I have been volunteering in the Massachusetts prison system with a program that works with inmates to learn alternatives to violent behavior. The following is a piece I wrote for the volunteer newsletter.
Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) Experience “On the Inside”
“Nancy, I’d like to do that Light and Lively exercise after lunch.” “I’ve been thinking about that all weekend, and I think…” The conversations swirl around me as the AVP workshop at a medium security prison, “on the inside”, begins. We are 14 prisoners, mostly African American, including 3 trained facilitators and 4 white middle class women from the outside. It’s not hard to tell who is a prisoner here by race, class or gender.
But when I look closely, I see a different story. When I look beneath all these differences between “us” and “them” in my mind and heart, I feel that I have entered a monastery of sorts, where the inmates are focused on learning about themselves and improving their interactions with the world. True, this is a self-selected group. Unlike in some other programs, prisoners do not win a reduction in their sentence for attending AVP, so their presence is entirely voluntary, a contrast to most of the rest of their schedule.
Right from the beginning, I noticed a deep level of sharing that would be unusual in most groups on the outside. On my first experience inside a prison, I expected to be surrounded by a group of “hardened criminals” who were unwilling to share much, people who were mired in shame and fear of each other and themselves. I was surprised when we did an exercise early on asking us to name, in front of the entire group, positive and negative influences on our lives as well as the resulting effects on us. Absent fathers and racist societies were mentioned, but also loving relatives, success in school and at sports, good marriages and children who continue to love their fathers in prison. Many comments were accompanied by deep feelings, verging on tears.
Later on in the week, we reviewed “The Anatomy of an Apology” and then were given some time in silence to write a letter of apology to someone. The silence in the room was profound, even worshipful. Afterwards, one of the younger men said with much happiness and relief in his voice: “I feel so much lighter now! I can’t believe it! How would it be if I wrote letters to ALL the people I need to apologize to?” I noticed all the prisoners carefully tucked their letters away, one sliding his inside his sock. I wondered how many of these letters were delivered, and if so, how much healing could result?
I brought my own assumptions to this workshop, my first visit inside a prison. I had been cautioned during the orientation that they might try to “set me up” so that I would compromise myself by bringing in something they could use. I also came with a package of emotions ranging from anger and disgust at these men’s crimes to anger at a society that is willing to make humans pawns in this vast prison industry, which wastes lives and talents at enormous cost to us all. However, I learned that many of these people are not throwing away their lives, even though some of them have life sentences with no opportunity of parole. They are reading, thinking, praying and meeting together to do what they can in their limited situations. They are gaining the wisdom to see others with compassion and love, and to avoid violence next time, inside as well as outside prison. They are willing to trust each other and name their truths aloud. Watching them take these risks, I found it easier than I would have thought to lay aside my preconceptions and to share some of my inner truth. For the days that I was inside, I truly joined this little monastery and it became a journey of exploration for me as well.
So if you are considering going to a weekend retreat to gain wisdom and understanding of your own life, and to open your heart, why not spend it learning those things with people in prison?