Compassion Prison Project: Bringing Trauma-Informed Care into the Prison System with Fritzi Horstman
A podcast brought to you by the NARM® Training Institute
In this episode of Transforming Trauma, our host Sarah Buino is joined by Fritzi Horstman, Founder and Executive Director of the Compassion Prison Project. Through her work, Fritzi aims to bring trauma-informed care to a population in high need of trauma healing and not likely to receive it: men and women in prison.
Sarah and Fritzi discuss Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), how childhood trauma impacts people who are incarcerated, and how trauma awareness can support prison reform. Throughout their conversation, they talk about how both the Compassion Prison Project and the NeuroAffective Relational Model (NARM) work to dismantle shame, humanize individuals, and heal complex trauma.
“In our society, we don’t talk about trauma,” Fritzi shares. It wasn’t until she read Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score that she awoke to her own strategies she had developed in childhood to cope with unresolved trauma. Sarah describes “survival strategies” in NARM as the ways children learn to adapt to relational, developmental and environmental trauma.
For many people that are incarcerated, it is their survival strategies that can create the behaviors that lead them to becoming incarcerated. Fritzi herself acknowledges the behaviors she used as an adolescent and young adult that could have easily led her into the criminal justice system. It was as she was becoming aware of her own trauma, and the way it affected her life, that she started working with people who are incarcerated. Since working with individuals in prison, she sees them all as traumatized human beings. This was the spark that led Fritzi to found the Compassion Prison Project.
The Compassion Prison Project’s important mission is to “bring compassion, childhood trauma awareness, and creative inspiration to the men and women living behind bars”. Earlier this year, they released a documentary, “Step Inside The Circle”, which depicts what Fritzi calls the Compassion Trauma Circle. 235 incarcerated men at a maximum security prison in Lancaster, CA form a circle and for each Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) read aloud by Fritzi that they’ve experienced, they take one step forward into the circle. Step Inside The Circle highlights that childhood trauma is a shared experience of most people who are incarcerated. Fritzi says, “our pain is shared, and almost all of us have been victims of inhumanity and violence.”
Fritzi and Sarah agree that in order for healing to happen, toxic shame must be addressed. “We need to stop the stigma of addiction. And the stigma of homelessness. And the stigma of poverty,” says Fritzi. “There is no shame in being alive.” In alignment with NARM, the Compassion Prison Project puts forth the idea that people matter, regardless of their situation. That’s a lesson Fritzi hopes we can all learn from.
Sarah asks Fritzi, “what do you imagine a trauma-informed prison system to look like?” Fritzi shares that a trauma-informed prison would be a center for rehabilitation and healing that supports people to change the underlying behaviors that were created originally by trauma. She envisions a system that helps vulnerable individuals build a bridge back to society, and most importantly, would return them back to their community as a human, and “not the felon, not the criminal that you know, but the human that [they] are.”
Sarah and Fritzi also discuss the implications of trauma-informed care beyond the prison setting to other institutions and settings, impacting systemic trauma as it is embedded into our society. The pair reflect on their work in the field of trauma and draw a hopeful line from the “global reboot” brought on by the COVID pandemic to a more equitable, compassionate, and trauma-informed future.
Fritzi Horstman is the Founder and Executive Director of Compassion Prison Project. She is a Grammy-award winning producer for her work on “The Defiant Ones”, has been a producer and post-producer on dozens of television projects and documentaries and has directed several films. She believes it is urgent to bring humanity and compassion to those living behind bars and these acts will help transform our society. She has a Bachelor's Degree from Vassar College.