Prisons, or Unlikely Ashrams


    I love it when my prejudices meet me full front and I’m forced to see the face of God looking back at me through a person in whom I least expected to see it – in a place I least expected it to happen. In this case, a maximum-security prison – the persons looking back at me, convicted felons doing long-term and life sentences.

    Eight months ago, being here wasn’t even a seed in one of my most meandering thoughts. Prisons were ugly, scary, dangerous places that had nothing to do with a white middle-class woman like myself, let alone the men who live in them. Now, I sit with these men on plastic chairs arranged in a circle, in a sparsely decorated, tile-floored room outside the chaplains’ offices. As odd as it may seem, I’m teaching them meditation as part of a Spiritual Awareness class, and I can’t imagine a place I’d rather be.

    How I came to be here caught me by surprise. It happened when Ed Beers, a retired minister I know, told me about a friend of his, the Rev. Jerry Hancock, who was starting a prison ministry program. Hancock wanted to include meditation in his Spiritual Awareness class at the state prison in Portage, Wis., but didn’t have that piece in place yet. I volunteered to meet with Jerry to teach him some techniques he might be able to use.

    Long story short, I met with Jerry, Ed, and another retired minister, Diana Shaw, to instruct them in a simple practice they could teach the inmates. While with them, something inside me ignited and I heard myself saying that I would like to be part of the team and help teach at the prison.

    Hear me, I didn’t say it; I heard myself say it. That’s how I know Spirit is volunteering my services and I have something to learn. So even when, the next day, a voice popped in to say, "Are you crazy? You’re afraid to walk alone at night! Why would you work in a prison full of the men who scare you?" I committed myself to the mandatory orientation with the prison chaplain. My foot was in the door.

    Very diverse individuals
    And now, every Friday morning, as I walk through automatically locking doors and steel gates clanking shut behind me, I never have a doubt that where I am is right where I need to be and I’ve never had a moment of fear. The 10 to 18 men who show up each week are very diverse individuals. Notice I called them individuals. In the first paragraph I called them convicted felons. That was to get your attention, but now that you’re in the circle with us, I can let you see who they are beyond that label. This talking circle starts the format of our Spiritual Awareness class.

    It takes about ten minutes for them to trickle in from the different cell blocks after securing their passes. Many of them walk directly to me to shake my hand and ask how my week has been. They might sit next to me and ask a question about their practice or something they’ve read or heard.

    Their ages range from 20s to 50s. They’re African-Americans, Hispanics, Caucasians, Puerto Ricans and Native Americans.

    Personalities run the gamut as I look around: introspective, animated, pious, outgoing, laid-back, humorous. But what they all have in common is a willingness to try to understand themselves and their relationship to Spirit and to the people around them. Using the resources available to them at the prison, they are willing to examine their lives and make changes. Our group is one of those resources.

    Sometimes all four members of our facilitating team are present, sometimes only three, two or one of us, depending on our outside schedules. What we offer is the opportunity for the men to explore their spirituality through self-awareness. We pose a question that each man answers in turn as we go around the circle.

    We’ve asked: "Who was a positive role model in your life?" "What was the most terrifying time in your life?" "What was your favorite place to go to be alone when you were a kid?" These are just a few examples. The answers are often unexpected, and the sharing is always rich.

    Some of the men are mature, wise and highly articulate. Some are wearing their street-wise veneer, with talk to match. Deep philosophers come from both camps. I have been moved to tears more than once at what I’ve heard.

    It brings to mind one of our earlier classes, when it came time for a very young man to speak. He pulled himself out of a semi-dreamy state and said, "I was just enjoying the sounds of the words of my brother next to me as he was talking. It sounded like a story." He was awed – "We really have some eloquent men in here." And I’ve watched this young man mature over the seven months we’ve been meeting, integrating his thoughts with those of others.

    Engaged and responsive
    Even though each man has only a few minutes to speak (we have 45 minutes allotted to talking circle), they seem able to say what’s important to them. I watch the eyes of those listening light up in response to something they’re hearing. Heads nod, thumbs go up, or sometimes someone draws a loud round of laughter. But whatever is happening, they’re engaged and responsive.

    As one man told us, "We learn from each other. I like getting together with men I don’t know. We learn from hearing each other’s stories, even if they’re childhood stories. I go back to my cell, and I’ve learned something."

    One of the most hilarious times we shared was when we asked them to talk about a favorite item of clothing from their past – these inmates, all currently identically dressed in drab green short-sleeved tops and matching baggy green trousers, the same thing they wear day after day, year after year. A former life became colorful as a tall, lanky African-American, sitting with his long legs stretched out in front of him, described his love of what he called the "classy" look. It consisted of a cashmere coat, which he occasionally "borrowed" from his grandpa’s coat closet, a felt fedora, leather brief case, gold bracelet, diamond ring, cuff links ("You have to keep the jewelry simple," he said, "not a lot of gold chains like other guys used to wear"), and a small pearl-handled pistol tucked inside the inner pocket of the satin coat lining.

    A soft-spoken Hispanic man wore only silk – silk shirts and silk pants. Several sets in different colors. He carried a trim leather briefcase and was known in the clubs as "The Doctor."

    Other men talked about special pants for break dancing and favorite jackets and shoes. A young Michael Jackson look-alike had the group in uproarious laughter as he itemized his Michael Jackson wardrobe, especially the famous beaded jacket, which was his prized item of clothing. "You gotta get this," he said. "I didn’t look like Michael Jackson, I was Michael Jackson. And the girls were all over me." He was laughing at himself so hard, he could barely get the story out.

    Another man opened himself up to describe the pride he felt when he got his first leather coat-a hand-me-down from one of his mother’s boyfriends. It didn’t matter that it was too big and used, it made him feel like somebody.

    A seemingly light question, but it created a joyous 45 minutes of reminiscing and laughing at themselves and with each other, as they were trying to "be somebody" and feel important.

    Sense of inner freedom
    That’s the beauty of the program – giving these men the opportunity to be vulnerable and open around men they can trust. They can dismantle the macho and the disappointments and can begin to see themselves in a different way. We give them ways to look at their lives spiritually. It’s a given, they’re doing time. How to use that time is key to finding peace and gaining a sense of inner freedom.

    The last 30 minutes of our time together is devoted to meditation. I lead them into the meditation using the breath and a mantra, and have them sit in stillness for 15 minutes. The stillness is deep. There is no snoring, scratching, twitching or fidgeting.

    They love the results. Here are some comments they made regarding the Spiritual Awareness program:

    • "It’s a place I get to see in my fellow man something I don’t get to see
      in the cell block: humility. Outside this room, it’s covered over by macho, defense,
      and toughness."

    • "It’s good to talk about things from the past. It reminds me of how things
      were before being here. It brings that back, makes things lighter."

    • "I wanted something like this. I was praying for it and then I saw the poster.
      I don’t always talk a lot, but here I feel I can speak up. I like that it’s a place
      to explore spirituality. I go to Bible class, but this is different. It’s not just

    • "It calms me down. I’m mellower. I’m not so quick to react in the old ways
      I used to react."

    • "We got here because out there we did not know how to control our emotions.
      We’re learning how to control our emotions. If we don’t learn how to control our
      emotions in here, we’ll never know how to control them out there. I look at the name
      of where I live: ‘correctional institution.’ It’s a place to make corrections. Meditation
      gives us the ability to learn how to act like men, not like children."

    • "It’s a place to be treated like a human being. To be touched by the stories
      and the exchange with other people. That’s a human need; I’m not saying want.
      I’m saying need."

    Inner liberation
    Living in simple quarters. An imposed daily routine. Removed from material distractions. Seeking freedom through inner liberation. A correlation jumps into my mind: prisons as unlikely ashrams. Why not?

    I remind the men that the work they’re doing within themselves to bring about inner peace and peace in their surroundings is not to be taken lightly. Their commitment to their practices brings a light into that prison and puts light out into the world – just like ashrams across the country.

    When we started the program, we were warned that because it is an elective class, we might draw some men who just want to get out of their cells for an hour and a quarter. I have never noticed that. I have only seen men who are wanting to participate and learn, only men who are respectful of one another and of us, who speak in turn and don’t interrupt, who are willing to listen and ask good questions. Most become "regulars." Some get transferred to other institutions or get jobs within the prison and we never see them again, with no notice. I hurt inside when that happens. It’s something I have to get used to in this environment. I just show up every Friday morning at 9 a.m. and am prepared to meet the unexpected until 10:15. That’s my commitment and that becomes my practice as I try to help these men develop theirs.

    Having started in June 2006, the project is still young and we are evolving, but it appears we have something that is working. It’s a step toward humanizing a hard situation for men doing time. It provides a means for finding inner freedom in a place where there appears to be no freedom. It provides hope and support for learning how to live in the present moment with awareness and an open heart.

    Can it be a step toward non-violence in our prison system? Can it be a step toward preparing men for a different way of being in society when they finish their sentences? I hold the conviction that the 2 percent of the Columbia County Correctional Institution that are "doing their time" in spiritual practice can hold the light for change in correctional institutions across the nation.

    For more information about the Prison Ministry Program or about Spiritual Awareness classes in prison, contact: The Rev. Jerry Hancock at [email protected] or (608) 233-9751, or Regina Golding at [email protected] or (608) 238-7502.

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