SHIRLEY — Betty Keddy has spent a lot of time in prison — not as an inmate, but as a volunteer.

The Shirley resident is an active participant in The Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), a volunteer run self-help training program that was begun by inmates in a New York state prison in 1975, with the help of a Quaker volunteer group.

Since 1975 AVP has grown and spread, mainly by word of mouth, to prisons and other facilities in at least 40 states and over 10 countries.

Keddy said that she started with AVP through her friend Dick Nethercut, now deceased, when they both lived in Groton.

Nethercut became involved when he moved to Concord. In 1978, his daughter was raped and murdered while away at college, and he did interviews about how he dealt with the pain.

“He appeared on Chronicle with another person who was angry, and he felt that he must deal with it without anger,” Keddy said.

Nethercut had a conversation with the murderer, who never said that he was sorry, but Nethercut got past that by going into the prisons. He became an outspoken opponent of the death penalty, and started the AVP program in 1995 at Shirley Medium, also known as MCI-Shirley.

Keddy started the program with Nethercut as her mentor in 2006. “He was very motivating, and I saw the Chronicle show they did and it showed them going into the prison on Friday evening, and all day Saturday and Sunday.”

Seeking Social Action

Keddy said that one if the first things she was interested in doing upon retirement was social justice work, so she helped start a social action team at her Unitarian Universalist church, First Parish Church of Groton.

“We wanted to see more diversity and wondered where we would find these people. Then when I moved to Shirley in 2003 and started going into the prison in 2006, I said, ‘This is where they are. They live in my town. They are my neighbors.’ I think of them as my neighbors who live down the street. They are mostly black and Hispanic.

There is so much racism in our society, and a lot of these are the people that we have thrown away. We are a throwaway society, and we even throw our people away.

“One in every 10 people in America is in prison, the highest rate in the world. People don’t want to think about the people in prison,” she said. “They just want to throw away the key. But over 90 percent will get out and be back in society. Second-degree murderers get out within 15 to 20 years, and many do go through programs in prison.”

We Experience This Together

AVP is a largely inmate-led rehabilitation and community-building program that stresses experiential learning to promote alternatives to violence. Participants are trained using trust-building activities, games, communications exercises, and role-playing designed to counter the predominant prison culture of reserve and distrust.

“We don’t go in there to teach anybody,” explained Keddy, who volunteers in the minimum-security section of MCI. “We all experience this together. We go in on Friday and form this community by Sunday. Some prisoners don’t even know each other first. It is not a struggle for rights, but to restore the humanity of people.”

“It’s all volunteer and they don’t get credit for it. No volunteers are paid and no prisoners get even ‘good time’ for it. It’s all volunteer, inside and out.”

At MCI the program consists of two rounds of two basic workshops per month, held January through March. Those starting out take one of those. There are then two advanced workshops. After one basic and one advanced workshop, there is training for facilitators inside and outside of the prison.

Keddy said that there are from 12 to 25 per class, who, upon completion, are put on a list as a facilitator for new people coming in.

“The inside team has three to four facilitators, and the outside team has two. They all meet in advance to do exercises, and that is a very intense, full agenda. We each do different exercises and present them. You’re not teaching so much as leading, facilitating, and helping them move along. And the inside men know the men on the inside,” said Keddy.

“We start out with an adjective for our names. We don’t give our last names.

The adjective name game breaks the ice. We repeat all of the adjectives and names. Every time you speak you say your adjective name. If they don’t, everyone stamps their feet.

“Then we do concentric circles. We form inside and outside circles of chairs that face each other, and each person will have two minutes to talk about a particular subject, and the other person can only listen. The leader will give the question, which may be ‘a time that I was proud of something I did.’ When time is up, the inside will talk to the outside circle.

“Then they get up and shake hands and move over one seat and get a different question. It might be ‘a time when a friend betrayed me.’ Sometimes the questions are easy to answer, and sometimes they bring up emotion. After six times they get to know each other. They love that,” she said.

“Another thing that is meaningful is the tree of violence and the tree of nonviolence. If you feed your tree with anger and hatred, with poverty and abuse, the fruits of your tree will not be good and the fruit will fall off the tree and nourish the roots in a bad way. But if you nourish the tree there will be respect, achievement, and good families. You make a list. You put the word for what is the root of violence. People get pulled into the game.”

Making a Difference

“The more I learn about AVP, the more passionate I get about it, because it grows on you. You do the same three types of workshops over and over again, but I don’t get bored with it because I am watching the people and see how their lives change. They change and become examples for the others and learn how to handle things in the prison without violence. Some people never talk to each other until they do an AVP workshop,” Keddy explained.

After having served for four years as secretary of AVP-MA, Keddy began coordinating programs for the two Shirley prisons. Workshops she coordinates include those on emotional awareness, poetry, reentry skills, writing, and literacy.

“When I retired from Cisco I had worked in a cubicle for 21 years and I felt that I had been in a box. I felt better going into prison than I felt in my cubicle writing technical manuals. I felt that I had been released from jail when I left high tech. It is liberating. And one of the nice things is if you have students in prison they are so attentive to what you are saying. They have no cell phones, no distractions, and they learn. Some are very smart, have written novels. There is a big cross-section of humanity in there.”

Keddy laments the fact that programs for prisoners always lack funding. AVP volunteers are free, but they can no longer do weekend workshops at MCI because there is no overtime for the guards on the weekends.

Although time-consuming, AVP is so rewarding and effective that many other members of Keddy’s church also have become involved.

“It costs $47,000 per year to keep a man in prison. Your tax dollars pay for that, and if he comes back you have to pay for that again,” she said, extolling the value of AVP. “And if he has drug problems it would be cheaper to send him to the Betty Ford clinic than back to prison.”

“With AVP I feel like I am really making a difference. It is very fulfilling.”