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Connecting with inner freedom: Camptonville woman brings hope to ‘lifers’ behind bars with Lioness Tale Prison Project

Diane Pendola, founder of the Lioness Tale Prison Project, lives in Camptonville.
Cory Fisher/Cory@theunion.com |


To learn more about the Lioness Tale Prison Project, visit http://www.TheLionessTale.org. Donations welcome.

In the 1980s, Diane Pendola suddenly found herself in a place she never could have imagined: behind bars. She had been arrested after taking part in a Bay Area anti-nuclear demonstration and was transported to Santa Rita Jail.

Pendola, who was white and educated, knew she wouldn’t be detained for long. But something didn’t sit well with her.

“As I looked around, all of the women in jail with me were poor people of color,” she said. “Statistically I knew they were not the only ones committing crimes — they’re just the ones who can’t afford proper representation, the ones who end up falling through the cracks.”

That experience was an “awakening” for Pendola, who realized she had come face to face with her own naiveté and glaring white privilege.

“I came to understand that this situation exists largely because people like me aren’t aware of it,” she said. “This population lives in the shadows of society and our own psyches — we just don’t want to see it. But I’ve always believed that the suffering of one affects us all. It’s corrosive to the human spirit.”

Since that time, Pendola has devoted much of her life to women behind bars. She went on to earn a master’s degree, with the bulk of her research focused on her thesis, “From Brokenness to Reconciliation,” which focused on women in jail and prison. She described her thesis as “giving voice to the voiceless and bringing the disenfranchised in from the margins to the very center of authentic life.”

From 1989 to 1995, Pendola set up retreats at her Camptonville property specifically for women serving time in Sutter and Yuba county jails. The women, who were released on four consecutive weekends, worked on building trust, “inner child healing,” and coming to terms with the abuse and neglect that was so often a part of their stories.

Pendola was so moved and inspired by the women’s candor that she eventually self-published a book, which served as an “extended metaphor” for the many powerful stories she’d heard.

“Basically the text is the women’s stories all rolled into a story,” she said. “It’s about a lioness forced to live in captivity and defend herself.”

When people have been deeply wounded, defenses become hard-wired, theorizes Pendola. As a result, individuals begin to connect with a “false self,” mistaking the defenses themselves for their core being.

“The wounding creates defenses to protect from further wounding,” she said. “People begin to identify themselves as bad — reflected by broken mirrors. There is a disconnect from inner goodness, which I believe is in all of us. The challenge is to relax those defenses, even in the context of prison.”

After nearly six years of working regionally with women who would eventually be released from jail, Pendola began to think about the women who may never get out — those with no hope of parole, those who are trapped in what she calls “a psychological wasteland” for life.

“These women have virtually no connection with joy, love or compassion,” she said. “Because they will never get out, no one will invest in their well-being. It’s essentially ‘death by imprisonment.’ Life without parole is cruel. You steal people’s hope and freeze them in the worst moment of their lives, and they’re defined that way from here on out.”

In 2009, Pendola wrote a proposal to Central California Women’s Facility, the largest female correctional facility in the United States. Located in Chowchilla — roughly 240 miles from Pendola’s house in Camptonville — the institution is home to the state’s death row for women.

She proposed “The Lioness Tale Prison Project” (also known as LiT-uPP), which centered on Pendola’s book, “The Lioness Tale,” and included meditation, support groups based on the Gestalt awareness practice and the use of the enneagram, which is a method of analyzing personality types.

Impressed by her proposal, a Catholic chaplain at Chowchilla gave Pendola her full support and granted permission for a trial run with an initial group of 12 “lifers.”

“I asked myself, ‘Is it true that these people, who have been deemed the worst of the worst, can be responsive to the truth of basic goodness? Can they become agents of change from the inside out?’ Let’s go find out,” said Pendola. “It turned out to be true. And if it’s true for them, it’s true for us all. That’s what I discovered.”

Today, more than 300 women at Chowchilla have participated in “The Lioness Tale Prison Project,” with a current waiting list of more than 200. In September, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom awarded a Certificate of Honor to the Lioness Tale Prison Project, for its “innovative program of transformation for women in prison.” Newsom commended the project for its “ongoing commitment to provide hope and healing to women serving life sentences in maximum security prisons.”

The best part of the program, said Pendola, is that now inmates have taken ownership. Incarcerated facilitators have been trained to run their own groups, and have begun training yet more facilitators.

On Nov. 8, a group of psychotherapists, therapists and counselors will begin traveling with Pendola to Chowchilla one day a month to be trained as facilitators by women on the inside.

“The most important thing to express is what [the project] is doing and can do — it is changing every life it touches,” wrote Jackie, who has been incarcerated for the past 31 years. “It moves gently to the wound which is kept buried and hidden, allowing a soft touch to begin to bring it out. Participants are given compassionate tools to go through the wound, heal it, and emerge strong and whole, thus transforming lives, bringing advanced thinking and self-understanding.”

Pendola attributes the program’s success partially to the fact that facilitators don’t “come in as experts,” their role is simply to put each participant in touch with their own experience and “innate goodness.” Her next step is to work toward implementing similar programs in men’s prisons throughout the state and nationwide.

“You can see the facilitators out in the yard, radiating kindness,” said Pendola. “Inmates run up to them and give them hugs. Now that inmates have taken ownership of this program, I believe it’s truly begun to change prison culture for the better.”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.

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