Fritzi Horstman is the Founder and Executive Director of the Compassion Prison Project an organization dedicated to bringing compassion, childhood trauma awareness and creative inspiration to all men and women living behind bars.
She directed “Step Inside the Circle,” after working with 30 incarcerated men living at Kern Valley State Prison for over a year and learning about the extent of their childhood trauma.
With 95% of the men and women incarcerated eventually returning home, Fritzi believes it is imperative that we address the chronic mental health issues in prison with compassion, common sense and a sense of urgency.
John Shegerian: This edition of the Impact podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet, and your privacy. It is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States, and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.
John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact podcast. This is a very special edition of the Impact podcast because I’m honored and excited to have Fritzi Horstman with us today. Welcome to Impact, Fritzi.
Fritzi Horstman: Thank you so much. I’m so excited to be here. So great to talk with you.
John: Oh, yeah. And you are the Founder and Executive Director of the Compassion Prison Project. Before we get talking about that, I’d love you just to share a little bit about your background, where you’re from, how you got here, and how you decided where the lightbulb went off to start this beautiful and wonderful and important project that you’re working on right now.
Fritzi: I was raised in New York City, born in Chicago, and came to Los Angeles to be a filmmaker. I worked on a bunch of post-production in Hollywood for years, directed a couple of features, a documentary, a lot of short films, and worked on The Defiant Ones with Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine. I’ve always had this sense that something’s wrong. When I was a kid, I used to take photos of homeless people. I went to Brazil and took some photos of poor people, mostly Black. They weren’t African. They’re mostly Black people. About six or seven years ago, I had this feeling like what have we done to the African-American community in America. My mother was from the south and she was a racist. So there’s always been this racist tension in my house because I didn’t agree with her feelings.
I had a crush on a little black boy when I was six. His name is Alfredo. When I came home, I said, “Mom, I have a crush on Alfredo.” And she said, “If you ever marry a black man, I’ll never speak to you again.” So I was six, dealing with that kind of rage. That was rage. I think it’s displaced rage. I think a lot of racism is displaced rage because a lot of people are abused by their families. They don’t want to be angry at their family, so they take it out. And what I’ve learned is they’re taking out on people in prison. They are taking it out on addicts that the policies that we’ve created are based on rage. That’s my sense, anyway.
I’ve been watching the African-American world, and it’s like, “What is going on here?” So after The Defiant Ones, I started developing a lot of projects. One is about the Scottsboro Boys. Anyway, it’s a very famous story. Two landmark cases came from the Scottsboro Boys. Anyway, a bunch of things I was developing. And then one day, I volunteered to go to a prison. I went to a prison, Kern Valley State Prison. It is a maximum-security prison. Most of the men are in their cells 23 hours a day. They’re allowed out for sometimes two hours for their exercise. If they have education or classes, they’re led out, but otherwise, they’re in their cells. These are small cells and there were two people. Basically, imagine being in your bathroom for the rest of your life. That’s basically what we’re doing to 2.2 million people.
I went to this prison, and I walked in and I had just read a book called “The Body Keeps The Score”. I don’t know if you’ve read that book. It’s by Bessel van der Kolk, and it’s about trauma. He really spells out what trauma does to the body, brain and spirit, what happens to you when you’re in fight-or-flight, which is basically if you look around America, everyone’s in fight-or-flight. And when I realized that, oh wait, I’m not this crazy lady that is raging at people on freeways and unable to control my behavior with my son, yelling at him. When he drops things, I freak out. Like, what is this? I’m just on edge. And then I read this book, and it’s like, oh, I’m in survival mode. I’ve been in survival mode since I was born, basically, because of the abuse in my childhood.
I walked into prison and there were a hundred men. Some people said these are hardened criminals, and I’m like, “These aren’t hardened criminals. These are just men that are highly, highly traumatized.” I walked in there, cried all day. I heard some stories. One guy was in his bathtub. I mean, he was in his bathtub and his father tried to drown him. And I could see that he had numbed and repressed everything, and he was just like a shadow of who he could be. I introduced myself to the group, and I said, “I’m Fritzi. This isn’t a prison. This is a trauma center. Everyone here is just traumatized.” But I realized that all my behaviors, I’ve been a juvenile delinquent, basically. I was actually an accessory to a robbery. I had sold drugs. I was the worst of the worst, if you really want to see it. I’d shoplifted from Saks Fifth Avenue, and it was really easy back then. No, it was.
John: It was funny. Yeah. There were all these cameras and you are picking things from the shop.
Fritzi: No, and I was a white girl, so it was really easy. They didn’t think anything of it. We also shoplifted from the A&P. My friends got caught. I didn’t get caught. I’m saying it with delight, but this is what…
John: Right. Yes, you were into that world of acting out. You were acting out.
Fritzi: Yes. Exactly. And there was a gang called the “go club” down in the village. I don’t know if you remember them. I had a crush on this guy, rebel. So this is the thing. I had the same instincts and same impulses as the men that are in prison. If I had gotten caught and I was a different color or a different socio-economic group, bam, I wouldn’t be speaking with you today. So that’s the hypocrisy. There’re levels of hypocrisy. The prison says we want you to be accountable for your crimes. But right now, in every prison in the United States, we’re abusing and torturing men and women. Who is being accountable for that? So the hypocrisy is palpable, and it’s obscene. And so, I want accountability from everybody in prisons. I want people to be accountable. Why are we torturing people? We know there’s a 67% recidivism rate in the United States. If that was a business, it would have failed in the first six months. We would have been out of business.
So, it’s either that we just don’t know how to fix the thing or we like the idea that we’re punishing and destroying lives. But guess what, 95% of the men and women returned to us, eventually. So we are torturing them, punishing them, destroying them. And then what chance do they have to succeed in society? And this is the thing. We’re getting more victims. They’re creating more victims. Now, who’s accountable for the victims? The state should be accountable for the victims because they’re the ones doing the crimes. They’re not rehabilitating the men and women in prison. I know I just went on a long, long rant.
John: No, you didn’t. For our listeners out there who just joined us, we got Fritzi Horstman here. She is the Executive Director and Founder of the Compassion Prison Project. I want you to look it up at www.compassionprisonproject.org. Fritzi, the day you went over to Kern, why did you go? Were you invited on some other sort of mission there? How did that bridge you from West LA to Kern Prison to even just get this whole thing rolling?
Fritzi: There was a thing called Hustle 2.0. Cath Hoke created this experience.
John: I know Cath.
Fritzi: Of course you do. So I went there. And basically, when you are a volunteer there, she activates people. She wakes them up. She’s like, “Look at what we’re doing.” She activated me big time. I cried for eight hours. She sets up this step to the line exercise. I don’t know if you’ve done that, or…
John: Yeah. I haven’t been there with her, but I know what it is.
Fritzi: It was that exercise that woke me up. I was like I need an exercise that’s experiential, just like that. But dealing with trauma, specifically dealing with the adverse childhood experiences. I don’t know if your listeners know what that is. But there’s a quiz created by Vince Valetti from Kaiser and Robert Anda from the CDC in the 90s. They found that the top ten Adverse Childhood Experiences was a way to determine adverse health outcomes. So if you had been sexually molested as a child, the chances of you having cancer or autoimmune disease skyrocketed. So the ten Adverse Childhood Experiences are sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, physical and emotional neglect, parents getting divorced or separated, domestic violence, a parent or caregiver having drug or street or alcohol abuse, parent or caregiver being mentally ill or suicidal, and a parent or a family member going to prison. Those are the top ten Adverse Childhood Experiences, and there’re thousands more. Racism, bullying. What I really like to point out is traumatic brain injury.
Most of the men, I had them step inside the circle for their traumatic brain injury. Most of them have had their heads bashed. If you damage your prefrontal cortex, you can’t think straight. You can’t focus. You can’t learn. And so this is what we’re doing. We’re penalizing people for their inabilities to function in society when we have no tools whatsoever to function. There was a man on death row that I wrote to. He’s been subsequently murdered by the federal government. His name is Wesley Purkey. He did horrible crime. Horrible, horrible crime. But what was done to him was equally horrible. And that’s the piece that we’re missing, and that’s the piece that we don’t want to look at. It’s the crimes that we as a society know are happening. We’re allowing them to continue. And the cycle of poverty, the cycle of annihilation, of redlining, all the policies that we have in place are really designed to keep people in poverty and toxic stress and annihilation. So this is like a cycle of annihilation that we’re responsible for, and we got to take responsibility for now.
John: You were at Kern with Cath. You cried eight hours. You fell in love. You start realizing where your heart is, where you want to migrate your energy. How did you pick the path? How did you come up with the Compassion Prison Project and the path that you started on from there on?
Fritzi: I just read my journal about a month ago, and it said, “I am obligated to do something”. That was it. I walked out of there, and I was like, I got to do something. So I went to the PIO, the Public Information Officer. He is the guy who deals with things. I don’t know. And he said, “Yeah, create a pilot program. Let’s do it.” It was like during a window when Kern Valley was a little more open. Right now there these waves of progression and then we go backwards. So I wrote a curriculum. I didn’t even know what I was doing. I was like I research kindness, a research compassion, but I knew that was what they needed most.
Four months later, I walked. On January 5, 2019, I started my pilot program. I didn’t know what I was doing. The first two classes were ridiculous. You have to drive like two and a half to three hours to get there. It’s like a five-hour journey. So I go on a Saturday. I spend eight hours and then and come back three weeks later. So we did it. We started growing and these amazing volunteers came along. At first, it was really hard to get volunteers and now we have 500 volunteers on Compassion Prison Project who want to go into prisons, who want to do this work. Of course, they can’t, but that’s okay. Prisons are opening soon, so we’ll be in there. But within four months, it was like we have to do an exercise that really shows this trauma. And so, together with the 35 men that I worked with at Kern Valley, we created the Compassion Trauma Circle. For every one of those adverse childhood experiences that I listed off, you take a step into the circle, and what happens is we realize. And as the very articulate Sam Brown says in the film Step Inside The Circle, our traumas bring us closer together. The more traumas we have, the more we realize that we’re really in this together.
And guess what? Based on some statistics about spanking in the 70s and 80s, like 80 to 90% of the men and women have been spanked and they’re justifying this behavior. This tells a child that they’re not good enough. Spanking is not okay. Child abuse is not okay. But it’s been handed down for generations. I have eight of those ten ACEs. I have eight Adverse Childhood Experiences. The degrees that I experienced are sometimes not as much as the man Wesley Purkey, who was on death row. I wasn’t bashed in the head. I wasn’t thrown against the wall. My father didn’t blow his brains out in my bedroom wall. I didn’t experience that kind of adversity. But it’s the repetitive not knowing when the hit is coming, not knowing if my father’s drunk tonight, not knowing how my mother’s going to respond to my father, not knowing if they’re going to have a blowout, not knowing if she’s going to hit my sister, those kinds of things put you on edge. Those things put you in a state of fight-or-flight. I’ve been in the state of fight-or-flight since I was 55. I’m 58 right now. But until I knew I was traumatized, I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know that my behavior was not who I am. And that’s like the big mitzvah in this world is to know that you’re traumatized.
That’s one of the things we are doing. We are creating a video series called Trauma Talks. We want this curriculum in every prison in the United States. There are 1,833 prisons. We want them in every prison. It’s bringing awareness about trauma and bringing healing modalities. Hopefully, we can share this with the world. I don’t care who sees this. So men and women can start getting into their prefrontal cortex, start not being in fight-or-flight, start calming down because you can’t heal when you’re in fight-or-flight. And did you know that the life expectancy of a correctional officer is 59 years old? Did you know that that presents as having six or more ACEs? Your life expectancy goes down up to 20 years when you have six or more ACEs. My mother died at 69. My father died at 61. And the correctional officers basically retire and then die. So something is terribly wrong in prisons. It’s not just what we’re doing to the people living in prison, but also to the people working in prison.
John: Well, as you say, just with the people information you just gave is itself compelling. But numerically, as you said, the 67% recidivism rate. It’s an absolute failure. Failure on every level. So a little bit about you, though. So you grew up with those kinds of traumas. I’m always fascinated by people that face this kind of trauma, some worse than others. Losing parents. I had Martin Luther King III recently, and we talked about him losing his father. His father is 39. He was 10. How did you get through that? It was the day after he passed I remember everyone in the house the amount of love and support that his family got from others in the community. Did you get that love and support outside of your core family? Were there other friends or other parents or other aunts or uncles that gave you support because you’ve had, as society goes looking outward in, a very successful career? Or did you just literally white-knuckled it until you started peeling back this onion of your life?
Fritzi: I’m going to say I white-knuckled it. My family was pretty insular. I had my best friend Julie. She witnessed some of the abuse that I endured. I would go to her country house and rest, basically. I got to get away from the stress.
John: Great. That’s good. As an adult, did you understand this in your 20s, 30s, or 40s? Did you get the professional help then, or is it just now that it’s all coming together?
Fritzi: Just now. I mean, literally 55 years old, that changed my life. And when I realized I was like, everybody has to know that they’re traumatized. Because it was like, “Oh my God, I’m this great human being underneath all this.”
John: Right. The sky opened up. All of a sudden everything opened up to you. It’s amazing.
Fritzi: Exactly. I want the sky for everybody because that’s the thing, and that’s what we got wrong about prison. It’s the behavior, it’s not who they are. They’re not the worst of the worst. They’re not hardened criminals. There are sociopaths in there. But with the people that really need to stay in prison, let’s do a brain scan. Let’s really find out what’s going on. If you read Bruce Perry’s book “The Child Who Was Raised As A Dog”, he talks about what neglect does to the brain, especially during the first years of life. You can’t really recover from that. There’s just some people that need to not be in society, but they don’t need to be destroyed. We don’t need to destroy people because they didn’t have a good upbringing. We can give them art classes and music classes and give them a sense of being human because that’s what we’re here for. There’s an algorithm. It’s like what you do to others, you do to yourself.
Societally, what we’re doing to others, we’re doing to ourselves. We are incarcerating ourselves. We are not taking care of ourselves. Because when you take care of the most vulnerable, which are the people in prison, the homeless, the addicts. Those are the most vulnerable people. When you take care of them, you take care of the part that you’ve denied, that you’ve abandoned. And that’s what we need to do. We need to shine the light in our own darkness and reclaim the parts of ourselves that we’ve abandoned. And this is what’s up for us as a society because we’ve also abandoned Mother Earth. As you know, in your work, in your other work, we’ve got to take care of this Earth because she is our mother. She is the woman, and it’s really the woman that’s been annihilated. It’s kind of a metaphor that I’m just uncovering right now. We are not taking care of the mother, the one who gave birth to us, who allowed us to thrive, who allowed us to survive. And if we don’t take care of our vulnerable people, if we don’t see them as human, as part of us, then we’re really not really seeing our own humanity. It’s an imperative right now.
John: It’s not okay.
Fritzi: But no shame. Here’s the thing.
John: I love that. I want to get to the no-shame issue. I just want to give a shout-out here. We’ve got Fritzi Horstman with us today. She’s the Founder and Executive Director of the Compassion Prison Project. Please go to the website. I’m on the website now. I’m going to tell you, first of all, it is an amazing website full of great information, but it also has a very important documentary Step Into The Circle. It’s a beautiful, beautiful video that I encourage everyone to watch. Because no matter where you are in your life, it’s going to move your heart in the right direction towards action to help some of these issues that Fritzi is discussing today. So, I just want you to go to the website, watch this video. Now, I want to go to the shame issue. Talk about it, because I love the t-shirts that are in your documentary. Talk about no shame, Fritzi.
Fritzi: The thing about shame is, if we shame people, they resist it and they want to double down on whatever it is that they’re doing that we’re shaming them for. Shame is the lowest vibration that we can operate in. And if you walk into a prison, you can actually feel the shame. You can feel the lowest vibration. By saying there’s no shame, and this is no shame about anything we’ve done in the past. I don’t care if you’ve murdered somebody. I mean, I’m really upset about the victims that have been created because of this societal structure that we’ve endorsed, but we’ve got to move on. We cannot keep living in the past. We cannot keep calling people who’ve committed crimes offenders. Let’s call them residents. Let’s call them citizens. Let’s get them back on their feet because they’re coming home. They’re coming home to us.
But the shame piece is, let’s just forgive everything. Let’s forgive everything. Everything. Let’s forgive slavery. Let’s forgive genocide. Let’s forgive redlining. Let’s forgive it all. We need to reboot. We need to just start over and just say, “Okay, look, this isn’t working.” Right now I’m going to talk about solitary confinement because that is what’s up right now. We’ve all lived in solitary, right? We’ve all been in our own little version of solitary in this past year. Imagine twenty-six years. Imagine forty-three years. Albert Woodfox spent 43 years in solitary confinement.
John: Explain what it is physically so we all can get. Because we’ve had our creature comforts in our homes and thought our heads about the pop off during the pandemic. Talk about what solitary confinement for those who haven’t been in a prison, what it looks like physically, and how it feels emotionally.
Fritzi: Imagine living in your bathroom, not a nice bathroom, one of those horrible bathrooms, 23 hours a day, five days a week, and then 24 hours a day over the weekends. That’s what we’re talking about. And then when they let you out, you can maybe see the sky, maybe not. And you’re in this cage, and it’s like a dog run, and you just go back and forth for an hour. That’s your exercise. And then you go back. No human contact. And what happens is, because we are social creatures, we have to be in society. That’s how we get our information as how does this person respond to me? Does he like me? Does he like what I’m saying? If you don’t have any feedback, you’re left with yourself. And yourself sometimes doesn’t have the best thinking. There are some people who have survived solitary and have thrived, but it’s not a lot of people. And what happens is these people, they’re told they have to do certain things in order to succeed, in order to get out of solitary. But if you get aggressive or if you make them do a cell extraction, which is basically you’re spreading feces or you’re cutting yourself, if you do those kinds of behaviors, you have to start back from square one.
There’s one man, Anthony Gay. If you look at some of our Instagram posts, you can see what he did to his arm. Its scars upon scars upon scars. He also cut his eyelids. He also cut his testicles. This is what happens when you don’t have contact with humans. He was in for stealing a dollar and a hat. He was supposed to be in for three years. He ended up being in solitary confinement for 20 years. So the thing about solitary is there’s no accountability. A correctional officer can put you in just because you have, let’s say, five extra envelopes. You’re supposed to only have 20. If you have 25 envelopes, he can throw you in solitary. If you look at him the wrong way, if he doesn’t like it, he’ll write up a report with all this kind of nonsense and suddenly, you’re in the hole for six days, six years, twenty-six years.
John: So there’s an ability on the prison guards that can reduce fine?
Fritzi: It varies. But if the prison guard doesn’t like you, and remember, he’s as equally traumatized as the men he’s serving. He has four or more ACEs. So he is in fight-or-flight. He is getting triggered. No shame. But no, you cannot put somebody. More than 15 days in solitary is considered torture according to the United Nations. Okay? It’s Nelson Mandela’s rules. More than 15 days. There are men right now that have been in solitary for 26 years, 20-30 years, 35 years. This is what we’re doing. I know a man. He is writing a story right now for me. He was in there for 30 years. I know a man that I worked with in Kern. He was in there for 10 years, and he’s just not right. Something is off. And remember, those men are going back into society and we don’t want them derange, cutting themselves. There’s a 97% recidivism rate for the men and women that experienced long-term solitary. And I’m going to tell you one quick story.
John: It was 30% more than the general population.
Fritzi: Exactly. I’m just going to tell you the story about Colorado. They let out a man directly from solitary. He was in solitary for seven years. He went, and he murdered the Director of Corrections in Colorado who was actually trying to reduce solitary. But he went and murdered the head of corrections in Colorado. His successor, Rick Raemisch, ended long-term solitary confinement in his prisons. He reports an 80% reduction in violence since he ended long-term solitary confinement.
John: Why can’t that paradigm then be publicized and then get across to the other 1,833 prisons across the United States? What’s the matter with us?
Fritzi: Well, that’s what I’m doing. That’s the word I’m spreading. I interviewed him on our podcast, Rick Raemisch. You can listen to what he thinks. And then his successor, Dean Williams, that podcast is coming out in a couple of weeks. I also just interviewed Christine Montross, who wrote a book called “Waiting For An Echo”. She is a doctor in Rhode Island who actually works in mental health but also has to report to the judges about suitability for trials. So, she has interactions with people in solitary. So please listen to that interview as well and read her book. Her book is incredible. This is the thing the public doesn’t know, and this is by design. Prisons are three or four hours, five hours, ten hours away from society. And so what goes on there, we don’t really know. We have a sense, but we don’t know. But it’s time that we know. It’s time that we know that the men and women are coming back to us and we need them to be leaders and change-makers, instead of homeless, addicts. Basically, a lot of people that experience solitary, they go to work, and then they go home and they stay in their room, just like they were in solitary.
John: Because they do what’s comfortable. They do what they know.
Fritzi: But it creates an impairment where they…
John: Oh my God, of course. Of course.
Fritzi: There’s inabilities.
John: I want to go for a circle on. You say prisons are far away and we don’t really know what’s going on there. Obviously, the media, that’s not fun for them to cover, so they’re not covering it that much. And then let’s go back to your bread and butter profession, Hollywood. Hollywood, when you talk to prisoners who come out, it’s more of a glamorized, non-reality-based version of prison that we all get to see. So our television version of prison, or even the cable version, the AWS version, is really still not like what you are sharing with us today. The reality-based prison.
Fritzi: There’s violence in prison, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Norway had the same problems we’re having in the United States with violence and with riots and abuse and annihilation, but they changed it and they said, “No. You know what? The minute this person walks into the prison, we’re going to find out what he needs.” Does he have an education? What’s his family history? What’s going on? Let’s set him up for success, so when he returns to us in society, he’s in great shape. He can be a really productive member of society. He can be a father. He can be a citizen.
But when you go into prison in Norway, the only thing they take away from you is your freedom. Everything else is there. You can still vote. You’re still a citizen. They do a thing called normalization, where every morning you wake up, you go shopping for your food. You do your laundry. The guards played volleyball with you. You go to work. You come home. You watch TV. Maybe you play cards. There are knives in your kitchen because you need to cook your breakfast. They trust you. There are some incidents where people go into fight-or-flight. Yes, of course. But they talk to them.
John: There are incidents in regular society when people go into fight-or-flight. So, it doesn’t mean it’s a failure with that new prison paradigm.
Fritzi: Well, it’s a 20% recidivism rate. And gosh, who knows what happened to those kids when they were children. But that’s a workable business model.
John: You’re saying there is a better way we need to get with the program here in this country. There is a better way. I want to go into the shame issue. First of all, you have wonderful t-shirts that say “there is no shame”. Explain what you mean by that messaging. I want to understand that. I want our listeners and viewers to understand that.
Fritzi: Okay. So you did something bad. You did something really bad. But first of all, you were in fight-or-flight, right? So you’re in survival mode. Who knows what went on in your body. I’ve had fights with my sister. I don’t even remember what I’ve said. All I know is that I was out of my mind. It’s kind of like being blind drunk. I know when I’m in fight-or-flight when I can’t speak words like my verbal abilities are impaired. I’m like telling my son to pass me the sugar and I just point, but I know I’m in fight-or-flight. I know, okay, I am not myself. But I didn’t have this awareness four years ago. I didn’t know why I wasn’t able to talk to my son and I was freaking out in the kitchen. But that’s the thing. So, I’m not going to shame myself for not being able to think four years ago in the kitchen when I’m yelling at my son or when I’m screaming because he drops the peanut butter. That’s my body reacting. This is natural. This is like how we were animals first, and then we got our prefrontal cortex.
The prefrontal cortex is what distinguishes us from animals. When that’s not on line, guess what? They call people animals, but we are in our animal instincts. But there’s no shame to that, right? There’s no shame to have your body survive, but the amygdala shuts down your prefrontal cortex. It’s not an important piece when it’s survival. It shuts down your digestion, and it sends adrenaline and cortisol so that you can fight-or-flight, but there is no access to. Your prefrontal cortex governs wisdom, the idea of consequences, the idea of morality, good versus evil. People say that’s a choice that you made when you killed that person. No, that’s a choice your body made. But you’re saying your prefrontal cortex was on line. No, it wasn’t. It’s not. It doesn’t do that. Your body is in survival first. That’s it.
I’m saying no shame is because who knows? I mean, there are some people that are sociopaths and did the stuff, and premeditated murder, all these things. But if you’re doing premeditated murder, there’s something really wrong, right? There’s something really wrong. Like legacies of trauma in your family. Who knows? And if you’re chopping a body up, I don’t care what happens. That something is really terribly, terribly wrong. And if your head’s bashed, you’re not thinking straight, anyway. Ask a football player. Ask if he’s thinking straight. But we give him a pass. We give some that’s passes, right? But if you’re not thinking straight, so that’s why there’s no shame. We have to start forgiving. We are such a punitive society. And why? Why? Because we’re angry. We’re angry we were abused. I really believe that.
So let’s start examining what’s the level of child abuse in our own lives, and why do we want this kind of punishment? But if we continue to shame people, we can’t move on. We’re just stuck in this loop. We’re in this loop of the past. And the only way we can create a new, vibrant, magnificent, glorious future is if we start right now, in this moment that we’re talking. There’s no shame, clean slate, let’s get everybody back on track.
John: For our listeners and viewers who want to join this movement and want to help Fritzi and her colleagues who want to become a volunteer or donate money to these important issues, go to www.compassionprisonproject.org. Fritzi, talk about solitary confinement and what we can do as citizens of this great country to activate change. In terms of our politicians, instead of sending them to DC to fight with one another, what can we give them proactively as public servants to do to really create change that could be lasting and actually impactful in this country with regards to solitary confinement?
Fritzi: Thank you for asking that. Please visit our website, as you mentioned, and we have some information on solitary. Right now our volunteers are gathering status in every single state. We want to know how many people are in solitary, why they are in solitary. We don’t really know why. But we want to know why they’ve been in solitary for 26 years, why they’ve been deprived of just sunlight. So, what we need is for people to start calling their Congressmen, to start calling their Senators, to say why is solitary on the table. And then that will get to the prison officials, and the Governor is also good place to go. And if you’re a really powerful person who knows the Governor, who knows these politicians, just get them going. Get them asking questions. Dick Durbin in Illinois has done some great, great work with solitary. He just asked our new Attorney General to put that on the agenda. So it’s happening on the Federal level. But remember, there’s only one solitary. That’s just a small portion.
Ending private prisons in the Federal and ending solitary at the Federal level is just the tip of the iceberg. Basically, that’s one state. We have 50 states plus the Federal. So, we’ve got a lot of work to do. But whatever state you’re from, get busy. And if you’re from some weird, obscure state, or if you’re from Arkansas and Texas, which is some of the worst solitary right now. It’s used just for control, but the thing is, it makes the situation worse. There’s more violence. There’s more violence in the prison than if you hadn’t done it in the first place. It disables our citizens. We’re creating disabilities. They had a brain when they walked in. Now, they’re going to be hermits for the rest of their lives. Is that what we really want to do as a society? Just take the fundamental things that make us human away from people. And for why?
Okay, they did something horrendous. I agree. But there are other ways we can restore justice. Let’s get with the victims. Let’s find out what they need. What do you need from me? How can I make this right? I know I can’t bring your family member back. But I can mow your lawn. I can get your groceries. Let there be a human exchange instead of this sterile annihilation that we’re doing. In tribes, when people do wrong, what they do is they put that man or woman in the center of the circle, and they all go around and say what’s good about you? What do I see that is good in you? And that’s how you change a person. You don’t change a person by destroying them in a room the size of a parking space. You don’t do that. I mean, this is what we’re doing. I cry every day about what we’re doing. I want to stop crying. I want to start celebrating what’s possible. Because I know those men and women in there know how to fix their communities. They’ve got the answers.
John: When you’re talking to politicians, are they open to these issues here in California and other states, or is this something that’s not sexy enough for them to really want to get involved? Because as we know, DC has become Hollywood for the ugly folks. And they all want to get on television. They all want sexy projects. Are we getting traction on this issue of getting rid of solitary confinement? Are politicians actually interested?
Fritzi: There are some people that are interested. There are some things we have to really understand in the industry of prisons and what money has done to people in power. Do they answer to the ACA, the American Corrections Association? Are they answering to these big businesses that are keeping the cycle of incarceration in play? Because what they’re doing when we create recidivism, we are creating more crime. We are creating more victims. We are creating more problems. We are creating more stress on the police force. So, it’s kind of obscene what’s being done. I’ve spoken to two Governor’s offices so far. They’re opened to this shift. They are absolutely open to the shift. But I also wonder, why haven’t they done something sooner? And why somebody in solitary if they know this is bad? Why are we still punishing the men in the maximum-security prisons? Why are these policies allowed? We need Governors to say, “You know what, we’re going to stop solitary. We need to phase this out.” And we don’t have to wait. We don’t have to wait for anybody to do a survey. We don’t have to wait. There’s evidence and there are ways to do it. We have people that do it.
Rick Raemisch actually consults on this. Every state in the Union now can call Rick Raemisch, and he’ll tell you how to do it. There are people that are really bad in prison. They are really scary and they are really violent because they have been really tortured and dehumanized. So what you do instead? They need timeouts. What will you do? Okay, you put them in the solitary cell, but you take them out for five hours. You take them out for seven hours. You have them played cards, or you have them just sit in the community even though nobody talks to them, but they are still in society. And that is so key because if you take them out, you were we’re taking out our own soul like the soul of America. What is the soul of America? Is it a punishing, annihilating soul, or is it a forgiving and regenerative, and restorative soul? And I’m voting for the forgiveness piece.
John: Listen, we both grew up in New York City. Statue of Liberty sat right off of our shores, and the presence of the whole Statue of Liberty, the mission was to bring us, everybody, you’re tired and you’re poor [?]. And that’s the country we have. Immigration nation is how this great country was built. There’s no argument to that. There’s no right or wrong, it’s just what is. That’s the truth. And so, to ostracize these people after they’ve, as you’ve already said, been already traumatized as children is just beyond nuts. To ostracize them already in jail and to isolate them, it just sounds like it’s adding insult to injury and just literally giving them no chance to even have any sort of normal life post-prison. None whatsoever.
Fritzi: I know. It’s like seeing your own humanity, right? I honestly think child abuse is one of the reasons we can’t see our own humanity sometimes. Like I’ve been a workaholic all my life. But that’s a symptom of trauma. I don’t want to face my feelings. I don’t want to feel anything.
John: It’s a normal and socially acceptable form of self-medication.
Fritzi: Exactly. And you get rewarded for it, right?
John: You get rewarded. But people like us who are workaholics, who are running from things from our childhood, could have gone the other way and gotten the non-socially acceptable medications. That’s where those people are right now.
Fritzi: Exactly. Right. So we are rewarded for our hard work, but we still aren’t feeling anything. We aren’t feeling. I can’t feel when my son would cry. I couldn’t comfort him because he reminded me of my sister. He reminded me of my mother. Like I can’t deal with this rage. It scared the heck out of me. Yes, we’re running. Still, we are all running. We are all running from our feelings. We are shopping. We are baking every night because we want to eat all that sugar or whatever it is. And no shame, though. That’s the thing. It goes back to this.
John: I’m with you.
Fritzi: It goes back to it. Look, we’re all just trying to get through the day, but so is everyone in prison. And gosh, it’s 30 times harder. I just got to read this text I got from a man who just returned, Darnell. He’s one of our employees. He said, “Every day I realized how much they took from me.” I mean, he’s just out there right now. He’s just out there right now, standing in line. He is so excited to stand in a line in the supermarket. But 14 years, my son is 14 years. So he’s been in prison as long as my son has been alive. He’s 35 years old now, this man. They took 14 years of his life.
John: He’s out, and he appreciates it. Thank God.
Fritzi: Absolutely. And the future is bright for this young man. But why are we doing this? There is a district attorney in California who is now getting rid of all the three strikes that we did. So there is some hope for some of these men.
John: There’s a lot of hope for [inaudible] you. So talk a little bit about what your young woman still and you’re obviously massively successful. What’s ahead now? Give me the next 12 months, the next 24 months for the Compassion Prison Project. What are you going to do?
Fritzi: Right now we’ve got Trauma Talks. We are creating a six-part video series, and we are going to get it into every prison in the United States. We need a lot of money to help pay for the workbooks because we want everyone to do that.
John: [inaudible], what do our listeners have to do?
Fritzi: We need 4 million for the workbooks. I guess, overall, we need about 10 million in the bank so that I can pay these people that are working for nothing. I mean, one of my volunteers is… She’s not a volunteer. We call her the editor-in-chief. She’s working for free and she’s like, “come on.” I’m like, “I know we need a check.” So as soon as we get a check, she’s going to get paid, but that’s the thing. So let’s go $10 million, so we can breathe, so we can just go. I don’t want to keep raising money. I just want to work. I just want to get this curriculum done. Because after we do this Trauma Talks’ first series, I know it’s going to go on Netflix, eventually. But after we get that done, I want I do a whole parenting series. I want everyone in the United States to know about ACEs and parenting and how to parent and how to deal with your trauma. Because the thing is, especially with poverty, when you’re so stressed out, you don’t know how to deal with it and so you lash out on your kids. Let’s shift that.
Instead, you call somebody. Or instead, you learn how to breathe. You learn about yoga. You learn about meditation. You learn about somatic healing. These are things which people know about, it’s time for everybody to know about it. So I really want to make sure that we’re taking care of our communities, we’re taking care of people in prison. But remember, those communities that are in prison, 90% have at least one ACE. That’s in the research we’ve done. So that means in all those communities, everyone has at least one ACE. And 64% in what we’ve done have six or more ACEs. In the United States, 64% have at least one ACE. So that’s the difference. In those communities, 64% have six or more ACEs. And that’s annihilation. That’s being annihilated as a child. That is toxic stress. That is fight-or-flight all the time.
I’m sorry. One more thing. I know you’re about to say something. But you put a policeman who’s in that neighborhood, that area, he knows he’s in fight-or-flight. He goes right into fight-or-flight. And then he’s killing somebody because he’s in survival mode. We are angry at the policeman, but we should just be angry at society because this doesn’t have to be. We can take care of people by giving them enough food. It’s not socialism, it’s called humanism. It’s humanism. We see something wrong, we help it out. It’s not that they don’t deserve it. Who doesn’t deserve a meal? Who doesn’t deserve a place to live? Nobody. We have the money. We have the resources to take care of everybody. I say we do it. Let’s do it now. Because you know what? If we keep waiting, we’re just going to destroy the Earth and destroy these communities. We already see what that gets us.
John: Fritzi, you are amazing. You are an angel. I want you to come back on the show and continue to share the journey that you embarked upon at the Compassion Prison Project. For our listeners, please go to their website to find Fritzi, to donate your time, to donate money. They need capital to make these things happen. It doesn’t happen by accident. It’s compassionprisonproject.org. Fritzi Horstman, like I said, you are an angel. God bless you. Thank you for taking on these important topics. And like I said, this is just the beginning of the journey where you and I are now friends. You are always welcome back on the Impact podcast to continue to share your important and amazing mission. Thank you.
Fritzi: Thank you so much, John. And to say, in three years, all prisons will be healing centers. Thank you for your time. I appreciate it.
John: This edition of the Impact podcast is brought to you by Engage. Engage is a digital booking platform revolutionizing the talent booking industry. With thousands of athletes, celebrities, entrepreneurs, and business leaders, Engage is the go-to spot for booking talent, for speeches, custom experiences, live streams, and much more. For more information on Engage, or to book talent today, visit letsengage.com.