New London - Alacia Alamo didn't start out as a fan of the Alternatives to Violence Project.
"I did it because I had to, because I'm a violent offender," Alamo said Saturday, as a three-hour workshop to introduce potential AVP volunteers ended. "I just wanted to get the certificate."
Now that her incarceration at York Correctional Institution in Niantic is behind her, Alamo is eager to take the lessons she learned in the intensive AVP workshops in prison and become an AVP volunteer herself.
"AVP taught me how to think twice before I act, and how to love me," said Alamo, adding that she turned to violence and adopted a "screw the world" attitude because of the anger she harbored about being raped and impregnated at age 14. "The AVP workshops make you look within yourself and change what you want to change. You learn how to communicate with others."
Begun in 1975, the St. Paul, Minn.-based organization operates in 31 states and several countries, focusing mainly on prisons but also offering classes in communities, schools and colleges. In Connecticut, AVP has chapters in MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield and Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers, as well as at York.
Its workshops, based on the nonviolence principles used by Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., teach participants how to manage strong feelings such as fear and anger, communicate in difficult situations, resolve conflicts and forgive others, among other topics. The AVP website leads with this statement: "Conflict is part of daily life, but violence doesn't have to be."
Kris Wraight of New London, the head facilitator at York, said Saturday's session, at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation, was intended to give those considering becoming an AVP volunteer a taste of the kinds of discussions and role-playing activities they would encounter in a prison workshop. In the workshops, volunteers join with inmates in intensive, 22-hour weekend sessions that begin at 4 p.m. on Fridays and end at 2 p.m. on Sundays.
"We wanted to increase awareness about the Alternatives to Violence Project, and bring attention to prison issues, and remind the community about the prison population, which is often forgotten," said Wraight, an AVP volunteer for the past five years.
At present, there about 12 women incarcerated at York who are working with about seven community volunteers running the workshops, said Dana Dixon of Essex, who started the program at York about 10 years ago. More community volunteers are needed, she said.
Among the 20 people who attended Saturday were four Connecticut College students interested in becoming volunteers, some current volunteers and five former prison inmates who vouched for the program's effectiveness.
"I'm a survivor of abuse, all types," Jean Lineberger said. "I lost one of my three children due to the abuse in her life, and I have been in prison for a short time, so I do know the sound of the clinking door."
Valentine Doyle, coordinator for AVP Connecticut and of the program at McDougall-Walker prison, said the strengths of the program are the sense of community that develops between volunteers and inmates, and the transformations that can take place.
"I love to see a light go on," she said. "Just to see and hear people say, 'I never thought of it that way before' is so rewarding."