Giani Siri '76 (known as Giovanna Sirignano when at SLC) has a tough group of close friends: eleven inmates serving life sentences in the Delaware Correctional Center.
She has cried with Tall Mike, Small Mike, Hal, Sean, Jaleel, Rich, Oyadi, Jamal, Tim, Sebron, and Jon. She's also shared some of her deepest feelings with them, been angry at them and cared deeply about their concerns.
They in turn have opened up to Siri, a trainer in an Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) at the prison. And for hardened criminals serving time – murderers in this case – that's no small accomplishment, she says.
"When you live in prison, you're surrounded by ‘bad guys,' and a common survival strategy is not to trust anyone except yourself," Siri explains. "Some of these men haven't had an open, real conversation with anyone but their mothers in years."
The AVP training grew out of non-violence and conflict resolution strategies utilized by U.S. marshals during civil rights disputes of the 1960s. It has since been used by anti-war, gay pride, anti-nuke and other social change movements dedicated to non-violence. Today, the prisoners at the Delaware Correctional Center receive the same AVP training that is taught to community groups and companies seeking strategies for resolving conflicts.
"It's a way of training people so that any group's collective IQ — that ability to face and solve problems, to make a group effort — increases with a minimum of strife," says Siri, who also works as a full-time professional mediation officer in Sussex County Family Court in Delaware.
If a participant in one of her prison workshops finds another prisoner he can turn to in a crisis – someone with whom he vent emotions rather than physically hurting, she says – then the workshop was a success.
"We don't teach passivity and we don't teach that conflict is bad," she explains. "We teach that conflict is a process and almost nothing gets accomplished without it. It's how (or if) you solve those conflicts that matters."
Working closely with the inmates who volunteer for the program, Siri opens up about some of her own feelings as a way of showing them how to reveal theirs. In the process, she says, the facilitators and the convicts were knit together, at times on a deeply emotional level.
Once a co-worker challenged her descriptions of the inmates as her friends. "You mean you work with them," the co-worker said. "They're not your friends!"
"No," insisted Siri. "I share my problems in my life with them, they share theirs with me. How else do you define real friendship?" — Elsa Brenner Siri, who studied writing, arts and politics at Sarah Lawrence was trained as an AVP volunteer by the Religious Society of Friends in Philadelphia. She volunteers for them on a part-time basis.
Siri, who studied writing, arts and politics at Sarah Lawrence was trained as an AVP volunteer by the Religious Society of Friends in Philadelphia. She volunteers for them on a part-time basis.