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July 20, 2022

Fritzi Horstman: Founder of Compassion Prison Project and Creator of "Step Inside the Circle"

Fritzi Horstman: Founder of Compassion Prison Project and Creator of "Step Inside the Circle"

“When you study prison populations, you see a common preponderance of childhood trauma and mental illness. The two go together. So what he have in prisons are the most traumatized people of our society.” (Dr. Gabor Maté)


The other day, Steve and I talked about what episode to choose for my next blog and he simply said, “just pick whatever episode resonates with you most”. So, when I heard about Grammy award winning producer, filmmaker, and activist Fritzi Horstman, Founder and Executive Director of the Compassion Prison Project, to be the next guest on the show the choice was an easy one.

Suddenly, I remembered that I had been inside a German prison once in my life. About 20 years ago, I had volunteered to accompany a prison´s chaplain for one day to get an impression about his daily tasks. Even though I was already in my twenties, I soon realized that my imagination of life behind bars had been rather naïve. Admittedly, at that time, I did not make the connection between early childhood trauma and becoming violent in adulthood, even though it seems so obvious to me now.

Little did I know that spending 6 hours inside this institution would result in approximately one week of intense emotional processing, despite the fact that the section of the prison I was allowed to visit was mostly the section of young delinquents and white collar crimes. This meant that some of the cells were open while we walked through, and that inmates would work in the garden, the kitchen, the library, or engage in crafts activities, such as welding, painting or woodwork. Also to attend church services was possible, which meant one more hour per day that inmates could spent outside their cells if they went. The chaplain confirmed that church services were also often seen as an opportunity to exchange drugs despite all the effects to impede this.

However, after this day, I was convinced that hardly any of the inmates would get out of prison as a better person than the person he or she was before entering into prison – rather the opposite. I experienced the atmosphere inside as a mix of aggression, boredom and despair. To get a taste of what it really feels like to be incarcerated, the chaplain locked me into one of the cells for a short period of time with my permission. These few minutes felt like ages and felt nothing short of devastating. As a free spirit, who loves to make my own choices, I did not even want to imagine what being locked away for 23 hours a day would do to me as a person, to my body, mind, and spirit.

Therefore, I was more than curious to learn more about Fritzi Horstman´s ideas how to “reboot” our criminal justice system and about her vision that advocates for turning prisons from being places of punishment to trauma-informed centers for healing and rehabilitation, where both inmates and staff can feel safe. Wow! What an amazingly powerful intention! What a gift to society!

Honestly, I don´t know how it could be even possible for a blog post to do this groundbreaking and deeply touching work justice. I feel like I could continue writing for days and I would still only be able to capture a fraction of the significance that looking behind the curtain of shame, guilt, violence, childhood trauma and the accompanying research collected in the project have for both our societies and for us personally. So, I won´t aim for it, and simply share some of the thoughts and feelings with you that I had after listening to the interview instead.

Yet, before we start to get into the details, it is important for me to invite you to approach this topic with an open heart. I can imagine that some points of view presented here might inflict some controversy, particularly if you or your loved ones had to endure acts of violence or might even be suffering from physical or psychological consequences of these, such as PTSD. Even if this might be the case, please keep in mind that Fritzi Horstman´s work is not about denying the inmates´ past, but about coming to terms with it, and, at the same time, to own it by taking an approach of compassion and vulnerability, however, not one of shame. And please keep in mind that up to 80% of the inmates are suffering from PTSD as well and simply cannot function properly.

During this conversation, we get to know that Fritzi Horstman, who has gone through severe childhood trauma herself, is a strong advocator of acknowledging your past and taking charge of it, just like she did. In the interview, she shares with us that until she was 56 years old, she had no idea that she was traumatized during her childhood and knowing that literally “changed her life”. Suddenly, she understood what kind of injuries childhood trauma, including physical, emotional and sexual abuse, had done to her brain, to her spirit, to her soul, and, consequently, to her self-worth and self-esteem, and why she became a juvenile delinquent. (For a comprehensive list of symptoms of childhood trauma that include psychological as well as physical consequences please go to: https://compassionprisonproject.org/symptoms-of-childhood-trauma/).  

She also reveals that after selling drugs, white privilege helped her not to get sentenced. In addition to experiencing childhood trauma, this is the second reason why she sees herself in any of these incarcerated men and women, and why she owns this deep understanding that traumatized children who are raised by traumatized parents are mostly put up on a trajectory that leads them directly into prison. So, in the end, her challenging childhood was the blessing in disguise that set her on this mission, which would turn into her life´s purpose.

In short, the caveat that I got from this conversation up to this point is that none of us is immune to (childhood) trauma – it can and will happen to all of us, sooner or later in our lives. However, I got to know why experiencing trauma in our teenage years and, particularly, before the age of 18 has such devastating consequences for our youth: at that time, the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed yet and due to the hormonal imbalance traumatic brain injuries will happen much more easily than during adulthood.

Taking all of this into account, this episode raises the awareness for us to look at the great majority of prisoners with compassion (of course, there will always be a small percentage who cannot be released as their degree of brain damage is irreversible), considering them as humans and as citizens, who need medical care and psychological trauma support, and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

Thus, the questions we are encouraged to ask are: how did these people get on this path? As one of the inmates in the trailer puts it, “we wasn´t born in the world of being evil people”. What part does childhood trauma play in becoming what is called “antisocial”? And what role can prisons take on to truly rehabilitate their inmates as 95% of them will return to society?

That said, let´s get to the core of what the Prison Compassion Project is all about.

As recommended by Steve, I first watched the project´s promo trailer titled “Step inside the Circle”  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVxjuTkWQiE) to prepare for the interview to listen. It is only about 7 minutes long, but these 7 minutes speak for themselves. Even though I had come across this video in a previous context, the power of the messages and the power of the images it exuded was unbroken to me – I watched it several times, different versions of it, and every time I did, I had chills all over my body. Obviously, I was not the only one whose emotions were deeply touched by what Fritzi Horstman calls the “Compassion Trauma Circle”, and I was curious to find out why this experiential approach to show 235 inmates the amount of trauma that they have been living with since their childhood had such a profoundly liberating effect on the men who had gathered in this circle.

Fritzi´s explanation, which draws on ancient wisdom about the healing power of circles, became a big aha-moment for me, and I want to share her beautiful quote with you: “But notice that it´s the healing center in a circle, and so they knew 5000 years ago that the power of the circle heals because everyone in the circle is equal, and everyone in the circle matters, and the idea is that everyone in this circle has a voice, and so when you get to be seen and heard in the circle it literally changes the wiring in your brain, it literally changes how you feel about yourself and the world around you.”

Wow! This is so powerful! Little did I know to this point about the healing power of circles that obviously goes back to Stonehenge. Even though I had experienced being in circles, mostly at retreats, when we shared our experiences at the beginning or at the end, I would have never thought that would be such a powerful healing tool in the context of trauma.

She also adds that in tribal societies, people sit together in circles all the time as equality is really important for them, and this is also the way that problems are addressed. For example, if a member of a tribe committed a crime, he or she is not condemned by the tribe, but on the contrary put in the center of the circle, while the other members of the circle tell the person about his or her positive traits. They make them remember that their nature is innately magnificent and beautiful and to remember that.

I love this idea as well! This example illuminates perfectly what Fritzi means when she states that “we suffer in isolation and we heal in community”. Really take that in please! After all, to be human means to be social, right? It is one of our very basic needs to be social, to talk to people, to be touched, and we just experienced first hand what isolation does to us and our psyche during the lockdowns of the COVID pandemic.

Since I stepped on the path of personal development about 20 years ago, what I got told over and over again was that our social environment is paramount to who we become as a person, whether we feel empowered or discouraged, special or useless, whether we believe in ourselves and to realize our dreams or whether we see ourselves as powerless victims. I have experienced myself how uplifting it feels to be surrounded by people who remind you of your power, your goodness and your beauty.

At the same time, this kind of encouraging behavior has surely not been the norm in Western societies; they often seem to focus more on criticism, competition and putting each other down as a means of  dealing with their citizens, employees or even their children, the latter of which will most likely result in childhood trauma.

Well, let me put it this way: if criticism, humiliation and invalidation really worked, then we would all be extremely successful, abundant, happy, loving and kind individuals by now, living our purpose and making the world a better place. However, if we look around what is happening around the globe right now, exactly the opposite seems to be the case.

And this is exactly the reason why the Compassion Trauma Circle feels so liberating to its participants: by stepping inside the circle and hearing the echo of the other inmates, all differences are stripped away. For examples, Fritzi reports that after participating in the circle, e. g. gang affiliations in prison have no longer been important as the inmates look at their childhood and they realize that their fellow prisoners had made similar experiences and are very much like them: not only did they have a similar upbringing and have been suffering from the consequences of childhood trauma, but they also had not been aware of it. And this changes the whole atmosphere there! Isn´t this an amazing result? Prisoners who had been incarcerated in other institutions before describe that the atmosphere in the prisons where Fritzi is doing her work is so different in a positive way.

Speaking of being social as a basic need of any human, it was really shocking for me to hear that solitary confinement seems to be a regular punishment for inmates who are labelled “antisocial”. Yet, as staff is usually not educated about the symptoms of trauma and the prisoners themselves are often not even aware of the fact that they did experience (childhood) trauma, the symptoms of trauma cannot be interpreted as such. Instead, inmates are accused of being disobedient or aggressive, and the solution within these structures is being isolated, sometimes for decades! To me, this sounds inhuman.

Imagine, you would not see a single soul except the person who is pushing your meals through the door three times a day. While it is argued that solitary confinement serves to protect other inmates and the guards, opponents often call it “white torture” as it deprives inmates even of the most basic stimulation of their senses, of their very basic social needs as a human being.

So, here is the irony: according to Fritzi, 95% of all inmates are coming back and are supposed to reintegrate into society. Yet, the prison´s answer to highly traumatized people is often solitary confinement, which is isolation, thus, being forced to be antisocial! In the interview, Fritzi reported about a former inmate who was released and, yet, waited for someone to open the door for him as for the last couple of years this is what he became used to. He could only leave his room if somebody opened the door for him, so this is what he was waiting for to happen outside the prison as well.

Another aspect that really puzzled me is the fact that due to the 13th amendment, inmates in America are paid an unbelievable 20 Cents/hour for their work in prison. When I heard this, I did some research about German prisons (that are all public by the way), and the situation we have here is slightly better as inmates earn one to three Euros per hour on average and a maximum of 300 Euros per month, which is also way lower than the minimum wage though. Yet, what is happening right now is that two German inmates filed a lawsuit before the Federal Constitutional Court last October as, in their view, this procedure contradicts the principal of equal treatment. They also argue that negative signaling effect this has on the morale of inmates. They state that the only message that such a low wage sends out is that work does not pay.

According to Fritzi and looking again at U.S. prisons, there is more to it: not only is a salary of 20 Cents a real self-esteem crasher, which enforces the negative self-image that most of the inmates have anyway, but it also enforces homelessness in the long run. Even paying $5 per hours could make such a difference because the inmates could send some money home to support their families or save up for an apartment for the time after they are released. This would be a start to “break the cycle of poverty and worthlessness,” and Fritzi is quoting Ghandi here, who stated that “poverty is the worst form of violence.” To me this makes total sense and I am curious how the German Federal Court will rule in that matter.

So, what can we do to support Fritzi Horstman and her team to make prisons a better and safer place for both inmates and also the staff that work there? (By the way, did you know that the average life expectancy of a prison guard is only 59 years old?)

Of course, we can all donate to her cause and help her to raise awareness for the creation of trauma-informed prisons. For example, $20,000 would be sufficient to bring EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), which is a healing tool to reduce traumatic flashbacks, to both inmates and also the guards of one institution. In addition, you can find opportunities to volunteer on the website of the Compassion Prison Project: https://compassionprisonproject.org/volunteer/.

Yet, just as every topic that is concerned with healing our society, it always starts with healing ourselves as individuals. Thus, healing the criminal justice system also begins with healing ourselves and our trauma – every single one of us!

So, I invite you to inform yourself about trauma in general, but also about the role it played in your personal life and maybe even in your childhood. During the interview, Fritzi Horstman introduces the ACE-quiz (Adverse Childhood Experience) as a powerful tool to find out how much trauma you have been exposed to during your childhood. The ACE-quiz can also be found on the project´s website.

The categories that are included in the official ACE-quiz are: physical, emotional and sexual abuse, physical and emotional neglect, parents divorced or separated, domestic violence, addiction of parent or caregiver to drugs or alcohol, parent or caregiver being depressed or mentally ill, or any household members ever been incarcerated. (The questions from the test will sound familiar to you as these are the ones that are read out loud while the inmates are encouraged to take the next step inside the circle.) You might need to dig deeper as often putting children down or humiliating them is enough for parents or caregivers to cause a traumatic brain injury. So, often trauma will be hidden in the categories of emotional neglect or emotional abuse.

For me the ACE-quiz really raised my awareness even more, not only with regard to my own trauma score, but also for the amount of trauma that my parents had had to endure who were born during the years of WWII. They simply had and tried to survive! A childhood spent in war is surely a childhood full of trauma! And of course, this opened my eyes even more to the fact that I was raised by two severely traumatized children who did the best they could, given the fact they did not have a role model for a normal family life, growing up full orphaned or half-orphaned respectively.

So, what is the good news? Let me close this blog with some really encouraging insights and ideas:

First, if we can recognize our own value, we can also recognize it in others, right? So, Steve came across an interview with trauma expert Dr. Gabor Maté who explained that even a person with an ACE-score of 10 can be kept out of a criminal career if there is only one person, one person who acknowledges you and who cares about you. So, one kind person in the social environment of a traumatized child can make all the difference. Thus, we should never underestimate the power that every single one of us has to make a difference in somebody else´s life.

Second, Fritzi Horstman is looking for pen pals for every inmate on death row in the U.S. right now. Recently, a prison chaplain informed her that and when one of the successfully matched inmates got a letter from his pal, he literally jumped up and down, saying, “I am someone! I got a letter!” It was the first time that he felt acknowledged, while before he was suicidal. (You can find the details to volunteer for this letter adventure on the website as well).

Third, according to Fritzi Horstman violence starts where dehumanization begins and this is basically every time when we are triggered, when we want to be right, when we put others down, in short, when we don´t function at our highest level. It is every time when we are breaking the connection with others and justify our actions rather than acknowledging that we might be wrong and in doing so take the risk of being vulnerable.

If something is not working, and obviously this is the case for the criminal justice system if you look at the high rates of relapses, we need to admit that we have been wrong and to look for better options to make things work. Together. With compassion. And Kindness.

And why shouldn´t we use the healing power of a compassion circle for these kind of purposes as well?

About Petra

Petra Nikol is a Berlin-based writer and coach with a background in management science. One of her greatest passions is to uplift readers and listeners around the globe by spreading positive vibes. Petra loves dancing, travelling and any kind of adventure, yet her most favorite pastime is to connect with kind souls from all over the planet to learn, grow and heal together.