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Back from my once a month weekend facilitating an Alternatives to Violence workshop at the California Correctional Institute in Tehachapi. You know how it is when you go through something intense or profound at first there are no words?
On Monday I went on a Crisis Response Team call. There was a fatality down in L.A.. I went to the scene and, thankfully, a white sheet was over the body when I arrived. The probationary responder on his very first call was there before me and had seen the body and told me about it. I am not bothered by seeing such things, which makes me suitable for this work, but after an emotional weekend in the prison, it's likely best this way. It wasn't a highly emotional call because it was an accident and because the whole thing had not hit the individual yet. We made sure he was set with family and support in his life and that he would contact us later if anything came up (and it generally does come up later, sometimes weeks later), then we left. So a relatively easy call.
Without violating the confidentiality of what we do as facilitators for Alternatives to Violence in prison, I can touch upon a few things.
At that prison right now Alternatives to Violence Project ( http://avpcalifornia.org/ ) is on the protective custody yard which means a population of former gang members, medical and psychological issues, gay, sex offenders and those inmates who are "short," on their way out. Of these, we see those who are sincerely volunteering themselves because they want and need the skills and tools to stay out. We see only those who want to be in the workshop and are committed to bettering themselves. Of these a large number have spent a good portion of their lives in and out of prison. The fact is that most (not all) of the ones we see don't go out wanting to come back but they are sent out without any tools or skills for making it outside what they have always known.
My understanding of the bit of statistical information that has been collected by AVP is that in prisons where AVP is running, recidivism is reduced significantly. I heard something like sixty down to thirty. Makes sense because it not only provides the tools but also the self-awareness and self-esteem to strengthen and support efforts to integrate back into society and be there for family and community.
As for the weekend, I can say this, for the men who get through damaging childhoods and long terms on the inside, when those men are determined to improve their character and be more masterful in how they handle themselves and what comes in life, prison is a crucible. It takes more courage, more character, more iron will than we will ever know to accomplish transformative personal development on the inside.. .
My spiritual teacher, H.E. Garchen Rinpoche spent twenty years in a Chinese prison camp. He watched his fellow monastics that he grew up with starving, beaten, and killed by their guards. They were forbidden to pray or to meditate so they had to meditate, pray, and practice while pretending to be asleep. He met his spiritual teacher there and they got to work on the practices that would cut through his anger and hatred for their captors. It was there that he became awakened and why he is now described as a living Buddha.
The conditions were so dire, so distressing that his cell mate could not bear it and cut his own throat in an attempt to escape. Garchen Rinpoche was called into the warden's office immediately. The Warden had long since taken a liking to Garchen Rinpoche and concerned himself over the well being of this Lama. He wanted to see to it that Garchen Rinpoche was able to leave and begged him to say "just one thing" against either Tibet or Buddhism. "You don't have to stay for the entire twenty years," the Warden said to him. Garchen Rinpoche had already been able to release himself from anger and hatred and literally to awaken his heart and mind. He told the Warden that "it's not that bad." Because, as he explained to us all these years later, he understood since childhood that it was not conditions outside himself that caused his own suffering. It was the condition of his mind. So Garchen Rinpoche was there full term, all twenty years. And toward the end there were even a few guards who had been so touched by his profound compassion and love even for themselves that they became his students.
Even the most abject among us can potentially find their own hearts and awaken them. As long as we rely on a severely punitive system without any thought to the wider implications of treating people like discards, we will continue to have the highest incarceration rate in the world, far beyond even China and the Soviet Union.
Michelle Espinosa is Blog-o-licious
I hope not to squander this life on anything less than love. And what do I mean by love? Think fierce love. Love that cuts to the core, that burns away all nonsense in an instant to get at what is most human. M+