In the mid 1990’s, Touchstones was invited by a group of men serving life sentences at the Maryland House of Corrections to come and run a Touchstones program with them. Their goal was to humanize the prison environment and to prepare themselves and other incarcerated individuals for productive lives before and after their release. Touchstones programs have also been in use to foster productive socio-behavioral and cognitive skills in correctional facilities (prisons, jails, and detention centers) within Maryland and elsewhere in the U.S., including California, New Jersey, and Virginia.
Touchstones programs provide incarcerated individuals 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.
Through weekly structured and guided Touchstones sessions that center around short texts from classical and contemporary works, incarcerated individuals 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.
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 incarcerated individuals 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.
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 several thousand incarcerated individuals have participated in Touchstones weekly sessions since the program began in Maryland state prisons.
Today, Touchstones staff runs two weekly programs within the school in the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women. Seeded in part with a contribution from the Pettus-Crowe Foundation and generous grants from St. Margaret’s Church in Annapolis and Anne Arundel Women Giving Together, this program supports employment readiness, socio-emotional development, and enhanced literacy and communication skills so women at MCI-W are empowered to lead more productive and healthy lives during and after their sentences.
Since 2015, more than 200 women at MCI-W have participated in Touchstones discussions and more than 80 women have been released. Fewer than 5% who participated in Touchstones and left prison have returned. In contrast, the national recidivism rate for released women offenders is about 76% over nine years.