Recently I conducted another workshop in Spanish at a Massachusetts medium security prison, co-facilitating with inmates Luis and Miguel and community member Betty (names changed). We all took on equal facilitation powers, which in itself is revolutionary in the prison setting. Most of the prison educational programs involve blackboards and desks facing front. In our program we sat in a circle. The facilitators took equal responsibility for sharing leadership.
The inmates who signed up for the program did not get any reduction in their sentences, unlike in most of the programs offered at the prison. As a result, they signed up because they were truly eager to learn the skills offered, how to resolve conflict more peacefully in one’s life. Luis and Miguel received their training in the program several years ago and have been offering the program as volunteer facilitators since then to other inmates, to help them in turn learn new skills.
What is the program? It is called the Alternatives to Violence Project. It is a curriculum that was designed by Quakers and prisoners at Green Haven Prison in New York in the 1970s to respond to the Attica prison riots and try to have a positive impact on life among the incarcerated. The program has since expanded to a number of prison and community settings and has found uses internationally, through a related program especially designed to help reconcile perpetrators and victims after a period of extreme violence, including in Rwanda, Burundi and Kenya. It is useful for healing after conflict, and for understanding the roots of conflict. It is a program that asks the same of all of us: to practice non-violent methods of dealing with conflict in our lives.
It might be expected that someone who has never been personally involved in the criminal justice system would find it unsettling, to say the least, to sit down and share one-on-one with an offender experiences of trying to resolve conflicts non-violently. At first, I felt some fear, anger, and resistance to sharing with people many of whom have admitted to have done terrible things. I also felt concerned that my place of privilege in life has spared me from having to deal with the terrible decisions that most of the inmates have experienced. How can I, who has never had to stand up for my rights physically, preach non-violence? Non-violence is indeed a tough sell in prison. Yet what I found is that there are islands of non-violence even in a place like this medium security prison. Those who have taken the Alternatives to Violence Project, or AVP, constitute one such island. And the results are life-changing for many of the inmates who participate.
After having facilitated the program in English in partnership with inmates, I found that there was an unfilled need to offer it in Spanish. Many Latino inmates do not feel comfortable speaking out in English in such a workshop, and they asked us to help them offer the program in their own language. After we had offered the basic workshop in Spanish several times, we were asked to offer the advanced one. So I found myself in a windowless room in prison with Luis, Miguel, Bonnie and 13 other Latino inmates.
I learned some remarkable stories from the inmates with whom I worked. Javier has a roommate who is Native American and who has a history of homelessness. Javier had joined the Christian church in prison and was writing inspirational songs for church. His roommate asked whether he could also write some songs, and Javier stayed up most of the night helping him compose a song. The pastor of the church did not encourage the project, and as the time approached, he asked frequently whether the Native American inmate would be able to carry the project forward. Javier bought his roommate jeans, a new shirt, and clean sneakers. He told the pastor that his roommate would do fine, that he was well prepared. He said to him, “Father, what would Jesus do here? I’m counting your questions. I have told you three times now that he will be fine. You don’t need to worry.” On the day when the song was offered, there was a full three minutes of applause. The prison congregation was moved by the beauty and inspiration of the song composed by Javier and his Native American roommate.
Luis killed someone at 18 in a drug deal, and was given a long sentence. When he was released on parole, he very much wanted to visit his victim’s family. He did so, and was invited to a tearful reconciliation with the victim’s brother. He told the story during our workshop, and the inmates were visibly moved. He was able to do something that they all clearly yearn to do: to apologize and be forgiven. In his case, the victim was someone in his home community, so as a result it was more likely than in other situations for him to meet the family of his victim. Luis is held in high esteem in his prison community, in large part because he has been lucky enough to have had this experience.
It is striking that the yearning for reconciliation is a large part of most, perhaps all, inmates’ lives. They want to heal relationships with family members and other loved ones. They want an opportunity to apologize and be forgiven. This became most apparent when we conducted an exercise called Magic Carpet. I had steered clear of this exercise previously, concerned that it would be too challenging for the inmates. It turned out to be the most important one we did. In Magic Carpet, participants write down the words that they would most like to hear from important people in their lives. This could be their loved ones or – and they adapted the exercise to include this – from their victim’s family. Those who have trouble writing describe verbally to another inmate the message they would like to hear. They form partner groups, and each pair has an opportunity to sit on the Magic Carpet (a block of newsprint in the center of the circle) and hear from their partner the words they have written. Their partner kneels behind them with a hand on their shoulder while they conduct a dialogue in the voice of the chosen individual.
What I heard blew me away. Participants were truly able to suspend their disbelief and “hear” the words they so wanted to hear as coming from their deceased parent, their estranged teenager, or their son. Spontaneously, a dialogue began, in which the inmate conversed openly and with great emotion with the person they had chosen, and their partner entered into the simulation, inventing the words that the person might have said had he or she been present. It was a beautiful opportunity to communicate one’s deepest emotions with an important person, and much love was shared. “Te quiero, papí.” “I love you, daddy.”It was truly amazing to observe this level of emotional openness inside prison! I myself did not participate in the sharing part of this exercise due to lack of time. Yet I considered how meaningful an exercise it would be for all of us to experience. Everyone has made mistakes in their lives for which they yearn to apologize and be forgiven. Even if we do not have the opportunity to forgive and be forgiven by our loved ones, we can forgive ourselves, and that is a good part of the journey.
My intention here is simply to shine some light on a dark corner of our world. Most of us do not have any idea what happens behind those high walls that surround the prison. Given what we often hear, we assume that it is a brutal place where people cannot ever relax or trust each other, where everyone is completely alone and at risk of being victimized by others. Yet I have experienced a sense of community being built, people who are trying their best to build a new life and move away from a violent past. I have observed people who help hold each other to a high moral standard and support each other towards doing good. The prison system is a vast, wasteful empire which is not built to encourage rehabilitation. Some recent reports in the Boston Globe and on National Public Radio indicate that perhaps we are ready to move past vengeance and towards rehabilitating lives, even in prisons. I certainly hope so.