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Built in 1996, SVSP has long ranked among California’s most violent penitentiaries. Gangs control many aspects of prison life, enforcing racial segregation in most yards; wars erupt periodically among the factions. Beatings and stabbings are a daily occurrence, as prisoners punish members of their own group for violations of protocol or perceived acts of disrespect. Inmates attack guards as well, often with cupfuls of urine and feces, and guards use batons or pepper spray to subdue unruly inmates.
Yet on a Saturday morning in October, an experiment in empathy is getting under way. A dozen blue-uniformed inmates drift into a classroom off A Yard, decorated with maps, alphabet letters, and a poster of a surfer at sunset. After exchanging handshakes, shoulder bumps, and murmured greetings, they sit in a ring on battered steel chairs, clustering like segments on a demographic pie chart: six Native Americans on one side, four African Americans on the other, with a guy from Honduras and a preop transsexual (who identifies as Mexican, Apache, and female) seated alone between the groups. The only whites in the gathering, besides myself, are a couple of trainers—one dark and stout, the other fair and lanky—who’ve come to teach a two-day workshop in a communication technique known as Council.
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