Enneagram Prison Project and Teaching in Prison

Working With Prison Inmates

Freeing Prisoners from the Prisons of Our Own Making

 David Daniels & Susan Olesek Compassionately Teaching Criminal Inmates through Enneagram Prison Project, Santa Clara County


My friend and Enneagram colleague, Susan Olesek, founded the very moving, rapidly growing Enneagram Prison Project (EPP) in April of 2012.

In order to do so, Susan and the founding EPP Board — Susan’s husband Rick Olesek and colleague Suzanne Dion — have been facing and overcoming the prejudices and stereotyping so pervasive in our culture regarding “those” who have been imprisoned, including our perception that prisoners are somehow “less than” – less flexible, less intelligent, all the way to not interested in bettering themselves and/or being beyond reproach.

David Daniels & Susan Olesek Engage and Lead a Class of Inmates for Enneagram Prison Project in Santa Clara County Last week, Susan and EPP Founding Board Member Suzanne Dion invited me to join them at Elmwood Correctional Facility in Milpitas, CA, a facility where Enneagram Prison Project (EPP) started its first pilot program, where Susan and Suzanne have been teaching two side-by-side 12-week classes to both female and male inmates. I went from “hearing about” what they had been doing with EPP to standing right there with them, teaching, talking, and sharing with a group of incarcerated men of various Enneagram types. What immediately surprised me was the extent of openhearted curiosity present in the attending men and the incredible awareness they had each fostered at the ten-week mark of their Enneagram style and defense patterns.

Working with the California Youth Authority

In the early 1980s and before I had begun studying the Enneagram, I was working on a project in a California Youth Authority facility. I was brought in to teach a participative management style to the staff in order that their already-existing-yet-struggling transactional analysis treatment program had a chance of succeeding. The process and teachings I fostered worked. The number of youth acting out went down significantly, grades went up dramatically, and cooperation between the youth-aged inmates and the staff grew enormously. I learned working there that these young guys were just “young,” trying to find the only way they knew to a good life and trying to learn more about self-control in order to do so.

During the morning I spent together with Susan and Suzanne at Elmwood, we focused on the deeply moving and immensely relevant Victor Frankl quotation:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Prison Inmates Attentively Listen to David Daniels' Class for the Enneagram Prison Project for Self Understanding, GrowthEach of the men in that room needed to deal better with their particular reactivity. We spoke a lot about becoming self-aware, and doing so by developing self-observance in order to more compassionately work with their upset, anger, or frustrations and not just act them out. As the Enneagram so succinctly teaches us, so much of our reactivity is rooted in our particular Enneagram pattern. The guys really got this and realized that this basic understanding was the beginning of their pathway to freedom. Moreover, beyond the wonderfully incisive map that is the Enneagram itself, I couldn’t help but note how much Susan and Suzanne’s passion and care, and the commitment and care of those working for EPP, was a key factor in the difference this learning seemed to be having on the inmates.

This past February, we, at Enneagram Studies, had a former inmate — one who had studied the Enneagram with Susan when behind bars in a Texas prison — take the Enneagram Professional Training Program in Menlo Park, CA. This formerly incarcerated, enthusiastic Type 7 is deeply committed to becoming an Enneagram teacher himself, determined to help others, including troubled youth and the currently and formerly incarcerated. Enneagram Prison Project (EPP), having recently established its own Scholarship Fund, sponsored this man’s full registration to his first week of intensive training, thanks to its fundraising efforts and alliances. One of EPP’s broader goals is to develop a cadre of trained men and women, particularly formerly incarcerated individuals or those who have worked in prisons, who can bring this powerful and liberating psychological map to those who need it most.

Here is what former inmate, Elam, had to share upon completing his first week of intensive Enneagram training:

At the Intensive 2.0 program, a flood of emotions began to pour through me. I found myself surrounded by doctors, psychologists, writers, and other accomplished men and women from all over the world, ranging from Singapore to Holland.
Inmate Elam Chance Shares Experiences and Personal Growth through David Daniel's Enneagram Prison Project, Certified TeacherInstantly, my self-doubt kicked in and I was consumed with inadequacy. Not knowing how I would be received by this community of very talented and successful business men and women, I began to obsess with the thought that I wouldn’t be accepted, and honestly, contemplated leaving.
Somehow I conjured up the courage to stay, despite my own self-deprecating thoughts. Within seconds I was greeted and introduced to people I had never met, yet they were genuinely interested in me and cared for me. There was something about the way they smiled at me – with understanding in their eyes – and the way they spoke to me with love in their hearts that made me feel something inside that I had never felt before. Or maybe I have felt it, but it must have been so long ago that I can’t remember, or identify this feeling. All I knew was that this was a good feeling and I was petrified of losing it, or letting these brilliant people down in any capacity.
A few days into the workshop, David gently came alongside me (as he would do in so many ways that week) and let me know that he could see I had a lot of the Enneagram already understood. But, he added, what you need to work on is 2A (the second in his Universal Growth Process: Acceptance). “What, David, you think I’m hard on myself?!” I asked him. He cocked his head to the side and smiled. “Okay, 2A.” I told myself.
As we went through our six days together – a group with so much diversity that we literally represent humanity and all of its walks of life – we didn’t just eat our meals together. We worked and played, laughed and cried together. Despite our social status, regardless of our race or religion, sex or orientation, we became one. Without fear of judgment, we shared our pain, hopes, and dreams. And, with open hearts we helped one another to overcome, endure, and believe in ourselves.
As our last day of the Enneagram Intensive 2.0 fell upon us, we held a closing circle to express our gratitude and were invited to share one gem, or “golden nugget” that each of us had found in our training, something that we will be taking with us on our journeys. After everyone had their turn sharing around the circle, our attention was now on our deeply loved and revered life guide/coach/teacher/instructor/mentor/guide and father, Dr. David Daniels. As he was blessing us with a few more moments of understanding, he paused and turned towards me and said: “I don’t normally single people out, that’s not what I do, but Elam…”
At that moment, my whole world collapsed, I just knew that I had done something wrong, let somebody down, and failed in some type of way. And here as I write this, as if it is not already apparent enough, (so true to type) I am afraid to quote out of fear of misquoting, but I feel the need to bring this full circle…
When David looked at me, he said that he wanted to acknowledge the work that I have done, how evident it is, and how hard I have worked to not allow my past define me. He told me that he sees me, and that I represent the work of the Enneagram. He went on to add that the Enneagram Community was honored to have me. Everybody in the group began to applaud, and many cried…
In that next moment, I knew what that feeling was, what I have been lacking my whole life. Acceptance. 2A. I got it. They accepted me, no matter who I was. Which lead me to realize that the only person who was not accepting me, was me. This was my nugget, my gem. This is what I am taking with me from this training, and into my life.”


David Daniels & Elam Chance Hug & Embrace to Celebrate his Personal Growth & Development from Enneagram Prison Project The remarkable awareness shared here by Elam Chance occupies a universal part within all of us, especially those souls labeled “criminals.” We all need to work with the second “A,” the A of ACCEPTANCE, meaning openhearted kindness toward the self first, and others next. Acceptance does not mean we are necessarily condoning, capitulating, or concurring with our own or other’s less than appropriate behavior. Acceptance is the act that gives us the space, as Dr. Frankl talks about, to do the very delicate and precious work of personal liberation. Thank you, Elam.


David Daniels & Susan Olesek Captivate Criminals, Teaching for the Enneagram Prison Project in Santa Clara CountyLastly, I share with you how deeply impacted I was by this morning spent with Susan, Suzanne, and EPP, with the inmates that I met, and how convicted I am that we all need to work very deeply on our quick and automatic stereotyping of others, ranging from Enneagram type to those suffering criminality.

I would love to hear from you, my blog readers, friends and colleagues.
Please share a comment or two, responding to the questions below; we’d all enjoy your thoughts and personal experiences:

  • What are your views of criminals?
  • What can learning the Enneagram bring to these populations?
  • How do you work with the theme of acceptance?
  • What are your comments on the importance of awareness and grounded presence, when working with upset and reactivity?

28 Responses to “Enneagram Prison Project and Teaching in Prison

  1. Dear David,
    It is such an exciting work the EPP is doing. And a wonderful story by Elam – he rocks 🙂
    However, it was one sentence written by you that has occupied my mind ever since reading this article : “Acceptance meaning openhearted kindness towards the self first, and others second”….
    That would have been my gem and nugget 🙂

    It starts with me ! Accepting me !
    And although that makes me feel a bit lost all over. I feel deep inside the truth of your words.

    Thank you
    Peace and love

    • Yes Henriette, Without open hearted kindness toward it is not possible to be fully open hearted to others. When we are open hearted to ourselves we can manifest receptive energy that welcomes others. Warm regards, David

  2. David Daniels, MD says:

    Hi Elizabeth, Thanks so for this lovely comment. Like Susan Olesek says: We are all prisoners in some form – prisoner’s of our pattern or type, with its limitations and gifts. What we all need to do is reflect on our own stance toward those named as criminals, including labels such as, “lazy, non-caring people.” With Warmest Regards, David

  3. Elizabeth Hutchins says:

    David and Susan,

    Thank you so much for the work you do with so many and for sharing your experience with prisoners. Your care and compassion give others (including myself) hope and a sense of self-worth. Your appreciation of the prisoners’ authenticity and self-understanding resonated with the gift I experienced in connecting with Elam in February and with both of you in March.

    What a privilege is was to connect with Elam! His very being and authentic self invites others to respond in kind. Ultimately, as he said, seeing/reacting through our lenses of class, race, religion, sexual orientation and/or academic or professional credentials is not what matters. It can, in fact, can create significant barriers to our grounding in the present and, as you say, opening our hearts to accepting and loving ourselves and others.

    My view of “criminals,” based on spending some time with women in a homeless shelter, is that they can offer a vibrant reflection of what each one of us wants and needs: to be seen, loved, and accepted just as we are and to have authentic connections without judgment. To be invited towards self-understanding through working with the Enneagram can open doors for those who yearn for more self-understanding and acceptance.

    Elizabeth Hutchins
    Albany, CA

  4. Thanks Katherine, I just know you have helped many people. And we all need liberation from the prison of our habit of mind, our type. Love, David

  5. Katherine Chernick Fauvre says:

    Dear David and Susan,

    I am so deeply touched by this work. I too have worked in the California Penal System. I taught the Enneagram to drug addicted felons in 1995. Those classes were the most moving experiences of my Enneagram career.

    Katherine Chernick Fauvre

  6. Hi Lila, Your work sounds interesting and worthwhile. Warm Regards, David

  7. Hi Uranio, Thank you so much. This project so demonstrates the possibilities of our work with ourselves as well as others using the Enneagram understandings and the process that goes with it in the Narrative Tradition of the types speaking for themselves. You too, Uranio, have done remarkable work. Love, David

    • Anonymous says:

      Dear David, what a wonderful story filled with hope. I think most people become criminals because they were not loved enough and nobody can’t give what they lack. They enter a vicious cycle and each time gets harder to get out of it. The Enneagram taught in a very compassionate way as you teach it is very healing. I think it’s a wonderful job you and Suzan are doing. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Suzann yet but she must be a very special person with a big heart. I has the pleasure of meeting you and I know you are an adorable person full of love to give. One can feel it and I know that is what this inmates have received from you two. Accepatance, non judgement and a great explanation of their feelings, thinking and behaviors. Thank you for sharing!! God bless you!!

    • Dear David,
      I found Susan and we are working on opening a halfway house in CA for state prisoners! We are so happy to have found one another!! I was a drug counselor in a federal program and also an Enneagram practitioner! My workshop is May 9-11 for Inner Children — the other half of the nature/nurture continuum. Please share it. Prisoners and addicts always get 40% off. Go to innerchildhealing to read about it.

      Susan is going to help me get back into prison!! It’s been too long. So glad you are in this, we so need you!

      Best, Lila

  8. Uranio Paes says:

    Dear Susan and David, thank you so much for doing such an important work in prisons with the Enneagram. It is also a blessing to watch the synchronicity of this project of yours and some others that are also happening right now in other parts of the planet. Much love to you! Uranio Paes, from Brazil.

    • Hi Uranio, Thank you for this caring response. Your work throughout the world is amazing. I love the times we have worked together. And lyes we are all on the path to freedom. With love, David

  9. Beth Beaty says:

    What a great story! Thanks for sharing! Elam’s experience mirrors my own — such deep and overwhelming kindness and acceptance. This is what makes me so passionate about sharing the Enneagram with others.

    Thank you for sharing, David. And thanks to Susan for developing the EPP and to Elam for having the courage to trust and accept himself and share his gifts.

    Beth Beaty
    Saint Paul, MN

    • David Daniels, MD says:

      HI Beth, Thank you for this lovely and thoughtful comment. We all have the capacity for liberation into what we are for, not against, and we all have the capacity to believe in what truly is possible when there is love of self, equal to love of others. This is what Elam is showing us and what we all have the potential to develop.

  10. David Daniels, MD says:

    Hi and thank you all for the lovely comments. We all just need to live each day freshly with an open heart, doing the best we can to be present to ourselves and others. The hope for humankind is to get to the level of world-centricity, of being more inclusive and seeing all others’ points of view. David

  11. David Banner says:

    Thank you, David. The key is that space between stimulus and response that Victor Frankl mentioned… and your’s and Helen’s use of belly breathing has been very helpful to me as a mental type. That is the way forward: conscious volition rather than conditioned response and reactivity.

    Love, David

    • David Daniels, MD says:

      What can I add to what the other David has just said. You summed it up beautifully and simply. Thank you David. From David

  12. Amy Hardison says:

    Hi David,

    Thank you for making a difference in the world. I am moved by your compassion and commitment. Thanks for blessing my life and my family and so many others, like Elam.

    Amy Hardison

    • David Daniels, MD says:

      Wow Amy, Thank you so much. Remember, to be moved by compassion and commitment you must have some yourself. Your kindness always moves me. I hope to be with you again as I return to Phoenix to lead a workshop this November on Love and Divine Intimacy. As ever, David

    • Hi Amy, So good to hear from you. I have wonderful memories of our times together. I’m moved by layout comment and greatly appreciate you and Steve. You both will always be in my heart. Love, David

  13. Suzanne Dion says:

    It was such an honor to be there with you and Susan (Olesek) that day at Elmwood Correctional. It was really something to witness firsthand the effectiveness of the Enneagram as a self-reflection, self-understanding tool for those incarcerated, and I left more convinced that ever how important it is that we as a society, that we as individuals, do not turn our backs on those who are in trouble.

    Your incredible kindness and compassion was felt by everyone. You teach with those characteristics in the lead, and that’s what’s made you as unforgettable and as loved as you are.

    The Enneagram is an incredible tool. It’s an incredible map that each and every person deserves access to. I am convinced of this and passionate about it. But what I also know to be true is that change, real change and transformation comes about when we have both the tools we need as well as someone there with us, along side us, who cares. This work is beyond bringing great theories and systems to those behind bars. It’s all that yes, but much more.

    You’ve imparted care and kindness on all of us who have had the great privilege to learn from you, and with you. Your exemplary self is what we hope to bring to the incarcerated alongside the Enneagram, each and every time, across each and every class, and is what we hope to instill in each and every one of EPP’s future teachers.

    Much Love, Much Gratitude,
    Founding Board Member
    Enneagram Prison Project

    • David Daniels, MD says:

      Suzanne, you so show that what goes around comes around. Your love and gratitude create love and gratitude, both of which I deeply experience from you. Thank you, David

    • Hi Suzanne, Thank you for this message. Our personal work, our work with others, and curiosity with an open heart make a great difference. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for all you are and do. The Enneagram Prison Project is a a great example of what is possible given the Enneagram and the process we work with of the “5As” of awareness, acceptance, appreciation, action, and adherence. With so much gratitude, and love, David

    • HI Suzanne, First thanks so much for your thoughtful and caring comment. Compassion and kindness are great resources especially with those who have suffered much prejudice and pain. So we bring the Enneagram understandings to these “prison inmates” but also the spirit of hope and the art of openhearted kindness. Love, David

  14. Susan Olesek says:

    Beautfiul article, David. I was so honored to introduce you to these earnest men and not the least bit surprised by your open-hearted response to them.

    In my view, “criminals” are folks who “got in trouble with their personality,” to quote EPP Board Member, Suzanne Dion. They are people who are often hurting and act-out in an effort to escape something that they don’t understand.

    The Enneagram is the most incisive tool. This population is brimming with people who are desperate to get out of their old patterns, but haven’t the foggiest idea as to how. Time and again I find they are so appreciative of knowing the Enneagram because it answers their “Why?!” that has been perplexing them for years, lifetimes and often times over generations.

    Acceptance is such a big deal, not just for Type Ones, like me, but for all of us. If we cannot accept ourselves then we tend to be stuck in a cycle of self-hate and condemnation. It is only when we have love and acceptance for ourselves that we can begin to offer it to others. This is the piece that I have taken from my first Palmer-Daniels tranining all those years ago, and the thing I continue to have to work on within myself.

    With an bursting heart, my deep thanks for coming and sharing your experience with the rest of our community.


    Founder, Enneagram Prison Project

    • David Daniels, MD says:

      Thank you Susan. Your vision of the future, of what is possible in all of us, inspires me and many others. Your belief in yourself brings hope to all of us. Your taking on underdog causes show courage and faith. And with your love, we can all demonstrate that hope, faith, and love are possible in each of us as human beings. With much gratitude, David

    • Thank you Susan, You have created an enormous possibility for all of us. It doesn’t matter if we are incarcerated or not, we all need to develop the freedom that comes with our development into more whole human beings. You work in prisons shows what is possible for us collectively. With love and appreciation, David

    • Thank you Susan, All I can say is, “Yes” to what you said. These humans labeled as “criminals” also need to appreciate what is positive about themselves, since they have so many people that just focus on their “negatives.” Thank you so much. Love, David