Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Douglas E Noll of Prison of Peace Is Helping To Change Our World

Posted on

I wish I had developed my emotional maturity many years earlier than I did. Doing so would have prevented much pain for myself and those around me.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA.

Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA was born nearly blind, crippled with club feet, partially deaf, and left-handed. He overcame all of these obstacles to become a successful civil trial lawyer. In 2000, he abandoned his law practice to become a peacemaker. He has been recognized internationally for his work, is the author of four books, and is the co-founder of Prison of Peace.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path and point in your life?

I was a successful trial lawyer for 22 years. Like many of my professional colleagues, I became fed up with the contentiousness and hostility engendered by the legal system. The battle metaphor had lost its glow of excitement for me.

By happenstance, I heard about a new program at a local university, Fresno Pacific University, called the Master’s Degree in Peacemaking and Conflict Studies. I enrolled in the program.

After the second day of class, I was hooked. I returned to my law firm and told my partners I was changing my business card from “Attorney-At-Law” to “Peacemaker.” Needless to say, this caused great consternation and ultimately led to my separation from the firm after 22 years. The experience was truly liberating for me.

On November 1, 2000, I opened my professional peacemaking and mediation practice.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Over the years, training peacemakers in prisons has led to many stories. However, the theme is summarized by this student’s story given in a post-training evaluation:

“What I have learned is enormous. The listening skills alone have helped me a great deal. Just knowing there is an appropriate way to engage one another in conversation gives me clarity and confidence. They improve my relationships with friends, family, and strangers. I have learned to be quiet, wait my turn, and really listen to the person speaking to me. When I reflect back what they said, they actually feel listened to and the genuine conversation surfaces.

Last week, I was called an idiot and I felt disrespected by an inmate from our pod. Instead of firing back or getting physical, I recognized my feelings and emotions, waited long enough to set them aside, and responded with a calm voice and attitude with resolution in mind. As soon as I reflected back that he is really pissed and that I am an idiot, he quickly apologized for snapping at me and explained that he felt disrespected when I did not listen to what he had been trying to tell me. I, then, apologized for not listening (I did not mean to disrespect him) and told him that I would accept his apology and feel a lot better about the whole thing.

Listening, reflecting, clarifying and verifying works!”

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you first started? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

There isn’t much room for funny mistakes in a prison environment. One memorable moment occurred when Laurel and I lost control of our group. The discussion with the women started on the topic of conducting peace circles around inflammatory topics such as racism. The discussion escalated out of control quickly. We ended the session and walked out wondering what had just happened. I was working on my third book, writing a chapter on how to mediate evil in international conflicts. We decided to add a new module to the training called How to Morally Re-Engage the Morally Dis-Engaged. This module teaches students about the three types of moral disengagement and how they might be addressed in a peace circle or mediation. The module is one of the most popular sessions with our students.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Prison of Peace started for me as a test bed for several skills I had been developing from what I was learning about the human brain. So much of what was taught about listening and communication in high-conflict mediation did not work for me. I discovered a counter-intuitive way to calm angry people in less than 90 seconds. I was gratified to learn of a brain-scanning study that demonstrated exactly what was happening to cause the calming effect.

With Laurel Kaufer, I founded Prison of Peace in 2009. With a nascent skill based on science, not myth, Laurel and I began training life inmates how to be peacemakers.

We were stunned at the success of our project. In three years, we had trained over 500 women and developed 25 trainers to carry on the work in the largest, most violent women’s prison in the world. When the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced that this prison, Valley State Prison for Women, would be re-purposed into a men’s prison, we planned on following the women to the remaining two women’s prisons.

We began to receive calls from the warden and members of the Inmate Family Council for the new men’s prison, asking if we could return and train the men. Since this project was entirely pro bono, Laurel and I felt that we could not afford it. Our finances and professional practices had taken a serious beating from the aftermath of the 2008–2009 financial collapse. Eventually, however, we said yes. Three years later, we had embedded Prison of Peace at Valley State Prison with even greater success than before.

As a result of our success with the women and the men, we received some innovative programming grants from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. We expanded into six more prisons. We obtained a large grant from a family foundation in Connecticut and started Prison of Peace at McDougal-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield. A colleague from Greece studied with us under a JAMS Fellowship and started Prison of Peace in her country. A prominent mediator and peacemaker in Nairobi, Kenya is starting Prison of Peace, with our support, in east Africa. We have received calls and emails from around the world asking about Prison of Peace.

Today, Prison of Peace exists in 30 prisons worldwide and is expanding as we roll out our video curriculum. We have trained thousands of incarcerated people in peacemaking, and mediation skills and they have profoundly affected their prison communities.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Our first group of students was in 2010 when we were working with 15 women serving life or long-term sentences in the world’s largest, most violent women’s prison.

One of our students, Sarah, was sitting in a chair in the corner quietly sobbing. We walked over, and Laurel knelt next to her asking, “Sarah, what’s going on?”

Sarah told us her story. She said,” I’ve been in prison for 18 years. I’m sentenced to a 25 to life sentence because as a drunk driver, I killed a family of four. And I came out of this accident unscathed, not a scratch. When I was sentenced to prison, I had to hand my three-year-old son over to my sister to raise.

“I’ve written him a letter every week for the last 18 years. I’ve never received a letter. I’ve never received a phone call. I’ve never received a visit from him. No communication. All I know about my son is what my sister tells me in our weekly calls.

“A few days ago, I wrote a letter based on what you guys have been teaching us. And I thought about all of the emotions that he must have experienced over the last 18 years with a mother who was a felon, serving a life sentence, killed a family of four, and completely abandoned because of her selfishness. I thought about the hurt that that must have created in him. I just thought of all of the pain that he must have experienced in his life. And I wrote that letter using ‘you’ statements.

She took a deep breath and said, “Today, for the first time in 18 years, I received a letter from him. And his letter was extremely angry, which he had an absolute right to be in. But at the end of the letter, he said, ‘I love you, mom. PS I’m bringing my girlfriend, and we’re going to come to visit you in three weeks.’”

And that was when I realized that listening to emotions can transform lives.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Stop thinking that punishment stops or deters crime. No objective evidence supports that outdated belief. Crime results from poverty, mental illness, drug addiction, and most importantly, poor or absent parenting. Murderers are not born; they are bred. Prisons are the costliest way of dealing with offenses and are ineffective at rehabilitation. California, for example, spends more money on prisons than on its universities. Something is wrong with that equation.

Invest in social programs that raise families out of poverty. Invest in community-based mental health wrap-around care. Invest in early childhood development. Give people at the bottom hope and a clear path to a better life. Quadruple the salaries of teachers to attract the best and brightest into teaching.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think this might help people?

I’ve started a new project called Difficult Conversations. I’m willing to facilitate a difficult conversation that two people have been avoiding, and I will do it for free if the parties agree to my terms and conditions. I’ve facilitated several difficult conversations, which were transformative for the participants. People can find out more by visiting my website,

What you are doing is not easy. What inspires you to keep moving forward?

This work takes courage, strength, endurance, compassion, and endless patience. However, it’s the difficulty of the project that makes it so worthwhile.

Ultimately, my professional mediation practice suffered greatly as I devoted more and more pro bono time to Prison of Peace. Doing work like this requires a significant sacrifice of time and effort that could be used to make money.

Working in a prison environment is challenging on a good day. Our students — lifers and long-termers — are wonderfully engaged and make all the work worthwhile. However, for every day we train in prison, there’s at least a day of administrative work.

In addition, the prison bureaucracy is not oriented toward programs such as Prison of Peace. Thus, we’ve often found ourselves at the bottom of the food chain.

Security issues are also of paramount concern, and we’ve found ourselves facing lockdowns without notice after driving two or three hours to a prison.

I’ll continue this work for as long as I can. We’re expanding to bring in people who have a passion for this work. Many of them are our former incarcerated students now released from prison. My role will shift as we expand our training staff and as we expand into other jurisdictions. I’ll continue to teach the advanced part of our curriculum and expect to train trainers in other jurisdictions. In addition, I expect to have a larger role in speaking engagements for fundraising and general education and awareness.

Finally, we were fortunate to film our entire curriculum during the pandemic lockdown. This enables us to offer Prison of Peace to any prison or institution in the world. We will also make Prison of Peace available to re-entry programs, domestic violence shelters, and other institutions and organizations wanting to train peacemakers and mediators in our process.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. I wish I had known that as a lawyer I could do so many other things other than be a civil trial lawyer. It took me until my 50th birthday to wake up to my potential.
  2. I wish I had known earlier that meaning in life comes from serving others, not from chasing fame or fortune. I live a deeply satisfying life by helping others learn to be peacemakers and deep listeners.
  3. I wish I had developed my emotional maturity many years earlier than I did. Doing so would have prevented much pain for myself and those around me.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I want millions of people to learn how to “listen each other into existence”. This is a priceless gift that costs nothing to give and starts a ripple of peace every time it happens. In my opinion, this one project could transform relationships, communities, and our world.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Einstein once said that he never developed his breakthrough mathematical and physical insights with rationality. Neuroscientists are discovering that humans are 98% emotional and only 2% rational. Once I gained this insight — that our emotions are our hidden genius, human behavior, especially conflict behavior became as predictable as the rising sun.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’d like to have lunch with Bill Gates. His career has shifted from leading Microsoft to broad and deep philanthropy. I would like to know more about his journey as it sounds similar to mine.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My website is My YouTube channel is called The Power of Emotional Competency. I can be found on mainstream social media platforms. You can learn more about Prison of Peace at

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Douglas E Noll of Prison of Peace Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.