Leaders say California foundation could heal and empower system-impacted people in Shelby County

Published: Nov. 7, 2022 at 12:13 AM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Memphis continues to face violence all across the city.

It’s a problem community leaders and activists are constantly talking about, but this weekend, some of the Bluff City’s decision-makers took it a step further.

District Attorney Steve Mulroy, Juvenile Court Judge Tarik Sugarman, Sheriff Floyd Bonner, and other community stakeholders took part in an intense three-day experience that they say could ultimately change Shelby County for the better.

“We haven’t just had a violent weekend, we’ve had a violent month and a half, we’ve had a violent decade...” said Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy.

Mulroy said he’s ready for Memphis and Shelby County to be a safer place to live.

“Violent crime has been steadily rising over the last decade, and all we’ve been doing for the last 10 years, for the most part, is lock people up and lock them up for longer,” Mulroy said. “Clearly, we’ve got to try something different.”

So, he and other community leaders are trying something different.

That something is called the Inside Circle Foundation, an organization that empowers system-impacted people to lead change from within by providing opportunities for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people to heal and serve both themselves and others.

“I would call it an experience,” said executive director of Inside Circle Eldra Jackson III,” because it gives individuals the opportunity to experience themselves in a way and on a level that most probably have not had the opportunity or believe that opportunity could exist.”

Both he and Inside Circle founder Dr. James Mcleary aim to find new ways to help incarcerated people not go back.

It all started in 1996 on the grounds of New Folsom State Prison in Represa, California.

The Men’s Support Group, now known as Inside Circle, took shape after a race riot on the B-Facility yard.

Initially, the Men’s Support Group was a forum for communication, but in the year following their first meeting, it became so much more.

“It uses indigenous techniques of communication, listening, appreciative inquiry...,” Mcleary said, “asking reflective questions so that the individual themselves can determine what is in their way that keeps them from being their best self.”

Jackson himself has experience doing time.

He was an inmate at New Folsom Prison when he found Inside Circle and began the inner personal journey that eventually led to his release in 2014 and his current leadership role.

“Memphis is a dumpster fire, actually. And I am somebody who lived inside of a dumpster fire in prison for 24 years, so I know what worked in there, and I believe that this can work here,” he said.

The emotional training is intense, and advocates in Memphis say... it works.

“I know this will work because I’ve been witness to it working for the last 30 years,” said Al Lewis, co-founder of Inwood Journey African American Council.

According to a survey of 55 incarcerated and formerly incarcerated group participants, after sitting in a group with Inside Circle for an average of three years, members show shifts in resilience, empathy, self-regulation, and perspective-taking.

County leaders say Inside Circle could make an impact locally.

“I was impressed by the ability of this particular method to create breakthroughs for even harden-criminals, and they boasted a zero percent recidivism rate,” said DA Mulroy. “And if that can work over there, I’m hoping it can work in Memphis... but, I needed to see it for myself.”

After witnessing Inside Circle for himself, Mulroy said he wants to explore it further and is seriously considering making it a part of Shelby County.

“The thing that matters more than anything else, even more than how many years a person spends in prison, is what we have done so that they will have an alternative to life on the street when they come out of prison,” he said.

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