Reflections From Prison

I’ve been co-leading a men’s group in a medium security prison here in Massachusetts for a few months. We meet weekly for a couple of hours. My time inside is compelling and my heart opens and I’m learning some things about life. I don’t have it sorted yet.

There is a lot of signing in, and searching, thick metal electronic doors, and long hallways to traverse to get to the small classroom where my colleague and I wait. Eventually our 10 men file in. They are dressed in a variety of prison garb, blue work coats and shirts, sweat pants or shorts, plenty of Nikes and New Balance.   No orange uniforms here.

These men are glad to see us again and there are hugs and firm handshakes. We sit in a circle and begin.

Four or five of these men are in for life, some without the possibility of parole. These are men of color for the most part, confirming the statistics I’ve read about whom we incarcerate in this country. There are no guards present, although one walks by every half hour or so.

The first time I sat in this circle I was pretty scared. As we went around and shared our honest feelings, I said I had fear, as it was my first time in a prison. I also said, truthfully, that I was more scared of the guards. Lots of the inmates nodded and smiled, and one said, ‘Yeah, we hear that all the time.’   The guards are the ones who are dressed in black and they must remain, well, so guarded at all times, since anything might be used against them somehow.

I still don’t like going through all that is required each week to get to those 10 men, but I feel very safe there now. These are men that are choosing to open their hearts and are looking to learn. They have never had true Warriors and Magicians and Kings to learn from.

As they file in I can feel the absolute despair they carry as well as the hope. They have lives, mothers and fathers, families, wives, children. People visit them, they have phone calls with lawyers, and parole hearings to prepare for. Classes they are taking. Inside, there are many choices for them about whom to associate with, what to say, how to avoid trouble. They want help with all this.

Here in this room, my partner and I encourage them to be open and honest. We know that the very act of speaking truthfully with people who will not judge us can be deeply healing. A few weeks ago we were talking about being open in prison. They shared what is obvious–that inmates have to be on alert at all times and keep their emotions and true feelings reined in, because any weakness might be used against them. When I consider the effect this has on a man, having to be that way for years, I shudder.

Prisoners have nothing but time on their hands, and so they study everyone, including other inmates, the guards, and visitors. Many of them become very adept and seeing through the carefully constructed posturing and roles that everyone is assuming. So there is this paradoxical combination of transparency and closed defending that is taking place at the same time. The inmates are doing this 24/7 while the guards are in this mode for just 40 hours a week, so my judgement is that the inmates are better at it, but I’m not sure.

It makes me wonder how safe I feel out there in my life. It makes me aware of my carefully modulated roles and posturing that I go through all day long. My heart feels like an automatic focusing lens on a camera, opening and shutting to various degrees, continuously, depending on the situation I’m in.

One of these guys calls himself Liberty. He is an older black man and he is not getting out in this life. He has done a lot of work on himself and I think he teaches a meditation class inside to other inmates. He studies the mysteries and reads everything he can get his hands on. I think he is learning how to travel in non-ordinary reality. Now that would be some course to teach inmates: how to escape! Of course that is much too subversive and I cannot imagine that ever happening. But it does make me smile. Just imagine that flyer posted on the inmate bulletin board.

One of the outside men I facilitate with came in with me a few weeks ago and shared with the men that coming in to prison was the ultimate escape for him. It provides a kind of freedom from the rest of his busy, over tech’d life. We have to leave our cell phones and watches behind, and come in with just a visitor tag. This is the one place where he can get away from it all. Nobody can contact him in here. His sharing was from the heart and it led to a rich discussion about the pressures of outside life.

One of the men calls himself Big A. He is a lifer and has been in for 15 years already. He hasn’t mentioned why he is here, and I don’t ask. Awhile back he shared how he was with a woman for a short while before he did what he did, and she bore a child. He has never met this son, who is 15 now, but he has been writing to him. Big A shared how his son has never written back, has never acknowledged his dad’s existence. “This kid is a young man now. He knows enough to write me. Yet he doesn’t. So I’ve decided I’m done with him. I’m not going to write anymore.”

I know I’m not supposed to give advice.   Big A didn’t ask for it, and the design of the container is explicit that we are not here to judge each other or fix each other. So we don’t offer solutions. We just listen with openness.

But I couldn’t help myself this time. After class, I pulled Big A aside and put my hands on his shoulders. I said, “Big A. I want to offer you something. Please consider continuing to write to your son. You might have to write to him for another 10 years before he acknowledges you. So be it. Your father wasn’t there for you. You can change that cycle here and now.”   I know that these inside men get very little mentoring, and it’s rare that an older man will hold them where they are and for who they are, with directness and love. This is my gift to him and to me. I felt whole and alive at that moment.