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Pastor working in prisons finds many seeking alternatives to violence


Jane Simmons promotes Alternatives to Violence program.

Many people in prison for life or serving long sentences want to escape the violence they experience there.  Many want to move outside the defensive bravado façade that living in a prison engenders.  Many want to avoid becoming abusive themselves.

Jane Simmons, who began as co-pastor at Unity Spiritual Center in Spokane in April 2015, has spent 16 years offering Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) training programs in prisons in her native country of Canada as well as around the United States.  Now she is offering classes to train others who may be interested in being AVP facilitators.

Workshops help participants increase self-awareness, empathy and personal responsibility through techniques for interpersonal peacemaking and transforming conflict through community building, communication exercises and cooperative games.

In a 20-hour weekend in February, Jane and two facilitators led 10 people in a basic workshop, the first step to becoming facilitators. Members of the congregation and her husband and co-pastor, Gary, were among the participants.

She hopes to offer the program in Spokane-area prisons, similar to the one being offered at the Monroe Correctional Facility.

Alternatives to Violence training is an experiential workshop that grew out of Green Haven Prison in New York in 1975.  An inmate there reached out to the Quakers to bring their peace work to bear to address violence in his prison.  The Quakers created Alternatives to Violence as a secular workshop based on communication skills and connected with activities to build cooperation.

“I was introduced to it when I became interested in prison ministry in Hamilton, Ontario, in 2000.  After being trained, I drove two hours north to do prison ministry.  I immediately saw the value and how it changes lives,” she said.

Growing up in Hamilton, Jane said she was “always into the essence of Unity spirituality” before she learned about Unity.  She had attended church when she was young and had taught Sunday school.  Then she explored Eastern philosophy before she discovered Unity in 1980 and became a licensed teacher.  In 1999, she became an ordained minister.

Jane, who had worked as a teacher’s assistant and in clerical jobs, earned a doctorate of theology at Holos University Graduate Seminary in Kansas City.

While she was in Kansas City, she facilitated Alternatives to Violence workshops at Leavenworth, Kansas and a prison in Nebraska. 

“Unity teaches that we are all part of the one life, connected to Spirit and all Spirit and are all expressions of Spirit. We create our life experiences by the thoughts we think and beliefs we hold routinely.  If we believe we can be successful, it can be self-fulfilling,” Jane said.

“Big change can come from our beliefs about ourselves and the world.  Beliefs can limit us, but if we shift our beliefs and widen our focus, we can change our world and experience of life,” she said.

AVP workshops are offered in 37 states and around the world in prisons, war-torn countries, middle and high schools, community groups, congregations, street gangs and veterans groups. 

Some workshops train certified facilitators, because every group of 20 needs three facilitators, she said.

In the men’s prisons where she has often gone, she has found the AVP workshop helpful, even in helping guards be less defensive.

“Activities help people drop defenses and build trust.  When defenses come down, it’s a relief for those who are incarcerated,” Jane said.  “There is high violence in prisons, where people live in hellish conditions.  I hear from them how different they become inside the facility, how they create community, grow, change and transform.  Often I’m moved to tears.

“One young man said he now has compassion.  I can learn from him.  A slow computer can ruin my day, but he lives in hell with other prisoners caught up in defensiveness, bravado, on guard and pretending to be someone other than who they really are.  These were scared people, living a life of hurting people.  Now they give back to humanity,” Jane said.  “Many are impressed and find it healing that we are willing to walk through the doors of the prison.”

Part of the program includes playing cooperative games that are light and lively, and move people around, such as pattern ball with beany babies, recreating a pattern of throwing beany babies to each other. 

“It’s wild but controlled chaos.  The prisoners share laughter and begin to relax,” Jane said.

Another activity uses two concentric circles of chairs facing each other.  People have two minutes to answer various questions, such as sharing about a person they admire and then moving around the circle so they share with new partners.

There are also brainstorming sessions that help participants consider what violence is—including judging and name-calling.

There are role-playing scenarios to help people see they can make different choices and can choose to do things in a nonviolent way, Jane said.

They look at components and practices of nonviolence to see how they gain transformative power by respecting themselves and caring for others, and how making a different choice can mean that instead of exploding at someone, they try something different. 

“We share examples from our lives,” Jane said.  “We share in role play what we used to do and something different.

“I’ve learned that we are all human.  Some made horrendous mistakes and pay the consequences, but in our hearts, we are all human.  We all make mistakes.  We are all looking for the same things in life.  How we go about achieving our goals is the difference between that side of the bars and this side of the bars,” she said. “I do internal work rather than projecting blame.  If we judge someone, we project what we do not want to see in ourselves.”

Jane said the first rule is not to ask people what they are in prison for doing.

“Some are willing to talk about why they are in prison, but many more share how long they will be there.  For those in prison for life or long sentences, it’s their life, and they are looking for it to change.  Those in prison two to six months have less interest in alternatives to violence,” she said.

Alternatives to Violence cuts the recidivism rate—the likelihood a person will go back after being released, she said.  Those in the Alternatives to Violence Program have up to a 50 percent reduction in recidivism.

From conversations with prisoners, Jane knows that many change.  Some continue and become facilitators, leaders, and people listened to and looked up to.

For prevention, she would like to have the program in schools.

Jane has developed a curriculum for youth and adults based on her husband’s book, The I of the Storm: Embracing Conflict, Creating Peace, which is about finding peace in the midst of conflict.  She has expanded on it, writing The I of the Storm for Teens.

“In Unity, we are big on helping people in the midst of conflict discover who they are and how they relate with each other in triggering moments.  Can we be in a place of peace when we discover what is in ourselves?” she asked.

“I feel blessed to be part of Unity and AVP because we are on a journey of self discovery.  As we align with our true self and express it in the world, we help transform the world,” she said.  “Our mission is to inspire people to make a difference in the world.”

For information, call 838-6518 or email

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