Typically, kindness doesn't top the list of survival skills needed in a women's prison.
But last week, inmates around the world who call themselves "compassionistas" teamed up to see who could perform the most acts of compassion, and competed other prisons and citizens in The 2017 Compassion Games.In previous years, as part of Compassion Games International, the prison inmates at the California Institution for Women (CIW) tallied 4,500 acts of kindness that included sharing food, cleaning each others' living spaces, and helping apply sunscreen before going outside. Even when temperatures climbed to 108 degrees in the Corona facility in 2013, the women avoided irritable exchanges and encouraged one another to stay hydrated.
"The Compassion Games allowed gang members, or those who need to maintain an image, to step outside of their 'roles' and be kind to others without ridicule," one inmate said.
During the entire 11 days of the event, kindness was so contagious that no violent incidents were recorded.
Four nonprofits inside CIW, which run dog training and sewing programs, organized the activities, one of which entailed sewing and knitting–on overdrive for 11 days–to create as many items for charity as they could. They created whimsical hats for critically and terminally ill children, and pillows, blankets, and scarves for the homeless or hospitalized veterans.
With every stitch, the inmates were practicing making "living amends" and giving back to society, something they have expressed as being fundamentally important to them.
The organizing committee at CIW wrapped up the Games in 2015 with a "Day of Compassion," inviting the entire 2,000 person prison population to take part in a day free of negative energy with a special evening meal prepared by the culinary department.
Reverend Shayna Lester, who played a key role in bringing Compassion Games to CIW, views the multi-year project as an enormous success, and something with the potential for widespread replication.
After fielding inquiries from volunteers at prisons across the country, she prepared a quick-start guide for those who wish to bring the Games to other correctional facilities.
While it's difficult to measure the long-term impact of the inmates involved in the Games, Lia Mandelbaum wrote in the Jewish Journal, "Having the women engage in the Compassion Games is what I believe to be one of the most powerful forms of restorative justice and healing."
An inmate named Tikvah also told the journal, "Mostly, there has been a shift in awareness of how compassion and acts of kindness can change attitudes and our living environment."
Playing in the Games, which run annually for ten days in September, has also offered them a vital lesson: though constrained by the walls of the prison, they still have a choice as to how they want to show up in the world.
Founder Jon Ramer created the games in September of 2012 as a way for people to band together to make the world a kinder place. More than 100 teams have participated, including community groups, faith congregations, schools, families, government agencies and business teams in Australia, Botswana, Canada, Europe, India, Israel, Mexico and across the U.S.
For more information, or to register an individual or team for next year, visit the Compassion Games website.
Laura Zera is an author, consultant, speaker, and Licensed Facilitator of The Desire Map.
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