I’ve been volunteering in prisons for over two years. I started my voyage into the prison system by default. A few years ago I was helping a meditation center organize some of its activity around various ways to reach out to the local community offering meditation and community service as vehicles for self and societal transformation. I had asked one person to spearhead the “prison initiative”. He was enthusiastic and eager to get started and had many ideas about how we could do service in the prison system. But week after week and month after month there was a lot of talk but no steps towards concrete action. I asked him if he needed any help to get started in the prisons and he said no. Finally after almost one year, out of frustration, I said to him “If you don’t start to implement you ideas, I will” And his response to me was “Go ahead.” I was being challenged and couldn’t back down 🙂 This was my first step towards engaging the prison system.
I now visit three prisons on a regular basis and I find myself perpetually relating to challenging situations in each of these prisons. Far and away, the most challenging situation for me is relating with the prison administrators, correction officers and prison bureaucracy. There is prison staff that dedicate themselves to benefiting the inmates and believe in the power of rehabilitation and redemption. And there are those who are less aware that personal transformation for the better is possible. It appears easier for some folks, some of the time, to negatively label individuals who are convicted felons, solidify those labels, thus creating an immovable and permanent identity that may be more impenetrable than the prison walls and razor wire that surround them. It’s so true that pointing one’s finger at others faults is much easier to do than to look into one’s own mind and observe one’s thoughts, intentions, fears, and insecurities. Yet this refusal to look into one’s own mind inevitably leads to a proliferation of unnecessary suffering for everyone.
In some ways, the prison system is an amplified and concentrated version of what’s wrong with our society as a whole. The Drama Triangle model consisting of the mind-states of the “victim”, “persecutor”, and “rescuer” spin around in each person’s mind (prisoner and prison staff alike) with ferocious speed and intensity. There are moments of kindness, empathy, compassion and even love. Yet these moments are fleeting. Often, simply by virtue of the fact that people are convicted, labeled as criminals and placed in a prison, gives everyone (at least some of time) a license to legitimatize the blame, shame and punishment that is projected onto these folks. And in turn, the prisoners become conditioned to reinforce their survival (fight, flight or freeze) mentalities. It’s a vicious cycle. Of course, one key priority for society towards those who commit violent and harmful crimes is that the offenders need to be separated from that society in order to protect its citizens. Yet these incarcerated folks (as well as us) have the potential to recognize their temporary failings as well as their basic goodness and transform themselves. If society is not willing or incapable of truly recognizing that people can really change for the better, then that society will hold people in incarceration much longer than is necessary. They will be held in prison out of fear, ignorance, prejudice, and the profit motive to name a few. The other key priority of society towards the folks it incarcerates is to facilitate positive self-transformation (rehabilitation). This is the compassionate and cost effective priority. The sooner folks learn to empathize and care for others, the sooner they will overcome their harmful habitual patterns of behavior and the sooner they can be released back into society to lead productive lives…but only if those folks who are doing the incarcerating can also recognize everyone’s innate goodness, including their own…wow, this is a big project! In the prisons I volunteer in I’ve noticed a direct relationship between the intensity of prison security, isolation, overcrowding and low level of rehabilitation programs on the one hand, and the degree of alienation, anti-social behavior and trauma that the inmates and staff experience on the other hand. Conversely, I have at least tasted the positive effects of a secure but more open, empathic and rehabilitative prison environment that fosters self-reflection, connection and mutual respect. The choice as to which path to travel is clear. Finding the courage, discipline and patience to walk down this path is our ultimate challenge.
Whichever side of the wall we are on, striving towards taking full responsibility for our thoughts, emotions, behaviors and actions regardless of the circumstances is a virtuous pursuit. Yet let’s also take responsibility for ourselves and others by creating the circumstances (including prison environments) that are conducive to nurturing aware and responsible thoughts, emotions, behaviors and actions. Then we may see our walls come tumbling down.