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  • Nicole A. Tetreault, PhD

Imagining a Future Incarceration Free

It begins with systemic change where all people in America have equal opportunity. It begins by breaking the cycle of poverty. By breaking the cycle of violence. The cycle of sex trafficking. It begins by stopping systemic racism and the oppression of black and brown women. By addressing the trauma and healing the scars of the girls and women who are so easily pushed into a life of prison. It begins with providing free mental and physical health care services. With not turning a blind eye. With a willingness to listen. A desire for change. A spark of hope. It begins with education. With equal justice. With freedom to dream. And, it begins with the foundational truth that all human beings have the right to live in their essence and be free. Most important, it begins with you. It begins with me. With our voices, our stories, and our determination to stand up for what is right. It begins with a collective mindset, a unified society that compassionately cares for all its citizens. A society centered on equality, liberty, and justice for all.


Compassion, care, and justice guided my fourth quarter exploration for Beyond the Cell. It began with my taking a deep dive into training with the Buddhist Geeks to enhance my social mediation skills. The Sangha’s teachings center on variations of the ancient practice of Metta, the loving kindness meditation. This practice greets each life experience with loving kindness. Studies show that college students who practice the loving kindness meditation for a month experience greater compassion for themselves and for others, and can more accurately anticipate what others are thinking, enhancing their theory of mind. Compassion enhances the process of healing the scars of trauma and nurtures positive self-growth. These expanded practices of the loving kindness meditations will be shared with incarcerated and post-incarcerated women to create long lasting behaviors and neural patterns centered on compassion for themselves and others.

In bringing the Beyond the Cell program to girls at Victor Treatment Center (VTC), I wanted to ensure the program taught meditation through a trauma-informed lens and that nothing in the program would be triggering for girls and women who had suffered trauma. This is vitally important for this population. Studies show that women in prison have 79% greater rates of traumatic brain injury compared to non-imprisoned women. And this kind of injury only accounts for one type of physical trauma, not the other physical, mental, emotional, and sexual traumas this population experiences. To ensure the safety of the program, I decided to take an advance course on the treatment of trauma through the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICAB). This training shared insights on the behavioral science of trauma, triggers, and behaviors that traumatized people express, and offered ways to diffuse trauma as it arises. It is critical in the Beyond the Cell program that we focus on ways to guide people with trauma-informed meditations and expressive writing exercises while cultivating ways to nurture self-compassion.


Working with the girls at VTC was eye opening. They were bright, intense, and remarkable artists living with layers and years of trauma. Many of the girls had spent their lives in foster care and moved from home to home, were in and out of juvenile hall and had no place to go. In fact, a 2016 report by The Center for Children’s Law and Policy found that youth in group homes are two and a half times more likely to enter prison than they are a foster home. And if a child has more than five foster placements, they have a 90% rate of being incarcerated. Black children are two times more likely to be in foster care than white children. Foster care children are at very high risk for incarceration.


As I worked with the girls, the greatest challenge I faced (aside from it being a pandemic and having to take various precautions) was the highly transient nature of their lives. From week to week, I was never sure who would show up to the program, which highlighted the daily trauma they live with. One week, a girl who had been doing very well at VTC was sent back to juvenile hall. Another week, two girls ran away. And then there were a few girls whom I could count on to regularly show up and participate. When I designed the program, I didn’t account for teaching such an irregular group. The reliability of the program depends on consistency, participation, and practice.


As I taught, I distilled the program and offered seeds of refuge and growth for the girls. I learned to adapt the program by developing new reading selections for teen girls and added a component for visual arts because a few of the girls preferred drawing to expressive writing. What naturally unfolded were classes that were different each time but that always began with chattiness and excitement. When we went through the meditations, there was an initial shadow of resistance to being open and giving the process a chance. But when they were drawing, they were quiet—that space of creation became their meditation. Unfortunately, because of California’s surge in Covid-19 cases, we decided to pause the program and follow the safer stay-at-home measures to ensure the safety of the community.


Over the past three months, I honed in on writing the proposal for Beyond the Cell, the program’s companion book that offers a fresh and necessary approach to mass incarceration of females and their rehabilitation. Beyond the Cell focuses on the neuroscience of poverty and the social and racial inequalities that compound the risk for female incarceration and its consequences for a woman’s mental, physical, and emotional health. It explores the facets of female incarceration through story, interviews, and advocacy for justice and equality.


In writing my book proposal, I’ve found organizations such as Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC) and PEN America to be guiding lights for advocacy and justice. For example, ARC is working with legislation to ensure the incarcerated population is the first to receive the Covid-19 vaccine. This population is the hardest hit by the pandemic. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation estimates that over the course of the pandemic 20% of the prison inmate population has had Covid-19. Inmates need advocacy and care.


As a PEN LA Committee Member, I’m excited to share with you the incredibly inspiring PEN America Virtual Gala. The awardees include Barack Obama, Marie Yovanovitch, Darnella Frazier, Xu Zhiyong, Frank A. Bennack Jr., and Patti Smith. You can view the spectacular event here.


More exciting news: Beyond the Cell is now a fully incorporated non-profit, thanks to Billy DeClercq, the treasurer. And thanks to board member Amy Deavoll, we have officially kickstarted our first fundraiser for 2021 to ensure the expansion of the program and our advocacy work.


What’s ahead for Beyond the Cell? Good news. I have begun scripting my courses with Madecraft and plan to record them in the new year with the team. We aim to develop more courses and offer the content to incarcerated women. I have partnered with a producer and composer and will be recording all the meditations from the Beyond the Cell program. These meditations will be on the Beyond the Cell website for free, and uploaded to Insight Timer, iTunes, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts. I am excited to embark on a two-year Mindfulness Meditation training certification program in February with Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, offered through UC Berkeley Greater Good Science and Sounds True. I plan to complete my book proposal and find a publisher. I believe humanizing stories is the most important advocacy I can do to remind people that these women are our mothers, grandmothers, daughters, aunties, and nieces. And all are our sisters. It is our responsibility to ensure the safety of our sisters in society. This work leads me and the organization to creating systemic change through policy work. We will continue to grow our partnerships with ARC, Amity, Homeboy, PEN and many others working to improve the lives of incarcerated women. Beyond the Cell plans to explore grants and begin its first fundraising event in 2021 to ensure the organization continues to flourish. Once there is widespread distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine, I plan to get the Beyond the Cell program into women’s prisons, as well as offer the program to post-incarcerated women for a successful reentry into society.


Beyond the Cell believes in second chances and living the life you imagine. I believe we can imagine a future incarceration free. That together as a community we can create a more free and just society through intention, action, and faith. We can have peace. We can have love. We can have gratitude.


In the words of Meister Eckhart, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”


Thank you to Milton and Rosalind Chang Exploration Prize and the Caltech Alumni Association for giving me this opportunity and freedom to explore. It has been a wonderful exploration.

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