Using the “Alternatives to Violence” Program to Teach and Heal Inmates in Prisons (Ethen Perkins — Part 2)

Ethen:  For many years now I’ve been involved in introducing nonviolence workshops to prisons and visiting in juvenile detention and jails and things like that. And became aware of the real need that people had in those institutional settings for some exposure to the normal outside world. And especially became aware that the people in 23-hour lockups in their little tiny cells — it was kind of driving people crazy.

 Sylvia: As it often does.

 Right. So that’s one of the things I’ve been focusing on in my work now. The Friends Meeting here in Eugene created a minute [a formal statement] recognizing that I had a leading [a God-given call] for ministry in that area and I started using it in the jail. That minute qualified the jail to see me as clergy. So then I could go in and visit people in 23-hour lockdown and help them come out and have an hour or however long we both had to sit and talk and be in a different environment and have some stimulation instead of having to shout through the cracks at the bottoms of their doors to talk to the people next to them.

Is that one thing that prisoners do?

 Yeah. They’ll lay on the floor and try to communicate. So, if they decide they’ll organize a Bible study, they’re all laying on the floor with their Bibles beside them and they’re shouting under the doors so they can talk to each other and study together. So I realize that just my presence for these people makes a difference. That’s one of the things I’ve been doing. Trying to see how those mandatory minimum sentences can be changed so that people aren’t being just warehoused in our jails and prisons as a means of the rest of us feeling, quote, safer. Cause you know, ultimately, if nothing changes for them, if they’re in 5 years or 20 years, when they get out, they’re really likely to do more crime.

 We’re not really changing things until these people have a way to change. And the prisons are generally not offering them that. Also, our prisons are warehousing people who are mentally ill who need treatment or who are drug addicted and need other kinds of treatment. So, it’s as though we have this ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ attitude for people who have needs that we’re not meeting.

I should say for the tape that I know you from the Friends [Quaker] Meeting and from the Peace and Justice Committee there.

 Right, right. And the Peace and Justice Committee was one that I worked on when I first moved to Eugene in the early 90’s, and then that committee wasn’t active until more recently. Now that it’s been reactivated, that feels very good. Like how the Meeting now supports other non-profits and things like that. There was a real backlog of that work not getting done. And like that work I did in environmental restoration, it feels to me like the kind of work we do — it’s OK that it’s almost invisible. Though I’d like to see the whole society change.

Wouldn’t we all! [laughs] Yes, of course!

 [laughs] But part of my feeling about the work is if it’s successful, people assume that’s the way it normally should be. What’s the big deal!

You’ve already talked about some of the issues you’ve worked on. What are the most interesting or satisfying experiences you’ve had as an activist?

 Mmm. I think it’s actually seeing individuals in the workshops that I do in the prisons change from this sort of stone-faced mask that they’re wearing of “I’m a tough guy” to, at the end of a basic workshop and a single weekend, they’re open, they’re happy, they’re ready to accept that people are different in the room and that they can talk to them. They’re making connections across lines of race and gang membership and kind of crime that was committed. It’s like they suddenly have seen that they can do something together that they couldn’t do in their isolated little protective world that people have to build around themselves in prison to survive.

How long have you been doing this program in prisons?

 The first ones I did around 1993. So it’s been a long time. And I’ve done workshops in San Quentin and Oregon State Penitentiary and Sheridan Federal Correction Institution near McMinnville [Oregon]. And in Idaho State Correctional Institution. And individual visitation in the jails and so on. That’s somewhat the same. Some wonderful moments in my history of visiting in the jails are running into someone in a very different context who remembers that I went and visited them in jail and said, “I still have that poster that we drew together.” Or, “Do you remember me?” And I’d look at them and they changed! You know, they’d grown up! They were juveniles when I saw them.

Just to know that that little hour or however long it was that I spent with them in juvenile detention or in the jail has made a difference to them. And yet it’s sort of like invisible. You know? There’s something satisfying about the fact that important work gets done and that it’s sort of invisible at the same time. Because, it’s ‘Oh! This is the way the world’s supposed to be!’ [laughs] Back to that sort of thing. The important thing is change happened. The transformation occurred.

What would you say you are bringing to these people? Can you summarize what the Alternatives to Violence Program really is?

 It’s like a new way of seeing and a new way of understanding how they could be in the world. Sort of like, “I can work to make a positive connection with you and we don’t have to be enemies or afraid of each other.” There’s a way that we can break through that wall of fear between us. It’s this personal empowerment process that makes people realize that things can be better and they can make them that way.

And how can they do that?

 Simply by using surprise and humor, or by finding a way to be assertive without being aggressive. I love the fact that it’s Alternatives. The plural of that is very important. Like saying, yeah, there’s maybe several ways to be violent in a situation, and that will change things. It might temporarily solve or make some kind of a change. But, it doesn’t change the violence itself. Whereas, there are many many ways to do something that’s not violent. And if we open ourselves to the possibility that there are these many different ways, something will come up. Something will be right for us. Whatever feels right for me to do might not be the same that feels right for the next person to do. But to know that it’s there. To know that most of the time even the murderers in the world have gotten along nonviolently.

Most of the time they’re not murdering anyone.

 Right! Yeah. And you know, I very much agree with the guy who wrote Just Mercy.  He said that we are all more valuable than the worst thing we’ve ever done. We are more than the biggest mistake we’ve ever made. And that’s such an important realization! I think that’s what Alternatives to Violence opens the window to.

I feel like I’m leaving out a lot of work you’ve done over the years. Right now I know you’re involved with solar panels at the Friends Meeting.

 Right. I became very involved with the maintenance and safety issues of the Meeting over the last few years. And that’s led to the possibility that we can have solar panels. I had this wonderful moment at a meeting this last Sunday about installing solar panels where someone said, “Oh, I get it. This isn’t an issue about making our utility bill better. It might do that. But, it’s a moral issue.” It’s a matter of what kind of life we want the world to have. Do we want to keep using nuclear energy? Do we wanna keep burning fossil fuels? Do we wanna keep affecting fish runs? Do we want to have air particles worse than the worst days in the winter when we have to breathe them? If we had this other way of doing energy all of that is not there. We’re producing clean systems.

I thought it was just great that an older member of our meeting said, “This is a moral issue, isn’t it?” And I thought, Yeah. You get it. And that was really a great moment for me. I don’t know if the Meeting will choose to have solar panels or if it will be able to. I’m leaving that up to the Spirit. But I do know that if we in our thinking are going in that direction, that’s something.

 For the benefit of this interview I should say that you’ve taken a lot of personal responsibility for this project of organizing the congregation to pay for and do all the necessary work to get solar panels on.

Yeah. I’m hoping the organization works out. And I’m realizing that in the near future my interests are gonna be so conflicting that I [may have to drop this effort.] Someone else is gonna have to pick up and do the solar panels to get them done. And that’s the way it should be, really. Again, I’m back to that point that when we get the solar panels on, I hope it’s not all “Oh, Ethen did this for us.” It’s “Oh. This is the way it’s supposed to be.”

And the fact you’re doing your part of the work makes it possible for other people to contribute in their ways.

 That’s right. And that’s what I want is eventually for us all to say, “Hey! We did this.” Or to look out at the wetlands and to say, “Isn’t that nice?” [laughs] And not to have an award on my wall about it. That’s not what it’s about.

Now, obviously, activism on many fronts has been a part of your life for many years. Is there something you’d like to say, without my asking at this point about a specific project or something else? Is there anything else you feel you would like to add?

 Wow. What would it be? [pause] I’m just glad that there are so many different ways that people become active and change the world. And I’m so happy to be in a community of people where that is closer to the norm.

People have been trying so many different things in so many different ways. I reestablished a friendship just yesterday with someone who’s been doing all this work in community gardens. Has just poured themselves into it and made these beautiful places that are productive. In the Friends Meeting and in Eugene, you don’t have to scratch the surface very far to find people doing these marvelous things. I dance with somebody who is promoting bees. I got some work done by somebody who is making these beautiful wooden altars for people. It’s all over, this kind of stuff is there if you look for it.













About Sylvia

Sylvia Hart Wright, the interviewer and blogger, has combined efforts to help achieve a more peaceful world and social and economic justice, with a career as a librarian, author, and longtime college professor. For more about her, please visit her website at There you can also find the first chapter of her memoir-in-progress, ACTIVIST: Adventures at the Cutting Edge of Social Change.
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