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‘Think Like a Mediator’ Conflict Resolution Program at Rikers Island


The article describes the authors’ experience teaching a six session course called “Think Like a Mediator” on conflict resolution to inmates at the women’s jail facility (the Rose M. Singer Center) at Rikers Island in New York City. The course curriculum was highly interactive and used mediation tools, such as developing active listening skills and understanding underlying interests, as opposed to positions. The inmate-students were highly engaged by the subject matter and the learning process. Learning to resolve conflict by using mediation’s core principle of self-determination, is clearly empowering for inmates at a time in their lives when they are experiencing the powerlessness of a prison environment. The authors conclude that conflict resolution and mediation training (in jails and long-term prison environments) offer significant benefits to inmate-participants both during and after incarceration, and also to the community to which the inmates will return. This conflict resolution approach also has the potential to reduce recidivism by encouraging the inmate-students to think more fully about their choices and the conflicts they experience. The Rikers course provides a valuable pilot program for similar programs in other jail and prison environments.

‘Think Like a Mediator’ Conflict Resolution Program

Over a period of several months at the beginning of this year, the authors of this article – three members of the City Bar Association’s ADR Committee (Mary Austin, Rich Brewster and Hillary Zilz) and an attorney-mediator from NYLAG, Nina Martinez – joined forces to design a conflict resolution curriculum for women at Rikers’ facility for female inmates, the Rose M. Singer Center (“Rosies”). Although program staff at Rosies initially expressed interest in a peer mediation training program, we concluded that the short average length of stay by Rosies inmates made a peer mediation program problematic. By the time a peer mediator completed mediation training, her stay at Rosies would likely be over. Accordingly, instead of peer mediation, we designed a curriculum to teach conflict resolution skills, using mediation tools. We developed and then taught a six week program with two-hour modules on Monday evenings between mid-May and mid-July. The six two-hour sessions sought to improve participants’ conflict resolution skills by focusing on understanding conflict and its sources, active listening skills, the importance identifying interests, as opposed to positions, the value of “I” messages (“I feel…” vs. “You did…”), emotions in conflict and brainstorming solutions. As much as possible, we used interactive teaching techniques to engage the participants and illustrate the skills involved.

At our first session, only a few inmates came, but the word spread and our class at all later sessions included approximately fifteen participants. At every session, the participating women were highly engaged. The sessions were richly rewarding for both inmates and instructors, and a sense of community developed within the classroom group. At the end of the program, our participants were asking when we were going to do it again and when we planned to do an advanced conflict resolution program. As instructors in the program, we all left with very good feelings about the positive impact of our six weeks at Rosies and the potential of similar programs.

We quickly learned that lack of control was a huge issue for many of our students.  They found themselves in an environment where they could not even control getting to class on time because they had to wait for a guard to escort them.  They were frustrated by the rules and also by being forced to deal with people and situations they didn’t particularly like.  Fundamentally, our students did not know what was going to happen to them in the legal system, so they could not plan their lives.  Many of the students expressed similar frustration with their inability to control external situations. For example, incarcerated mothers had to cede a lot of the decision making with respect to raising their children.  In class, students were encouraged to think about what they could control.  They could choose how to react to situations, including conflicts.  Everything did not need to be a battle, and they did not have to win every argument.  They could choose how they would engage in resolving disputes.  They could also choose not to engage in every dispute, if that was more beneficial to them.  The students’ interactive discussions in turn led to reflections about past decision making and choices that may have led to their incarcerations.   Our hope is that by encouraging students to think about the choices they can make and to engage in active listening to others they will be better prepared to live in jail and also to have some important tools for dealing with conflicts upon their release.

Another prominent theme that came to light was the significance of understanding identity as a means of preventing conflict. In an activity exploring identity we asked the students to draft poems that included statements about their religion, ethnicity, hobbies, family traditions, and customs. The students delivered their poems using the refrain “I am.” Each student bravely shared her poem and collectively we felt a greater sense of unity as a group. Many of the poems evoked empathy, as well as laughter and tears. A number of students were surprised to learn previously unshared facets of their friends’ lives. The goal of the activity was to assist students in understanding how they identify themselves as well as to evidence the harm that can come of defining someone by a singular trait. The aim of this exercise was also to remind students that it is helpful in conflict to find common ground with others and that finding common ground is quite easy to do when you take into account the fact that people are multi-dimensional. This lesson was meaningful to our students because often the prison setting strips individuals of their identities as mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters.

As the program progressed, we witnessed the students applying the mediation tools in their interactions, culminating in the final activity in which they were asked to agree on three items to bring to a desert island.  None of the items chosen could be related to rescue.  These were, in other words, the only three items they would have for the rest of their lives.  To reach consensus the women had to put all of the skills they had learned into practice.  They had to identify, articulate and listen to the reasons why each person wanted a particular item (their interests) rather than focus on the item itself (their positions).  The women showed themselves to be able listeners and collaborative thinkers.  In some instances the women decided on an item that was not on anyone’s list but which satisfied everyone’s interests.  In other instances the women understood that an item on another person’s list met her needs better than the items on her list.  Even where the women were unable to reach consensus, they demonstrated an appreciation that they had different perspectives based on different cultural and familial backgrounds and an ability to respect their differences.  This was a change from the beginning of the program when differences were personal and there was little space between the disagreement and the reaction.  The students also expressed greater confidence in their ability to set boundaries and manage conflict in a healthier way.

Our experience at Rosies made clear to all of us that the development of conflict resolution skills is empowering for inmates at a time in their lives when they are experiencing the powerlessness of a prison environment. Improved conflict resolution skills create a more positive experience during incarceration and can have impact in reducing recidivism. Conflict resolution and mediation training (in jails and long-term prison environments) offer significant benefits to inmate-participants and to the community to which the participants will return. We considered our experience at Rosies as a valuable pilot program for similar programs in other jail and prison environments.


Hillary Zilz

Hillary S. Zilz is a mediator and corporate attorney who practices law with the New York firm Schlam Stone & Dolan LLP.  She counsels business and not-for-profit corporations (both charitable and non-charitable) on operational, governance, and governmental matters.  Hillary also serves as outside general counsel to several not for profit corporations,… MORE >


Mary Austin

Mary Austin is an attorney with has an independent mediation and arbitration practice in New York City.   In addition to her work with prison mediation, Ms. Austin’s practice focuses on commercial, employment and health care disputes.  She is on the AAA Commercial and Health Care Panels; the American Health Lawyers Association… MORE >


Nina Martinez

Nina Martinez is an associate at Outten & Golden LLP, and a member of the firm’s Class Action Practice Group. Prior to joining the firm in 2017, Ms. Martinez served as a Skadden Fellow at the New York Legal Assistance Group where she developed the Employment Mediation Project. Ms. Martinez… MORE >


Richard Brewster

Rich Brewster has an ADR and prison reform litigation consulting practice ( He is a lawyer with over 35 years of litigation experience, equally divided between commercial litigation and public service as an Assistant U.S. Attorney and Chief of the Criminal Division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern… MORE >

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