Once-imprisoned Quaker teaches non-violence to prisoners

January 07, 1991|By Michael J. Clark | Michael J. Clark,Howard County Bureau of The Sun

For some, teaching prison inmates to resolve their disputes peacefully would seem an impossible dream. But not to Lee D. Stern, a 75-year-old disciple of Mohandas Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence.

Since late 1989, Mr. Stern has taken his workshop on alternatives to violence into Maryland prisons on an almost monthly basis, and he says the results he's seen have left him "full of optimism."

It is heartening to see amazing changes in front of your eyes," he said. "You see inmates with a lot of skepticism start the training. After a while, you see that hardness and bitterness change so they begin to trust and accept each other. It is unbelievable."

State prison officials have endorsed the concept, although they say it is too soon to measure the program's overall impact. But Sgt. Gregory M. Shipley, spokesman for the state Division of Correction, said there had been a "noticeable positive change" in the behavior of some inmates who had taken the training.

In 1975, Mr. Stern played a key role in introducing the concept in New York prisons, and it has since spread to 18 states. The workshop uses role-playing and trust-building games to teach people to settle disputes without fighting.

Mr. Stern, who moved to Maryland in January 1988 to live at the Friends House retirement community in Sandy Spring with his wife, Ruth Hoeniger, knows what it is like to be a prisoner.

A sensitive man with a wiry build and snow-white beard, he spent 37 months at the medium-security Federal Correctional Institute in Milan, Mich., during World War II because he refused alternative service as a conscientious objector.

In a way, he said, he went to prison to prove a point about non-violence, a philosophy he has espoused since he learned Gandhi's methods in 1940 when he joined the Ahimsa Farm Community in Aurora, Ohio.

His father, a Cleveland industrialist, encouraged him to learn about Gandhi's activities to free India from British control. But when Mr. Stern faced a prison term because of his steadfast pacifist beliefs, his father tried to persuade him that non-violence was not practical with people who had violent tendencies.

Mr. Stern, however, carried his pacifist principles into prison as "an experiment in non-violence."

"I found my time in prison a meaningful experience. I learned more there than anywhere else," he said.

A major accomplishment of his time, Mr. Stern said, was integration of the prison. He ignored rules on segregation by joining black prisoners in the dining hall. And he pressed prison officials to end segregation, which they did after first experimenting with integrating a single cell block.

"We formed a wonderful spirit of community in the cell block and amazed everyone, and several months later they desegregated the whole prison," Mr. Stern said.

In any event, he said, his prison stay convinced him that "a non-violent way of life would not be altered in working with violent people."

"Prisoners respected people who would stick to what they believed and stick their neck out for their principles," he said.

The task of teaching non-violence as a way of life cuts against the grain of U.S. society, Mr. Stern says.

"We promote violence on every hand," said Mr. Stern, who left the Unitarian Church as a young man to become a member of the Religious Society of Friends. "It is so much a part of our culture -- the killing on TV and in the movies . . . the war toys for children. We can't get away from it anywhere."

Since the early 1960s, Mr. Stern has been active with the Quakers and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an international pacifist organization, in working to promote non-violence.

He was one of the founders and the administrator of the Children's Creative Response to Conflict program, which is aimed at teaching children to resolve their quarrels in non-violent ways. As an outgrowth of that project, Mr. Stern was co-author of the handbook, "Friendly Classroom for a Small Planet."

Many of the methods from the book were employed when the Quaker-backed conflict resolution program was first tried in the New York prisons. The workshop was founded by Larry Apsey, who is still active in New York prisons at the age of 88.

The training emphasizes building a positive self-image in the prisoners, teaching cooperation rather than competition, and developing problem-solving skills, Mr. Stern said.

One example is a puzzle game in which teams are asked to assemble a perfect square. Five teams are given patterned pieces that do not quite form a square. They cannot achieve the goal without help from other teams, who hold the critical piece to their puzzle. Without talking, each team must conclude that it has to help another team before it can assemble its own square.

Mr. Stern said he is hopeful that non-violence could increasingly make its presence felt.

". . . there is a growing interest to get at the roots of violence, and it is heartening to see how the movement has gathered momentum," he said.

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