Preaching Forgiveness in Prisons: Robin Casarjian and the Lionheart Foundation


By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

DEDHAM, Mass. — Robin Casarjian, founder and director of the Lionheart Foundation and its National Emotional Literacy Project, is an expert on forgiveness — a topic that could have applications to the Armenian historical experience. However, her focus, and that of the nonprofit Lionheart, headquartered in Dedham, which she established in 1992, is on providing social emotional learning programs to incarcerated adults and youth.

Casarjian’s first book, Forgiveness: A Bold Choice for a Peaceful Heart, was published in 1992, and now is available in seven languages. Her expertise in this field and that of stress management led to appearances on PBS, ABC’s 20/20 and Oprah Winfrey.

Casarjian was an education major in college who went to graduate and post graduate school in the same field, but then worked three years as an educator with a woman in a non-traditional form of psychotherapy. She said, “I have always been interested, even when I was in college, in meditation and things that were self-reflective, and of a psycho-spiritual nature, not just psychological….It was a word that was just beginning to expand and I was drawn to it. I became a very disciplined meditator.”

She said that she learned through her private practice, and through teaching workshops at a personal growth center for cancer patients, that people’s emotional wellbeing could affect their physical outcome, so she began to look for literature on how to help people with feelings of anger and resentment. In the 1980s, she found, there was little written on this outside of a religious perspective.

Casarjian said, “I believe that when we hold on to resentment we give our power away to the person against whom we hold our resentment. That is not to diminish an initial response to hurt or injustice but at a certain point, if we want to move on in life, instead of being handcuffed to the past, we need to see things in a way that we don’t empower that person or circumstance to make us miserable.” The question was how to do this in practice, and her first book addressed this.

She frequently gave public talks on forgiveness, and at one point was invited to go to a prison in Concord. She had never been to one, and was intrigued. After a talk to a small group, she was invited once more, and there were 120 men waiting for the talk to begin. The local psychologist was taken aback, and suggested Casarjian give a course. Normally she did workshops for corporations, and she, said, “I would think, when will the day be over, but here, it was different.”

She did prison talks for four years, and then realized that the demand was so great that she needed to find a way to reach more people. She decided to write a book for prisoners across the US. She said she realized, “I was not willing to write a book unless there was a way to give it away free to prison libraries and prisons.”

This is where Lionheart comes in. One if its overarching missions is to do strategic free national distribution. According to Casarjian, it probably gave away 80,000 copies of her second book and curriculum, Houses of Healing: A Prisoner’s Guide to Inner Power and Freedom, published in 1995 in English and Spanish. This distribution effort was the start of Lionheart’s National Emotional Literacy Project for Prisoners, and is used in prison programming.

Casarjian is very critical of the penal system in America. She said, “I think that we have created an absolutely insane approach to criminal justice. I think that it is racially biased. Gandhi said poverty is the worst form of violence. We lock people up for absurd amounts of time for crimes. It does not serve us as a country. We know people age out of crimes. We have crazy mandatory sentences on drug laws. There is a lot of work being done to modify some of that but the clocks move very slowly. Prisons have not had a true rehabilitation orientation. It really has been a country more invested in punishment. This is a cultural bias.”

Casarjian found the American prison population to be a traumatized one, growing up in violence, with assaults and sexual violence frequent. She said that many prisoners have anger and grief that have never been addressed. Unresolved trauma triggers new problems. The Lionheart approach attempts to teach them “how to break that cycle of incarceration, addiction and inept parenting. It is revelatory to many people. It is as if a piece of the puzzle has been missing for them. Rather than I am a terrible person, I have made terrible choices because of those things.” Casarjian stressed that this was not to excuse the behavior itself but to heal the past so the trauma-based responses do not get repeated in the future.

The psychological framework used by Lionheart is the Core Self model, that in every human being there is an essence and core, with wisdom, peace, courage, etc., but we become separated from that and have to work our way back. Casarjian explained, “It is not that we have to become something, but we have to let go of the things that block us from our own nature. [Italian psychiatrist] Roberto Assagioli [1888-1974], developed Psychosynthesis. That is the framework, but then I pull from psychology and a lot of cognitive behavioral work. If you wanted a concise kind of way of looking at it, I would say that it is a research-driven, trauma informed, mindfulness based, cognitive behavioral intervention or curricula.”

According to Casarjian, other programs do exist for the incarcerated, but, she said, “this is a more global healing approach.”

After Houses of Healing came out, Casarjian said people asked for a version appropriate for adolescents and the purchase by the California Youth Authority of several hundred copies of Houses of Healing confirmed the need. By coincidence, her niece, Bethany Casarjian, who had worked on a doctorate in clinical and child psychology from Columbia University, was available, and Casarjian brought Bethany to Lionheart as clinical director of the foundation’s National Emotional Literacy Project for Youth At-Risk.

They developed the Power Source Program, with the book Power Source: Taking Charge of Your Life (2003), for at-risk youth, and distributed the book free to programs, together with a facilitator’s manual and video series, like the Houses of Healing program. Power Source has been used in over 3,000 programs and schools, according to Casarjian.

They saw that many of the young people had become teen mothers, adding a different complication to their lives, so in 2008 Bethany published Power Source Parenting as part of the youth program, and in 2012 an accompanying manual for facilitators.

Another aspect of the Lionheart mission is to do research, especially on youth programs. With research partners at New York University, it conducted two projects funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH). One was a study in the Adolescent Unit of Rikers Island, the New York City jail, and the second was a small randomly controlled trial among youth. Lionheart attempts to also keep up with new approaches being developed to deal with trauma through brain research, and integrates what it finds useful into its own programs.

It continues to develop new resources. This year Lionheart got a big grant from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), for which it delivers a 14-week House of Healing program by mail. This helps around 435 men in solitary confinement in various prisons, and will continue for several years. It also just received a CDCR grant for training lifers and longtermers who have been in the system for years to deliver the youth program to 18-22-year-olds who are incarcerated in adult prisons.

Casarjian commented, “Here we overuse life without parole. People do a crime as a youth and 40 years later are still in jail, having accomplished all kinds of things, but unable to get out of prison. Some of these people are facilitating the Houses of Healing program to the general population. It gives them profound meaning. They have a way to make a difference.”

Casarjian emphasized that “one of our goals is scalability: how to get this work to more people easily.” In this vein, it just published a workbook for the Power Source Program.

Lionheart has a fulltime staff of three and some part time employees. There are also some volunteers who teach the program, most are independent of the organization. Casarjian said, “We are a very lean and productive group of people, but we are going to go through a shift soon. I do not know exactly what that will look like. What we would like is a way to increase our ability to get the programs out to the public and to hire additional people to help us with the development of programs and clinical staff.” She said that the primary focus for expansion is youth programs.

Casarjian said that she has encountered very few Armenians in prison (Hampig Sassounian was one of the exceptions, in San Quentin). However, she recognizes that there is an application for her approach for Armenians too.

Casarjian grew up in Everett, but was not “steeped” in the Armenian community. However, in her own family, her parents, from Aintab and Marash, lived through the Armenian Genocide and one of her mother’s brothers starved to death. On the one hand, she said, “I could look within the family to see people who held on to the rage against the Turks and the injustice and horrible things that were done to them. I could see that there were people who held on and lived with that, and others who lived with a more peaceful open heart, who were not living with the Genocide every day.” Casarjian’s mother was one of the latter.

Casarjian said, “I think the trauma of the Genocide is passed down and affects many people, almost at some cellular level. It depends on how traumatized the parents are. It affects how present they are for their children. They are not conscious of how their own traumatization impacts their own children. There is zero blame, but these things are passed down from generation to generation until somebody really does some kind of healing work that helps them to resolve some of the impact of the trauma.”

Years ago, she was invited by Fr. Dajad Davidian to give a talk at St. James Armenian Church in Watertown on forgiveness. She said, “Some people were outraged by what I said. But as I often quote Rev. Wayne Muller, what we are forgiving is not the act but the people who could not manage to honor and cherish themselves: we are forgiving their confusion, their ignorance, their unskillfulness and their own desperation. There is a way to see this situation that will free you even though you see the injustice. Throughout your life, you might work to end the injustice or assure that further injustice is not done to your own people or others, but it is only going to really ultimately grind you down, and grind the people around you down if you live steeped in that resentment. So you feel that pain again and again. The forgiveness allows you to honor that while the emotional charge begins to be diminished because you understand that relating to the situation in a habitual way that keeps you bound to the perpetrator emotionally does not serve you well.”

She did admit, however, that “sometimes anger at certain stages does serve people. It is the fuel to fight injustice.”

Casarjian has received many awards over the years honoring her work. Most recently, in 2016, she received the Noam Chomsky Award, given by the Justice Studies Association annually to a person who is “a source of inspiration to others through her or his commitment to scholarly and intellectual activities related to justice; the person should be personally active in the promotion of peace and justice; and the person should live a life of relative simplicity.” She received the 2009 Humanitarian Award from the Boston Theological Society, and in 2007 the Paul H. Chapman Award from the Foundation for Improvement of Justice, for “innovative programs that have proven effective and can serve as models for others.”

In 1995, she was honored by the Giraffe Project, which recognizes individuals who “stick their neck out” for the greater good, and in 1996 she received the Distinguished Service Award from the Interfaith Counseling Services of Massachusetts.