are incarcerated with tools they can use to help them transition out of prison and forge a new path. Every member of the foundation demonstrates great empathy and compassion for these men behind bars and feels the call to be an advocate for them.

A 26-year native of Santa Cruz, Paul Henri is an architectural drafter by trade and a hobbyist photographer. He was also one of the first four men who went into Soledad State Prison to start the work of the Inside Men’s Foundation. “Mohan, Jay, Marc and I were the first four guys to go into Soledad,” Henri recalls. “There were a lot of lock downs there and it just didn’t work for us. So then we went to Salinas Valley every week and I sat in the circle for a year. I have a lot of fondness for guys that are inside.”

One might think it frightening to work with hardened prisoners, but Henri felt the polar opposite. “I had no fear of these men and many of them were incredibly wise and open to the work. It was beautiful to see this and get the kind of love these guys had.”

Lucas Roy Lehman’s speed-dating pitch would go something like this: Went to college at UCSB as a creative writing major, wanted to be a professional writer, went to grad school at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and finally settled in California in 1995. He would add, “I got into Tantra and teaching Tantra and that led me to life coaching. Through that, I realized my mission in life is to get men to create more love in the world.”

Coincidentally, Lehman created a website called the 21st Century Man Project (, before he had even heard of the ManKind Project. “I was creating men’s groups on my own, and then somebody here in Santa Cruz said, ‘Hey, do you want to sit in on my iGroup?’” (An iGroup is an integration group that comes out of MKP’s weekly or monthly circles.)

What Lehman found, and now shares with others through the Inside Men’s Foundation, was something unique and powerful. To be able to admit, “Wow, I am ashamed of myself,”—and by revealing the shame one is feeling about one’s own judgment to the group, participants learn that the men in the circle actually love them more because they recognize that they are being authentic. Lehman hypothesizes, “Revealing the thing that we are most afraid to reveal about ourselves is what actually brings us closer together.”

Local entrepreneur and do-gooder Jay Saber looks as if he just stepped out of a Grateful Dead concert, but behind the silver dreadlocks is an astute businessman whose company, Saber Roofing, has given him a tough-as-nails approach to life. His passion for the Inside Men’s Foundation comes from a deeply personal experience.

“I got into trouble in my early twenties. I was facing 10 years in prison in a federal penitentiary and I walked because of an illegal search and seizure. I could have been one of the guys I work with in prison. I’m paying back,” he says. “Almost every guy I know has done something they could have gone to jail for at some point, and if they got in trouble in jail they could have gone to prison—there but for the grace of God, I walked.”

The processes that the Inside Men’s Foundation uses are designed to guide men toward emotional literacy. Saber believes the key is in the results. “What has happened because of the process work we do,” he says, “is that they are not taking the violence into the yard, because they are working their way through it in our groups.”

The training includes a six-month, 24-week curriculum, where prisoners learn about accountability, mindfulness, conflict resolution, meditation, active listening and the archetypes. “We teach them about character and integrity and even things like animal totems, crossroad processes, mission work for their lives, even though they are in prison, trust processes, money, sex and everything,” Saber adds.

Co-founder of the Inside Men’s Foundation, Marc L’Ecluse lives in Watsonville and is a marriage and family counselor who specializes in men and anger management. He met Saber and Siegel inside Soledad State Prison. L’Ecluse, who attended the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, admits that his background is just a template for what occurs in the prison men’s groups. He found the idea of bringing the life work of MKP to the prisoners exciting.

“It’s a handy tool chest to have, but what we do in there is not psychotherapy—it’s a men’s group. It’s a lot more didactic,” he says. “There are some experiential parts that are more like therapy—it’s a men’s group that can be therapeutic, but it’s not psychotherapy. We teach these guys how to take responsibility for their thoughts, behaviors, words, emotions, and how to identify them and communicate them to others. We teach them how to connect with other people in an intimate, safe, respectful way that has boundaries.”

There is shift taking place in the way government officials and the public at large view the future of prisons. In 2006 California prisons were at 137 percent of capacity—through AB 109, prison realignment and progressive envisioning by such cities as Santa Cruz (see sidebar), that number has been slowly whittled away. Just recently, United States Attorney General Eric Holder admitted at a press conference that, “Widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable.”

L’Ecluse realizes from the inside looking out that, “The system is broken. My draw, in part, is to serve that population that is neglected by our society and judged by our society and forgotten by our society.”

In progressive Santa Cruz, there are several noteworthy organizations helping individuals behind bars. UC Santa Cruz has the Project for Inmate Education, founded by members of the astronomy and physics department, to provide free education to prisoners, and the much lauded William James Association blossomed into the Prison Arts Program, bringing the arts to institutionalized individuals. There is also the Volunteer Center of Santa Cruz County, which has a chapter of Friends Outside, providing support for family and friends of prisoners. Beyond that, there are numerous other nonprofit agencies, faith-based ministries, and county and state programs.

Santa Cruz County First District Supervisor John Leopold is not a member of the Inside Men’s Foundation, but has been involved in a conversation about prison reform in California, and particularly in Santa Cruz, for years (see sidebar).

cover4Leopold believes what we have now is the warehousing of people. If you want to become a good criminal, you go to prison—that is your higher education of criminal behavior. In Leopold’s opinion, people are not born into criminal behavior. Perhaps the stress of the traumatic lives they have lived led them to criminal behavior. Perhaps, the hopelessness of their situations made criminal behavior seem like a viable option, and they cannot conceive of any other choices.

“If you want to break that cycle of recidivism, you have to start working with people early on and deal with their emotional issues,” Leopold says, “[And] look at their criminogenic behavior and try to start addressing that, if you want to bend the curve on recidivism.”

Leopold is a fan of the Inside Men’s Foundation and the work they do. “They try to get to prisoners’ emotional cores and reach the innate spirituality most people have,” he says, “to try and get them to understand there is a world out there that will care for them and help them develop the mechanisms that will keep them from returning to prison.”

Malcolm Dydo is a graduate of Emerson College and Twin Lakes College of the Healing Arts. One of his favorite coined phrases is, “Hurt people hurt people; healed people heal people.” 

Dydo has seven years of experience facilitating experiential workshops and trainings for men throughout Northern California. He is convinced that a vital component to skillful facilitation is the art of active listening. “When I’m practicing active listening, I’m listening attentively to all that’s being said,” he says. “I’m able to set aside all of my opinions, judgments and beliefs, in order to be fully present for what another man is experiencing and sharing. When these men realize that they’re being heard, it builds trust and can open the door to deep, transformational process work.”

The Inside Men’s Foundation members have a vision for the future of prisons in California—one in which incarcerated men and women will have access to programs that support the development of emotional literacy skills, and personal accountability, as a gateway to heightened self awareness, responsibility and behavioral pattern shifts. In many cases, individuals that the Inside Men’s Foundation encounters are prepared to take a long, hard look at themselves and create meaningful changes and new visions for how to succeed in the world.

The best measure of success, however, may come from hearing from an actual inmate. This from Derek Anderson (“DeNice”), SVSP # H-81578:  “Never again will I wander without the understanding I need to be a complete man.

“I know when I stumble now my dogs will be there to keep me on my path, and if I get too close, they will pull me away from the edge I’m too close to, and help me sing my song. I gotta be strong as a 100-year-old oak tree and I’m up for the task without a doubt in my mind. Because now I’m part of a group of warriors that are solidifying society and the universe as a whole. My circle is realness at it’s most highest apex. . . .”

There will be a benefit concert for the Inside Men’s Foundation at 8 p.m. (Doors open at 7 p.m.), Saturday, Sept. 14 at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320 Cedar St., Santa Cruz, 427-2227. Tickets are $20. To learn more about the many diverse offerings of the Inside Mens Foundation, visit        

Santa Cruz County First District Supervisor John Leopold on crime, prison and rehabilitation:

 “In Santa Cruz County we spend more than $20 million a year on a prison system where 70 percent of the people come back in three years, and that’s a bad investment. With the financial support and the direction from Gov. Jerry Brown, Santa Cruz is trying to do things differently. In the state prison system we do a program called The RISE Program (Reclaiming Integrity, Self Awareness and Empowerment) that has lowered recidivism. We’ve had another program since 2003 called the Gemma Program for women in jail. Gemma starts with helping incarcerated women to help them understand the issues that brought them there—and develop better coping mechanisms that don’t lead to drugs or crime. The recidivism rate for this group of women is incredibly low and that’s what we want. If people do not return to a life of crime, it makes the public safer.”

Santa Cruz is lucky to have Sheriff Phil Wowak. “He is very clear that adding more jail bed space is not a solution economically, nor does it break the cycle of recidivism,” says Leopold. “It’s been fascinating to watch the sheriff’s management teams’ evolution—realizing they are not a warehouse manager and instead an education director. Jim Hart and Jeff Marsh are his chief deputies and have done their time running a jail and are extremely sophisticated about the new ways law enforcement has to interact with their community and the people they arrest. That’s very positive.

Santa Cruz County leads the way, especially when dealing with the youth—creating a number of different programs to deal with the situations that cause young people to create crime. “We opened the evening center down in Watsonville in hopes of providing education, and finding ways to get them to serve their sentences alternatively,” Leopold notes. “By changing the nature of the experience of juvenile hall—healthy food and educational support—there are currently half as many people in Juvenile Hall than the capacity holds, with juvenile crime diminishing every year. When we started, we were an outlier; now the Annie E. Casey Foundation does a JDAI (Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative) conference and 600 counties attend that. Every year 40 counties across the state have come to Santa Cruz to see and learn to do what we do. If cities can spend less money and have better results, that’s the gold standard for policy.”

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