Nonviolent Communication at Donovan Correctional Facility

Matt and Sunaina want a world that is filled with more joy and compassion. As part of that vision, they have been sharing Nonviolent Communication once a week with a group of men at Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, and are learning a lot in the process. Below, Sunaina shares her experience from their first six weeks inside. Click here to learn how to get involved!

John* had stood out to me at our first Nonviolent Communication (NVC) meeting at Donovan Correctional Facility. He had said matter-of-factly that he enjoyed using violence against correctional officers and that behaving violently helped him feel better. His eyes shone as he described using his anger and strength to break the lock of a holding cell he was put in.

John’s shares made me nervous. Violence is one strategy to meet underlying needs like self-expression and safety, but would I be able to show John and the rest of the group that together we could learn more peaceful ways of satisfying the same needs? I wondered whether our time together learning about empathy, compassion, and nonviolence would resonate with the residents and cause meaningful connection.

So, my ears perked up when John started sharing, in our final gathering before a two-month break, how he felt about our circles temporarily ending.

“It doesn’t feel good that we won’t be meeting for a while,” he said. “We are authentic and real in here, and we don’t get that anywhere else.” My heart leaped. There had been connection after all! Later, one of John’s friends told me that he’d never seen John smile on the yard but saw him smile often in our circles. This felt like a major, heartening win, and it reminded me about how much we all crave authentic community and a space to belong.

After John’s share, another resident spoke up. “You guys come in here and you treat us like human beings. You shake our hands, talk to us with respect. I forget sometimes that I’m a human being, and you help us remember.”

Other residents shared that they understood more about themselves because of our circles. Still others expressed joy at the community they find when they come to these gatherings and feel safe enough to be themselves.

The NVC concepts and philosophies are only a small part of what these residents take away from our weekly gatherings. They crave compassion and empathic community, of which they receive so little within prison and from their outside lives. And we are able to give each other this healing gift just by showing up with open hearts. I know connection is a path to building a more peaceful society, and I am grateful to begin seeing these transformations in our circles.

We launched another NVC program on June 17th. Connect with us to join us on this journey!

*Name changed to maintain confidentiality.

A version of this blog post also appears on

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s