Last week I offered another workshop at a medium-security prison in Massachusetts. Entering the prison feels like entering a foreign country. Different rules are observed than for the outside world, and the visitor must comply with these to enter. Arrival at the prison is according to a strict schedule, but entering is capricious. If you are late because of traffic, you may not get in at all. Yet delays in being allowed in are frequent, due to employee schedules and frequent disturbances.
When you enter the prison you leave everything personal behind, and you are subject to a body search. Clothing requirements are very strict. The rules point in the following divergent directions: nothing that looks like a prisoner, nothing at all revealing. No metal of any kind, even an underwire bra. My pockets are emptied, my cell phone and wallet are locked up. I am allowed one pen and a few pieces of paper which I need to facilitate the program. I feel oddly glad for my identification card which gives me only a number and marks me as an outsider, free to leave.
Upon entering, I feel immediately the oppressiveness of the prison, with its multiple doors and TV screens, its looming walls and grey 20-foot fences. How would it be to live here for years on end? The prisoners wear a uniform of monochrome sweats, t-shirts and sneakers. It is human nature to try to define oneself as an individual, yet at first glance there is a sad sameness to them all.
I do not intend to exonerate people who are doing time in prison. Awful crimes were committed and restitution must be done. But one wonders, after observing the system for only a short while, whether this is the best way. I am working with a number of felons who feel genuine remorse for their actions. One fellow killed someone when he was 18, an acquaintance, in a drug deal. After a number of years, he was finally released. He had been trained in the program in which I am working, Alternatives to Violence Program or AVP. As a result of the program, he had done a great deal of personal work and he wanted to apologize to his victim’s family. He visited the grave, where he had the opportunity to meet the victim’s brother. The brother refused his proffered handshake and instead reached out his arms, giving him a big hug and sharing with him that he had forgiven him. This moment stands out as one of the blessed moments in his life. He talks about it as a spiritual moment. In his words, “a huge burden came off me”. He has told his story countless times to fellow prisoners. It is hard to overstate the impact of this story on his fellow prisoners. They listen, rapt in their attention. They ask questions. Some of them are moved to tears. I can tell that they all yearn for forgiveness. It is most likely their deepest dream, and one that few are likely to accomplish.
This story stands out because it is so rare. There are strong rules against a perpetrator having any contact with a victim’s family, unless the victim requests it. In our system, perpetrators and victims cannot come together to apologize and forgive. A central part of restitution is not allowed to take place.
I think of my cousin who was murdered, and the probationary hearings that have taken place to assess the prisoner's status and determine whether he should be released. My family attends these hearings, and what we are yearning for is a sence of repentance. It has not yet come. I look for his name among the participants of AVP. Maybe one day he will take a step towards goodness.
We need to give more thought to solutions that have been used after horrific crimes were committed, to help to knit society back together. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after the fall of the apartheid regime, the gacaca courts in Rwanda, public apologies including that in Australia after the horrific treatment of aboriginal peoples there - all these are examples of restorative justice. We could and should incorporate these solutions into our broken justice system.
After a day or two in the workshop, the prisoners invariably start to talk about the workshop participants as a community within the prison. They talk of greeting each other in the halls or on the grounds. "Hey Jackpot Jay! Wepa La Machina!" They talk of feeling safe in the workshop and trusting each other. I envision these little seeds of trust infusing the prison with more light and grace. They talk of strategies for avoiding violence: when someone cuts in front of them in line, when a roommate kicks the door each time he enters. These minutiae seem like minor irritants to us on the outside, something that we would be able to rise above. And yet how many of us have heard our friends quietly exclaim: "I hate the way my partner chews!" We all can learn strategies for walking more peacefully in our world. When I share strategies with a small group of two or three prisoners, I can see that we are more alike than different in how we are affected, and can learn to cope with, the stresses in our lives.
Some of the comments that pierced my heart in the workshop:
“One day I’d like to see the sunset again.” (This from a man who carries a photo of a sunset on the beach among his most precious possessions.)
“In a second, my life completely changed. I’d give anything to change it back.”
“If I only knew before what I know now, I wouldn’t be here”.
A cynic would say that these comments are made in the presence of outsiders, to impress them and change their attitudes about prisoners in the system. This may be. But they know that we have no power to affect their situation. They receive no reduced sentence for participating in the program. They are clamoring to be part of it nevertheless. We trained 18 prisoners this time, and there is a list of 26 who are eager to take the next installment, the advanced training. Then they would go on to become trainers and teach others to find alternatives to violence in their lives. Their interest cannot help but be genuine. And it is a moving experience to be part of this, to see people whose lives have been broken reach for grace.