In the mid 1990’s, Touchstones was invited by a group of men serving life sentences at the Maryland House of Corrections to come in and run a Touchstones program with them. Their goal was to humanize the prison environment and to prepare themselves and other prisoners for productive lives before and after their release. These goals have remained central to Touchstones’ programs implemented in various correctional facilities (prisons, jails, and detention centers) within Maryland and elsewhere in the U.S.
Touchstones programs with prisoners provide a meaningful and often transformative experience for participants who live in a world that generally offers little in the way of authentic dialogue or connection with others. The improved communication, reflective thinking, and self-awareness gained through Touchstones discussions help the participants to change the prison environment in a number of ways. By offering prisoners constructive and nonviolent methods for managing anger, frustration, and disagreement, they are able to communicate more productively and thereby reduce their rate of infractions. Participants also frequently report that their self-knowledge continually grows and evolves through Touchstones. They develop new skills in speaking, listening, and cooperation. In this personal growth, they build trust and understanding.
Through structured and guided weekly Touchstones sessions that center around short texts from classical and contemporary works, the prisoners reflect on their own values, beliefs, and behaviors. The Touchstones process strengthens their ability to relate to other peoples’ values, to recognize the consequences of their actions, and to take greater responsibility for their choices.
Beginning in the late 1990’s, volunteers from various community organizations and churches started accompanying Touchstones staff to the prison each week to co-participate with the prisoners. Touchstones’ community volunteers often comment that after one session of the Touchstones prison program vastly increases and deepens their understanding of human potential. To date, hundreds of community volunteers and more than 1,000 prisoners have participated in Touchstones weekly sessions since the program began in Maryland state prisons.
Currently, Touchstones runs programs in Maryland at MCI-J. There are also programs at JCI, and historically there have been Touchstones programs at RCI and ECI in Maryland. Programs are also run at the Rahway State Penitentiary in New Jersey, and there have been programs at the Alexandria, Virginia, City Jail and the Albemarle County, Virginia Jail. In 2015, volunteers will launch a Touchstones program at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove, CA. In addition to running weekly programs at MCI-J, the Touchstones Discussion Project consults with organizations and correctional facilities in program implementation and trains their staff to conduct such programs.
In 2015, Touchstones was asked to pilot a program within the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women (MCI-W). Funded in part with a grant from the Pettus-Crowe Foundation and Touchstones’ own resources, Touchstones launched this project in August and is continuing its innovative work to embed Touchstones discussion leadership within the prison population itself. Touchstones staff works weekly with two groups of women to develop their discussion leadership skills and to replicate this pilot program to reach up to 800 prisoners within MCI-W.
- Discussion from the Inside Out: Bridging Our Disparate Worlds – Howard Zeiderman, talk delivered at Princeton University – April 19, 2013
- Teaching Critical Thinking to Inmates – The Baltimore Sun – January 29, 2012
- City Based Ministry Program Wins National Grant – The Capital – August 10, 2008
- Student Volunteers Learn to Give Prisoners a Break – Mitzpeh.com – April 2007
- Christ Church Volunteer Program – Mission News, Christ Church – February 4, 2007
- Caged Explorers: The Hunger for Control – Howard Zeiderman – 2005 (Published in The St. John’s Review, 2012)
- The Stories of Their Lives – The Daily Record – October 2004
- Hobbes in Prison – The College, St. John’s College – Fall 2003
- Parishioners Gather from Far and Near for Touchstones Prison Program – Maryland Church News – March 2002
- Using the ‘Touchstones’ Philosophy Discussion Curriculum to Enhance Community Among Incarcerated Men – Jennifer Merritt, UMI Dissertation Services – 1999
- The Men Inside – Larry Bratt, Special Letter to the Washington Post – May 1999
- Reading Program Strives to Free the Minds of Men Behind Bars – Washington Post – February 8, 1996
- Prisoners Learn to Teach Themselves – The Annapolis Times – July 1995