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Photo Essay: Inside 'Heart-to Heart' Prison Meditation Program

by Allegra Abramo /  / Updated 
April 22, 2015 - Leesburg, NJ. “This way of living from the heart is a different way of living,” Tumolo told the class in April. “It's not acting with instinct. It's not reactive thinking.”
April 22, 2015 - Leesburg, NJ. “This way of living from the heart is a different way of living,” Tumolo told the class in April. “It's not acting with instinct. It's not reactive thinking.”Allegra Abramo

Heart-to-Heart, a mindfulness and nonviolent communication program, began at New Jersey’s Bayside State Prison in 2009 and now operates in three prisons in the northeast. Students assemble once a week to learn meditation techniques and skills for fostering positive communication.

Heart-to-Heart founder Stephen Michael Tumolo believes that acting “from the heart” is one way people can foster empathy, and from there, make thoughtful choices.

“When I’m rooted in our hearts, not our heads, I'm more likely to chose what I love,” Tumolo said. “I've talked to so many men over the years who say, ‘I'm here because of something I did for my family. I thought I was helping my family. And now I'm away from my family for five years.’”
“When I’m rooted in our hearts, not our heads, I'm more likely to chose what I love,” Tumolo said. “I've talked to so many men over the years who say, ‘I'm here because of something I did for my family. I thought I was helping my family. And now I'm away from my family for five years.’”Allegra Abramo
April 22, 2015 - Leesburg, NJ. Hakeem Roberson, 28, sits with Heart-to-Heart program assistant Susan Weiss, who helped facilitate a small group. Weiss, a longtime student and now trainer in nonviolent communication, has been with the program since its inception.
April 22, 2015 - Leesburg, NJ. Hakeem Roberson, 28, sits with Heart-to-Heart program assistant Susan Weiss, who helped facilitate a small group. Weiss, a longtime student and now trainer in nonviolent communication, has been with the program since its inception.Allegra Abramo
April 22, 2015 - Leesburg, NJ. “This way of living from the heart is a different way of living,” Tumolo told the class in April. “It's not acting with instinct. It's not reactive thinking.”
April 22, 2015 - Leesburg, NJ. “This way of living from the heart is a different way of living,” Tumolo told the class in April. “It's not acting with instinct. It's not reactive thinking.”Allegra Abramo
Hakeem Roberson says Heart-to-Heart brought him a better understanding of his own feelings: “No matter how much of a gangsta you might be, we all deal with feeling and emotion. If you won’t be real to anyone else be real to yourself”
Hakeem Roberson says Heart-to-Heart brought him a better understanding of his own feelings: “No matter how much of a gangsta you might be, we all deal with feeling and emotion. If you won’t be real to anyone else be real to yourself”Allegra Abramo

Tumolo asked the men to talk through what they thought nonviolent communication scholar Marshall Rosenberg meant when he said, “Violence is a tragic expression of a beautiful human need.”

Hakeem Roberson, 28, raised his hand.

“Part of why I'm here is that I sold drugs, and I know the things that selling drugs will do to people,” he said. “But the money I got back from selling drugs, I did a lot of good with it. I know people that didn't have nothing to eat, didn't have no clothes ... I helped them even though the money that I had was bad, and no good, it was wrong … The beauty of it is I was able to help my my people that I dealt with—you feel me—even though what I was doing was wrong.”

April 22, 2015 - Leesburg, NJ. In the second half of the class, men gathered into small groups. Tumolo asked them to try to identify the choices that led to their incarceration. 

Curtis Jones, left, leans in as Rafiq Grundy speaks. 

“Heart to heart has reinforced a lot of concepts I already know,” said Grundy, 36. "Like how we are all the same in a lot of ways. That we all want peace. In that, my sense of compassion has grown.”

“I’ve learn that everybody’s feeling is valid,” said Jones, 37. “It brought me to a point into my life where I’ve learn how to meditate.”
April 22, 2015 - Leesburg, NJ. In the second half of the class, men gathered into small groups. Tumolo asked them to try to identify the choices that led to their incarceration. Curtis Jones, left, leans in as Rafiq Grundy speaks. “Heart to heart has reinforced a lot of concepts I already know,” said Grundy, 36. "Like how we are all the same in a lot of ways. That we all want peace. In that, my sense of compassion has grown.” “I’ve learn that everybody’s feeling is valid,” said Jones, 37. “It brought me to a point into my life where I’ve learn how to meditate.”Allegra Abramo

In the second half of the class, men gathered into small groups. Tumolo asked them to identify the choices that led to their incarceration.

Curtis Jones, left, leans in as Rafiq Grundy speaks.

“Heart-to-Heart has reinforced a lot of concepts I already know,” said Grundy, 36. “Like how we are all the same in a lot of ways. That we all want peace. In that, my sense of compassion has grown.”

“I’ve learn that everybody’s feeling is valid,” said Jones, 37. “It brought me to a point into my life where I’ve learned how to meditate.”

These photographs will also run on @EverydayIncarceration, an Instagram feed that visualizes the legacy of 40 years of mass incarceration.

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