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Illuminating a Path for Incarcerated Individuals

19 May, 2021 | Posted by Katie Denbo

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By Renee Brincks


Early in her career, Susan Olesek was invited to teach in a small prison near Houston. The sociologist and self-described lover of people introduced her class to the Enneagram, a tool that maps an individual's inner terrain. By studying Enneagram types – numbers ranging from one through nine that associate with particular personality qualities – Susan's students not only uncovered the unconscious patterns shaping their behaviors and choices, but also remembered what is right about themselves.


Incarcerated individuals eagerly embraced their newfound self-awareness.


"I was struck by the light inside of those students. Some were behind bars due to tragic and violent circumstances. They'd say, ‘I did those things, but that's not really who I am.' They were so hungry to understand themselves and their actions," Susan says. "I saw personal transformations happening right in front of me, and it completely changed the trajectory of my life."


Susan carried that experience to a jail in California's Santa Clara County, where she developed a pilot program that sparked the Enneagram Prison Project (EPP). Launched in 2012, the nonprofit is on a mission to help people understand why they do what they do by using the Enneagram. The tool inspires transformation on both sides of the bars through self-awareness, self-regulation and self-compassion.


"We help people understand why we do what we do," Susan says. "We all have gifts. We're all perfect, loving and waiting to be loved. The premise is that there is nothing wrong with you, and the Enneagram is a tool that helps you discover all that is right."


Approximately 2.3 million people were in U.S. prisons, jails, detention centers and related facilities as of March 2020, says the Marshall Project. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the country's incarceration rates increased by 220 percent between 1980 and 2014. Though states spend more than $50 billion a year on corrections, U.S. recidivism rates—the rate at which released individuals return to criminal behavior—remain high. A Pew report on American prisons found that more than four in 10 offenders return to state prison within three years of their release.


In contrast, EPP calculated for their graduates a recidivism rate of 5.35 percent in Santa Clara County jails and 10 percent in San Mateo County jails. None of the students who took the EPP program more than once recidivated. By bringing classes into places like San Quentin State Prison, San Diego's Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, and prisons and jails in Minnesota, Australia, Belgium, France and beyond, EPP reminds students that they have options.


"Some of our students grew up on the streets. They were raised in chaos; they lost parents to drugs or violence; they experienced horrible, traumatic, unthinkable things. Yet, they share a real human resilience," Susan says. "We help people remember their best selves, and we share with them the resources they need to make fewer compulsive choices."


Some students enter EPP programs by referral, while others step forward to participate. The organization trains its teachers, known as EPP Guides, to share lessons across eight- to 20-week courses. Students explore their Enneagram type – for example, Type 1 is referred to as the "Reformer" and Type 9 as the "Peacemaker," with many in between – and what it says about their instincts and motivations. Then, EPP Guides help them navigate their interior landscapes and better understand the cognitive, emotional and behavioral strategies that drive their decisions.


"Personality is a survival strategy that starts from childhood. We fiercely identify with our personality. It leads us to operate in a strategic way, but that happens unconsciously, unknowingly, unwittingly," Susan says. "It's hard to change the things we can't see. The Enneagram is a profound tool that gets under the surface to illuminate what we are doing and why."


EPP Community Weaver Halida Hatic appreciates the depth of the Enneagram, and how it compassionately leads individuals home by introducing people to themselves.


"EPP's compassionate approach starts by looking at what's right about us. When we can appreciate all of who we are, we can start to do the work to understand why we do the things that we do. It is from this place of compassion and understanding that we begin to discover that we have our own agency, and that we hold the key to our personal freedom." Halida says.


As participants heal and grow on the inside, they encourage and inspire healing and transformation in the people around them.


Participation benefits EPP Guides as much as students, Susan adds. The opportunity to process underlying pain, recognize patterns, cultivate self-compassion and embrace the inherent good in others changes lives.


"We have the most remarkable family of EPP Guides, and they don't just wear teacher hats. They've made their own journeys. They're able to share their own experiences, and they express as much gratitude as our students," she says.


EPP, which aligns closely with the 1440 Love Well learning pillar, was one of several organizations to take part in 1440 Service Week in 2019 at the 1440 Multiversity campus. Created to thank those doing important community-building and philanthropic work, the multi-day event opens the 1440 campus to mission-aligned nonprofit organizations and invites participants to engage in workshops about social change, mindfulness, leadership, innovation and other topics to help them network and further develop their impactful work. Past Service Week speakers include author and marketing expert Guy Kawasaki and Lynne Twist, co-founder of The Pachamama Alliance and founder of The Soul of Money Institute.


The Enneagram Prison Project and 1440 are rooted in a shared commitment to the greater good, believes Halida.


"As a like-hearted organization, EPP is partnering with 1440 to support people from all backgrounds—including those touched by incarceration—in remembering what is good, loving, precious, beautiful, clear, awake, joyful, alive and whole in each of us," she says. "Together, we are creating space for the work of transformation, and cultivating a compassionate community that recognizes and celebrates our shared humanity. This advances EPP's vision of freeing people, all over the world, from the prisons of our own making."


EPP continues engaging new audiences closer to home, as well. A recent pilot program introduced the Enneagram to high school students in Los Gatos, Calif. Program panelists included some of EPP's public ambassadors.


As EPP Ambassadors, these formerly incarcerated EPP graduates share their experiences and encourage others to begin personal journeys of self-understanding.


"The leadership of people who have been on the inside is so compelling. EPP Ambassadors inspire students, and they share a message of, ‘If I can do it, you can do it.' As for our in-custody students, they are just brilliant and insightful agents of change," Susan says. "By the time they get to our classrooms, most of them realize that what they've been doing hasn't been working. They are determined to live and find love again. When they get out and guide others in our community to do what they have done, they are the proof that change is more than possible."


To learn more about the Enneagram Prison Project, please visit


Changing lives in a lasting way


Renee Lopez first took Enneagram Prison Project (EPP) classes while serving jail time in California. Stuck in a cycle of addiction and incarceration, he paused upon discovering his Enneagram type. At their best, Type 3s come to teach others about what's precious and the value inherent in our being. Type 3s are often described as driven and determined to succeed. In challenging moments, they might feel unworthy and driven to compete from a sense of neediness and emptiness.


"The descriptions fit me to a T," says Renee. "I was performing, in a way. I was not connected with myself. The scary part was that I didn't actually know who I was."


Through EPP, Renee learned to identify deep-rooted response patterns. He defined his core values, and he practiced reacting more mindfully and intentionally. Today, Renee shares his experiences as an EPP Ambassador, and he taps into EPP lessons while caring for his mother, who lives with Alzheimer's disease.


Self-discovery work is difficult, but Renee likens it to an exercise that builds strength over time.


"It's a very tense environment in custody, but on the outside, it's a whole different game. I'm talking about the simple things, like learning to manage bank accounts or navigating a job search with a criminal history," he says. "That's doing the work. It's about not giving up. It's about recognizing when I'm getting into a panic state. It's about using my tools to remember that this is just one moment, not my whole life."


EPP Ambassador and Board Member Alex Senegal introduces similar lessons to individuals he meets in his EPP capacity, and to those he works with as a substance abuse counselor, minister, and program director for a faith-based re-entry program serving formerly incarcerated individuals.


Incarceration chips away at one's identity and sense of purpose, Alex explains. As someone who was in and out of jail for more than two decades, he recognizes the importance of personal support on both sides of the bars.


"You can go to church and hear the word of God. But once you leave the building and go back into your environment, it's up to you to put things into practice," he says. "We need support to do that, especially when the tools are new."


Alex found that support in EPP and its founder, Susan Olesek. While exploring his Type 9 characteristics, he learned how hiding his frustrations left him prone to anger. He developed the skills to manage unconscious habits and make different choices.


"I was only connected with the destructive me," Alex says. "Susan's teaching touched on why I did what I did, and why I never connected with my own goodness. She helped me understand why it was so hard for me to stand up and be who I really am."


While it has helped him personally, Alex knows that EPP lessons can also spark wider change.


"Our goal is to take the Enneagram Prison Project all over the world. To get people, and our society, to start seeing what is good about each one of us would help shift the whole culture," he says.


That shift so impacted Sue Lambert that she took EPP's eight-week course five times.


"When I was incarcerated, I was bound and determined to figure out what was wrong with me. Was I defective in some way? I knew right from wrong and tried to be good, but life was always rocky and now look where I was. No one had ever told me anything was ‘right' about me," she says.


As an Enneagram Type 1, Sue connects with goodness and wants to improve the world. But first, she had to address past trauma, practice forgiveness and reconnect with herself.


"I lived with addiction and frustration, and my inner pain always shadowed my heart. I never felt good enough or worth much other than the abuse I accepted from other broken people," she says. "I had to learn that love and acceptance start with me."


Today, Sue is an EPP Guide, faculty member and facilitator for the EPP Reconnecting and Ambassador programs, as well as a certified life coach. She calls her first trip inside to teach incarcerated individuals "a surreal experience."


"But in the classroom, students listened to me with great attention and heart. They knew I had been in their seats before, suffering like they were, struggling and feeling alone," she says.


Outside of her EPP work, Sue is a proud "nanny granny" to her grandchildren.


"I now have close relationships with my family, and many relationships and connections with my EPP family, too. I'm able to love them, and many others, with a depth connected to my heart and soul," Sue says. "This program has not just changed my life. It has actually saved my life."


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