If someone told you that there was a prison in America that had a feel of a monastery about it, would you buy that? I sure as heck wouldn’t — not before last Wednesday, April 16th, anyway.
That was the day JoAnn, Dinny Evans and I were given special clearance to enter San Quentin State Prison in California.
As we were leaving the prison after six hours, JoAnn said to me, “This feels more like a monastery than a prison.” She was right. It did. Seeing is believing.
In fact, the minute we got inside the gates, all my preconceived notions of how it would be and what it would feel like were totally smashed.
I’d had visions of Alcatraz and Shawshank in my mind and expected the energy to be dark and foreboding, and I presumed the prisoners would be angry, surly, resentful and unfriendly.
It was the exact opposite. Everyone was friendly and welcoming. They were genuinely pleased to see us. Whether they were playing ball, shooting hoops or going about their tasks, they stopped to say “Hi,” and waved.
I can honestly say the energy in that part of the prison, where most of the prisoners congregated, was as high as any place I have experienced in my life. And I include all the churches I have ever been in. I was blown away by it. Shocked!
(Note: We did not see Death Row or the ‘Hole,’ or even ordinary cells which apparently have been judged and condemned by international human rights organizations as way below international norms, but I was assured that the general atmosphere we were experiencing was very typical.)
I soon learned why the energy was so high. While there are 6,000 prisoners incarcerated in San Quentin, there are 3,000 volunteers who come in and provide real mind/body/spirit support for the prisoners, most of whom are there for life.
A non-profit organization called the Insight Prison Project provides year long programs for personal and spiritual growth. One of them is the Victim/Offender Education Group (VOEG), and you can find more information at http://www.insightprisonproject.org.
This is where victims and offenders mix and come to understand each other by listening and sharing. Victims try to find forgiveness while the offenders become accountable and mindful of the pain they have caused others.
A very high proportion of the guys undertake to enter into these extremely challenging programs that are as transformational as any I have seen on the outside.
They do it with as much courage and commitment as anyone I have known anywhere.
As it happened, our day to visit was the day the latest cohort of 25-30 guys going through the program were to graduate, so we got to be at their graduation ceremony.
It was a very moving experience for us. The love in the room was palpable. Guys got up to speak and said things that blew me away. One guy even shed tears.
Can you imagine a prison where it would be safe for a man to cry in front of several hundred other male prisoners and not be seen as a wimp? He got a standing ovation.
Towards the end, I was asked to say a few words. At one point during my speech I addressed one prisoner who was due for release the next day after 25 years of incarceration.
I admitted I felt some trepidation for him. “It’s not like this on the outside,” I told him. “People out there are less likely to give you the same level of love and support you’ve received from all your buddies in here for the last 25 years. Be prepared.”
Before that graduation ceremony, we were privileged enough to be invited to sit in with a group who met regularly to discuss issues related to their crimes. Most members of this group were in for committing murder and would be in prison for life.
There was a facilitator from the outside and another who was himself a prisoner.
Each of the guys was given the task of constructing a time-line of his life, right up to when they had committed the crime and beyond, and then each presented it to the group during a single session.
We witnessed one of these presentations. Once complete, the others commented and asked questions. It was amazing.
I do the exact same thing with people who come to my workshops, but what I witnessed here was as much courage and authenticity in his sharing and loving compassion and empathy from the other guys as I have ever experienced in any of my workshops.
Now let me explain the purpose for our being there.
I was invited by Rochelle Edwards, the Senior Restorative Justice Consultant and Victim Offender Mediator, to discuss the possibility of training prisoners to become certified facilitators of Radical Forgiveness. Once trained, they would be able to teach Radical Forgiveness as an element of one of their more advanced courses.
My book Radical Forgiveness had been circulating amongst the prisoners, and several came up to me and said it had so changed their lives they wanted to do the training so they could help others.
It seems there are about 50 guys who want to do it. I am very excited about that possibility and we will find a way to do it.
Obviously, they don’t have access to the internet but they can watch DVDs and I still have those. Dinny lives within a three hour drive from there and will be able to teach some classes live.
Now, please don’t imagine I was blinded to all that is utterly shameful and unjust about the justice system in this country, and how it seems to apply only to a certain section of the population.
One guy was in for a total of 67 years under the arbitrary ‘3 strikes and you’re out’ rule, having committed three burglaries. That rule was created by politicians who wanted to appear tough on crime in order to improve their image.
Yet the criminals up there on Wall Street who knowingly swindle millions of people out of billions of dollars go completely free and continue with their criminal activity with impunity. Prison is not for them apparently.
I also realize that, regrettably, there are very few prisons like this one. I heard a lot of people say, if you have to do time, there’s no better place than San Quentin to do it.
One reason for that is that it is near a big city, San Francisco — one that is very liberal in its outlook and more inclined to think that the purpose of prison is not just to punish but to help offenders heal the hurt that caused them to hurt others so they can become good citizens again.
The people of San Francisco are probably more inclined to want to help prisoners than in other cities where a more conservative, ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key,’ attitude prevails.
Prisons that are totally isolated have no chance of getting this kind of support at all, and if they come under the jurisdiction of a hard line, right wing government, there is little likelihood of anything like we witnessed here happening.
My only hope for them and this country is that people in authority will come to realize what a difference a little bit of caring and humanity can do to people, not to mention how much money it would save. They only have to look to San Quentin for the model.
I met one man who had been a gang leader and had taken the lives of a few people in his time, but he had become fully human again, now able to give and receive love from others.
But it was clear to me that he was able to transform to this degree only because he had been given the chance to heal what was eating him on the inside and causing him to hurt others.
That’s true for all of us. Have you not hurt people by projecting your own unhealed hurt out onto them? Of course you have. We all have. Only when you heal your own pain will you stop inflicting it onto others.
That’s why Radical Forgiveness is so important. While you hold onto your hurt, you are in a prison of your own making. You are not free.
The prisoners I met realized that to be free, whether they were in prison or outside on the street, they had to heal their hurts in order to be whole and accepting of themselves.
That’s why they want to learn Radical Forgiveness and I am keen to find a way to give it to them.
P.S. How about you? Wouldn’t you like to stop hurting those you love by healing your own pain? You can take the first step in my free webinar later today on the Radical Forgiveness Worksheet. Join me and set yourself free.