Healing in Action: An Interview with Compassion Prison Project Founder, Fritzi Horstman
Fritzi Horstman is the Founder and Executive Director of Compassion Prison Project, a Grammy award-winning producer, a filmmaker, and a trauma survivor. A graduate of Vassar College, Fritzi envisions “all prisons as healing and education centers” and works toward that vision of transformation every day.
Compassion Prison Project (CPP) provides trauma-informed programming to incarcerated people, returning citizens, and those working within the prison system while spreading awareness about how childhood trauma shapes individual lives and our society as a whole. CPP promotes understanding of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and the detrimental effects of toxic stress on physical health, longevity, and societal wellness, from graduation to incarceration rates.
Fritzi has produced two documentaries highlighting CPP’s work while focusing on the intersection of trauma and incarceration: “Step Inside the Circle” and “Honor Yard.” Additionally, she hosts “Compassion in Action,” a podcast which engages a public dialogue around trauma awareness and trauma-informed care featuring expert guests such as Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, Dr. Bruce Perry, and Dr. Gabor Maté.
In our conversation together, Fritzi and I discuss individual and collective trauma, why compassion is central to her work, and her compelling vision for prisons becoming healing spaces.
What was the landscape of your childhood? And how did this context prepare you for the work, at the intersection of trauma and healing, that you’re doing now?
I grew up in a violent home. My mother was a rageaholic; my father was an alcoholic. He wasn’t violent. (Although) you could say he was violent because he was an alcoholic, right? That is violence to the body. It’s more subtle than my mother’s more overt violence. My mother had a mental illness and was abused as a little girl. She was adopted and grew up in a sharecropper’s family in Louisiana, after being abandoned by her biological mother. A child understanding that she is not wanted is another level of adversity.
I grew up being slapped, yelled at, and demeaned. I watched this domestic violence constantly. But I have a calm spirit, so I understood, always on some level, that it shouldn’t have been that way. Getting a dog saved my mental health, but from ages fourteen to sixteen, I was out of control. By the grace of God, I didn’t end up in the juvenile system, but I was an accessory to robbery, although I didn’t know the robbery was happening. I had sex way too early. But I also had an entrepreneurial spirit. I had a cookie business when I was fifteen. I had a pin business when I was sixteen.
I get letters every day with stories from men and women in prison. What I went through is nothing like what they’ve been through, and yet it still matters and is relevant because it changed the way I viewed and responded to the world. In the midst of trauma, your body becomes wired for survival, not “thrival,” as I like to say. I understood that the world isn’t simply a kind place.
What drew you to study film in college?
I was a little actress when I was a child. I was in a repertory theater from age five until about eight, and then I took acting, tap, jazz, all those classes. I would go on auditions, and I realized I desperately, desperately, desperately, wanted attention, attention my mother couldn’t give me. I realized, in that context, that my success would be dependent on someone else, so I decided not to be an actress.
I watched a Hitchcock film, and I thought, “Oh, I’m gonna be a director.” That’s what inspired the shift. I didn’t know at the time that even as a director, your life and work are in the hands of studio executives. I worked in Hollywood for 35 years. I made a few films, and I’m about to shoot another one for people who are incarcerated, which is so exciting.
You’ve worked on a number of different films, in different genres, but I wonder, what has filmmaking as a whole taught you about the intersection of storytelling and compassion?
Storytelling is the key to what I’m doing now, you’re right. That is precisely why I wanted to make “Step Inside the Circle” and the film I’m about to make next. I want the world to see the stories of incarcerated people, to see beyond the one thing they did, to understand that they haven’t seen the eighteen years of trauma and violence that led them to commit this crime.
When I watch films, I usually see what’s missing or what’s coming because I’ve spent 35 years watching and analyzing stories. The story of the human, the human story of triumph over adversity, is universal. I think that’s what we’re doing here. Many people in prison don’t have the tools to seize this story and say, “I can do this.” The algorithm of hope, the calculation of risk, the tolerance of failure, and an understanding that it is okay to fail and try again.
The toxic stress of trauma shapes response mechanisms. In a stressful environment, where you don’t know whether you’re going to eat tonight or whether your mother is going to hit you, you become hypervigilant. You wonder, how is my mother going to be today? Am I going to be okay today? How is my father going to be today? Is he going to be drunk? Is he going to trigger her? These are the algorithms we’re dealing with instead. There isn’t any room to push up against the world, to take healthy risks, to flourish, to put yourself out there, to be vulnerable.
The work I do in prisons is a sort of parenting, a sort of mothering. I’m not the most feminine woman on the block, for sure, but the work is a posture of, “what do you need?” Being in the prison environment for prolonged periods makes certain elements of development and healing more difficult. Many people are still reacting out of their trauma responses in fear-based fight/flight – because those are the adaptive mechanisms they developed in childhood and that the prison-system perpetuates. Unless and until you feel safe, you cannot create or heal.
As a society, we’re reacting out of fight-or-flight, fear-based thinking, non-rational thought, too. Our whole political system is in a state of fight-or-flight, afraid of the “other,” in a mob mentality. We’re highly reactive, and you can see this in mass incarceration, how long we put people away.
How has Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s work on trauma shifted your perspectives on individual and collective trauma?
I could draw a line in the sand “Before Bessel” and “After Bessel.” That was it. His work changed the trajectory of my life. My friend, Seth, is a psychologist and one morning, I told him about the abuse I suffered in my childhood. He told me to buy The Body Keeps the Score. I remember sitting on the couch, astonished. I thought, “What? I’m traumatized? I’ve been traumatized?” I thought of trauma as surviving a war, or a natural disaster, or a car accident, but I realized trauma is more than that. It’s repetitive, like a repetitive motion of not feeling safe.
I feel compassion for the people who feel like they’re not safe. Even if you break down Republicans (and Democrats too), you see there’s a fundamental feeling of not being safe, but again, you can’t create or imagine new possibilities from that place. You can’t see the broader picture. You can only focus on control, guns, policing. The rhetoric of not feeling safe is also widespread.
The Politics of Rage by Dan Carter is so interesting. The premise he holds is that people are abused. White people are abused in authoritarian households in which they can’t express their rage to their parents, so when they become politicians, they take it out on marginalized groups. They express it through policy, policies against anything or anyone who isn’t like them. They dehumanize others to express their repressed rage.
How did you begin working with populations of incarcerated individuals?
I was invited to volunteer at Kern Valley State Prison for a year with an organization called Hustle 2.0. I’d just optioned a book about the Scottsboro Boys. This story opened my eyes to racial injustice. Once your eyes are open, it affects everything you see.
As I walked through the prison gates with one of the facility administrators, I asked, “Why aren’t there any trees?” And he said, “Well, we have to keep the sightline clear.” I thought, “So you’re robbing this entire community of nature because you want to make sure you have a clear shot for someone trying to escape?” What are they realistically going to do? There are all these fences around. They’re not going to get over these sharp, electrified fences. I realized something is really wrong here.
As I walked in with twenty other volunteers the incarcerated men greeted us with streamers, wearing Hawaiian leis and were yelling “yay, welcome!” You might think, walking into a maximum-security prison, “I’m going to meet hardened, violent criminals or bad people.” But that is not true. I was just meeting a bunch of humans we lock up in cages. Immediately I was curious about what happened to them, like Oprah’s new book What Happened To YouWhat Happened To You?.
It was an illuminating experience because I realized we have it all wrong. I realized it isn’t a prison; it’s a trauma center. The people in maximum security prisons are traumatized. I met one man whose father tried to drown him when he was ten. He looked like he was still so petrified to be alive, like his soul was behind a wall, like “where did you go?”
It is obscene what is happening in our prison system. It is obscene what we’re doing. Truth in sentencing laws? Obscene. Not only do we incarcerate people, but we also keep them in prison for extraordinary lengths of time with no possibility for them to redeem themselves. We cannot shame people for what they did, what we did, in the past. It’s the same thing: people in prison, people running prisons, people running society because shaming them won’t change them.
We get all new cells every seven years. We’re completely different people in seven years. 100% of us. Why wouldn’t we treat people accordingly? If you educate people in prison, the recidivism rate decreases immensely. With a bachelor’s degree, the recidivism rate is something like 5%, with a master’s it’s around 0%.
Why wouldn’t we do that? Why wouldn’t we bet on that? Why don’t we put resources into education and rehabilitation instead of annihilation? If 95% of people in prison will be coming home, how do we want them to return to us? Do we want them to come home having been tortured in solitary confinement? One of the guys we worked with was in solitary for eight years. He goes to work, comes home, and only wants to stay in his room. That’s what we’ve done to him. 50 to 80% of people in prison have experienced traumatic brain injury. If we want the people returning home to behave in a “pro-social way” – I learned that phrase in prison – then we need to make prisons a place of healing and rehabilitation.
What inspired you to found Compassion Prison Project? Could you describe your early vision for the organization?
The first day I visited a prison, I wept the entire day. Seeing what we’ve done – as a society – affected me deeply. I’m taking responsibility for my part being complicit in it all. I wrote in my journal, “It is my obligation to do something about this.” I began writing a curriculum. I researched. I listened to podcasts about compassion. The same man I asked about the trees said if I developed a curriculum, I could send it to him. Three months later, I returned to work with 35 men.
We suffer in isolation. We heal in community. That’s why we need the circles. Everybody needs a circle. Solitary confinement makes people go crazy because you don’t have the mirroring and feedback you need from the world. You don’t have the reflection of who you are. We’re social beings, and we need to know where we stand. We’re wired for connection. In prisons, the system dehumanizes you every day. They call you “an offender” every day. They remind you that you committed one crime. They define you by that one crime that may have happened over 40 years ago. I thought about the things I had done and didn’t get caught. I thought about the things done to me. I wondered about how to bring childhood trauma into the conversation.
I wrote to my friend Seth saying, we have to help people see that they’re traumatized. That was such a huge revelation for me, so I felt that we had to spread the word. I wanted people in prison to see that we are not what happened to us. We are not “our behavior.” Our behavior has been programmed by trauma, by fight-or-flight. We love babies because they remind us of who we really are. It helped me so much to realize that I’m not the woman who does road rage. I’m not the woman who will cut someone down, who is reactive and says things she doesn’t really mean. I’m not that person, and I am that person. I’m also a creative and an inspiring, beautiful woman. We’re all beautiful.
I think of it as a trauma-to-prison pipeline, not a school-to-prison pipeline. People need to feel safe, and people need to have hope. Hope, safety, and gratitude are the things we need to infuse into our system.
If you’re volunteering in prison, the secret is to bring many treats, food, coffee. It’s fundamentally about treating people well and showing up. There are 1.8 million people in the prison system. If we could get another 1.8 million people to show up every day and say, “You matter. How can I help you?”… we wouldn’t need any prisons.
You include, in “Step Inside the Circle,” a striking quotation from Dr. Gabor Maté: “When you study prison populations, you see a common preponderance of childhood trauma and mental illness. The two go together. So what we have in prisons are the most traumatized people in our society.”
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and the work of the ACE Study are foundational to CPP’s theory of change. What do you think the general population needs to better understand about childhood trauma, toxic stress, and their social implications?
In the United States, about 64% of people have at least one ACE. We’ve surveyed over 2500 people we work with, and of those, 98% have one or more ACE. In the general U.S. population, about 12.5% of the population have four or more ACEs; in prison populations, 70 to 79% have four or more ACEs. Remember, this means that the people with high ACE scores are coming from neighborhoods with populations of people with high ACE scores: high adversity neighborhoods. And the toxic stress of racism in America is so high in and of itself. The stress and threat of the possibility of being shot by police is immense. The oppression is unimaginable. Being black in this society means, most likely, that an individual will have at least three ACEs because of the virulence of racism and oppression. Also, violence inside the home is connected to violence outside the home.
This is the whole premise of Compassion Prison Project. We must look at people’s human experience, trauma, and brain chemistry. Trauma prevents access to the prefrontal cortex. Morality and wisdom live in the prefrontal cortex; Bruce Perry says, “Get to the cortex.” There should be signs on every street corner. “Stop. Get to the cortex.” Where are you? Are you in fight-or-flight? If I’m in flight-or-fight, I can’t speak, I can’t think, I can’t act in a social moral way.
Growing up in a violent household, the kitchen became a trigger center for me. In the kitchen, I felt confined and afraid. There were knives in there. My mother could have hit me at any moment. Now, whenever I’m in the kitchen with someone I can barely articulate simple requests because I’m in a state of fight-or-flight.
Is there a particular story or example from your work you would like to share?
Wesley Purkey was on federal death row. We executed him when William Barr decided to start the death penalty again. He had ten ACEs – that’s the most you can have. He wrote about discovering his father’s brain blown out on his own bed. He wrote about how he had suffered years of abuse.
The stories of annihilation that people have shared with me are unbelievable. Stories of sexual trauma in the home; parents not feeding their children; parents leaving their kids for months alone, sometimes leaving them stranded in the middle of the street and walking away; issues within the foster care system. We could be tempted to think, “Oh, the parents are doing the damage.” But we’re doing the damage. We’re all responsible for what happens in the foster care system, for the inequalities which lead to problems like this. Gandhi says: “Poverty is the worst form of violence.”
Wesley committed a horrible crime. Truly awful. But we should have thought, what did this kid go through? Wesley wrote, “The true measure of any human being is found in their empathy and compassion for others and self.” Why would we execute him? We can measure him now. We can measure how he’s changed. It’s so thoughtless. We committed the same crime Wesley did. We killed someone who has value and possibility. I guess we can also say: “The true measure of any society is found in their empathy and compassion for others and self.”
We can’t just destroy people we don’t like because something offends or scares us. We have to look under the hood. There is always something beautiful there. Being alive is a puzzle. It’s a mystical thing. We can’t say what Wesley’s purpose is. It is arrogant to think that we know. In this kind of arrogance, we lose our connection to the sacred and our inner divinity. That’s what violence does – it severs those connections. It shuts down our access to our true selves and to each other.
This is an urgent problem. We have to act now.
In a similar vein, how do you imagine CPPs work evolving in the coming years?
All prisons as healing centers. I’m working with a timeline of three years, but it may come sooner. All prisons as healing centers means that we recognize that everyone who walks in has been traumatized, including the staff and correctional officers. The overarching question should be, “What happened to you?” and there should be a plan to ensure every person gets the resources, education, therapy, group therapy, rehabilitation, and nutrition he or she needs. There should be a game plan for every person returning to society, ensuring he can get a bank account.
In California, we pay about $2 a day for food for people in prison. They’re not getting enough to eat. And yet we pay for 20,000 hours of overtime in one prison every month. Spread that over 35 prisons. That’s 700,000 hours in overtime. And we can’t pay $4 for better food for the 90,000 people in prison in California? We can’t make it $5 a day?
Why is there overtime? Because no one wants to work in prisons. Because people don’t want to be annihilators. The life expectancy of a correctional officer is 59 years old. The toxic stress that comes with having six or more ACEs cuts life expectancy by 20 years – it’s the same thing.
What does healing mean to you?
Healing means safety. Healing is understanding. Healing is self-forgiveness and making amends. Bruce Perry says that when you’re in fight-or-flight, you can’t connect. Healing is feeling. Healing isn’t hypervigilance. I’m on a mission to help people understand that they’re traumatized because healing begins with awareness. It’s the first step. Most people in prison, as I did, think PTSD only affects veterans. Well, guess what? I grew up in a war zone. You grew up in a war zone, too. There are steps to healing. We are making steps.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Watch the six-part series, Trauma Talks.
Listen to “Compassion in Action.”
Sarah James is the editor-in-chief and founder of Clerestory Magazine. A graduate of Yale and Middlebury, Sarah is a biracial South Indian-American woman of color and a writer. You can find her work elsewhere in The Porch, Darling, and Relevant, among others, or on her website.