Home from Prison.

I Have just Come Home From Prison

I have just come home from prison. Again. I am always so happy to come home – to see my wife and my boys. I hug my boys and tell them not to end up in prison, it’s no place to be and they roll their eyes. There are always tears when I come home, though they are all mine.  I always appreciate family so much more after prison.

            I don’t know how many times I’ve been in prison anymore. One time blends into the next. I do know I’ll be going back again and soon. It is too central to my life now. I cannot imagine my life without it. I have too many friends there. My time there is too intense to be denied. Life outside seems so staid in comparison. I know I will be going back. It’s just a question of how soon. It’s in my soul. Too long away and I start looking for ways to go back. When do I go back? How long do I have to wait?

            It’s just too powerful a draw. The guys I have gotten to know. The closeness. The stories. The emotion. The intensity. The compassion. It gets overwhelming, but essential. I start to almost envy the guys inside. After I leave I know at the next breakfast they will see each other again- and I won’t be there, and then again at lunch and dinner. I won’t be there.  But they will. They will be together and they will be sharing that experience among themselves and I will miss them. And I hope they will miss me.

            Prison has somehow gotten to be one of the central experiences of my life. I can no longer imagine my life without it. And so I know I will be going back.  How long? When?

            My wife has gotten to resent the times I go. She is home alone, with the boys. My sons have just come to accept it as part of life. It’s who Dad is. It’s what Dad does. Time will pass and he’ll come home – and then later he will go again.

            Some of the most amazing guys I know are there.  Marvelous Mark! He is serving time for murders committed when he was 18. And yet Mark, now in his 50s, is one of the most gentle and kindest people I know – inside or out.  I want him for my neighbor on the outside. He is a force for goodness and kindness and I know lots of people owe their lives to him. Then there is Brendan, a former white supremacist. I have seen him comparing tattoos with Bloods and black gang members. And these gang members offered him their protection, as he tries to navigate prison with his racist tattoos. Brendan who joined the Black Prisoners Caucus, as a former white supremacist, to make amends for his past and learn to be a new man. David, who lived in Charleston at the same time as me, and sought, like I did, to avoid the fights and scuffles. He, because his father was a preacher and told him not to fight; Me, because the principal told me if I had one more fight I would be suspended. Bill, Tony, Claire, the list goes on. I can see their faces. Over time I can no longer remember all their names. I have been in and out too many times. But I can remember their stories.

In prison I know I am appreciated. I know I am loved. I know that with so much more certainty in prison than I do outside. So I know I will be going back.

And I have also met some of the most amazing women I have known in prison. What type of courage does it come to sit in a room full of felons, including sex offenders and then talk about your experience of sexual assault?  What amazing compassion to see inmates in tears as they listen. The openness, honesty and compassion I have seen in prison! Daily life on the outside rarely compares.

And so I am wondering when am I going back? When will it be my turn?

I did not go to prison the first time until I was in my late forties. I had been a lawyer for some twenty years and then a lobbyist. And then through a series of life changes I was going to prison. People warned me when you first go in and you hear those bars close behind you, the hair will go up on the back of your neck. It was not that way for me. I was a military brat. I had grown up on Navy bases around the world. Growing up, I was always surrounded by gray institutional paint and barbwire. I was accustomed to living inside the barbwire. When I walked into the maximum security Washington State Reformatory, I saw the barbwire and the gray institutional paint everywhere and I said to myself, “I’m home”.  Still, I was nervous and a bit scared. As I walked through door after door and heard them close behind me, I felt the fear of wondering if you could really leave. Walking past the guys in the yard, lifting weights, walking the track, sorting out into black and white, I wondered what I was doing here. I wondered if I would be safe.

Then I found myself in the PAB, the Program Activities Building, and 20 inmates were coming in to the room. I am 6 foot and 200 pounds, so I am sort of a big guy, but I was nervous and scared and most of the guys seemed big to me. Then we all took our chairs.  I looked around the room at all the guys, and then saw the guy on my left, Sleepy. He was a large young black man with gang tattoos, and one above his collar that said “Fuck you to death”.  Every time I looked left I read that tattoo and got a shiver.

We were asked to introduce ourselves to the group and I did the same as the rest. The next thing I knew we were being asked to play a game, “A Big Wind Blows”, something like musical chairs. Soon I was laughing and running and playing like a third grader, trying to grab a seat while everyone scurried around. A big wind blows for everyone with facial hair. Run. A big wind blows for everyone wearing blue jeans. Run.

Soon we were talking about what are the roots of violence and what does violence lead to. One listens up in a conversation like this when one knows he is in a room of experts! The honesty, the power and the insight of what I heard blew me away. Then we were grouped in one-on-one conversations on given topics: “What do you look for in a friend?” ; “What do you look for in a leader”; “Talk about a time you were scared but did the right thing” . . . And each conversation was with a different person.  And each conversation was too short. I was amazed at the similarity of their answers to my own and the similarity of their values to my own. I was amazed at the connections and things I found in common with the men I was speaking with. I was hungry to speak more with each of them and all of them.

As the day progressed with more conversations, more games, more laughter and then tears, I found myself again sitting next to Sleepy with his intimidating tattoo. He raised his hand called a stop to the activities. He turned to me, faced me and said, “I don’t know what’s going on here.” And then thumping his chest, he said ” I’m a gangsta and you’re supposed to be afraid of me. And you are sitting here and talking with me like I’m your next door neighbor. I don’t know what this is. But I like it.” I was hooked.

And that was my introduction to the Alternatives to Violence Project – “AVP”. AVP is a volunteer prison program to help inmates learn conflict skills, or what AVP calls “transforming power”. AVP was born out of the Attica prison riot of 1971. (Prisoners in Attica prison New York seized hostages and took control of the prison to demand better living conditions. Governor Rockefeller, of drug law fame, ordered in the State Patrol and 39 people lost their lives).

Inmates at the New York Green Haven Prison, some of them Black Panthers transferred out of Attica as trouble makers, were concerned about the violence in the facility. They were especially concerned about how volatile the young new inmates were.  The long timers and elders want what we all want on the outside. They want a safe neighborhood. They formed a group they called “the Think Tank” to work on the problem.

This group approached a group of Quakers involved in a prison visitors program and asked for their help. They said Green Haven was a tinderbox and could be another Attic unless they got help. Together the Think Tank and the Quakers began researching different violence reduction programs and began compiling what they learned. 

The result was a three day intensive workshop in 1975 led by Dr. Bernard Lafayette, a nonviolence trainer for Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other groups following Martin Luther King, Jr., along with one of the Quakers, Larry Apsey. The workshop was followed by another and another. The prison administration began to notice a real difference in the inmates and in the culture of the whole prison. They helped to get the program into other prisons, until now the program is in prisons in 35 states. 

But AVP has also broken out of prison. It has spread to youth facilities, community centers, schools and churches. Intrepid pioneers carried the program to other countries including places like Rwanda, Palestine, Bosnia, Colombia, Guatemala, the Congo, and Nepal – until now the program is in over 50 countries. In Rwanda Hutu and Tutsis have come together through AVP. In the west Bank Israelis and Palestinians have met and bonded through workshops. In Colombia there have been workshops to help children leave the FARQ guerillas and paramilitaries, lay down their guns and go back to school.

Now with over 45 years of experience in many of the most violent places in the world, AVP has accumulated a knowledge and wisdom around violence and violence prevention that is matched by few. Among the things AVP has learned is that the violence in families, in communities, between gangs, between races, between tribes, and even between countries has the same dynamics and responds to the same interventions. 

AVP teaches through doing, through experiential workshops. It is not lecturing and books. It is role playing, large and small group problem solving, sharing, and games. To some the games seem silly and frivolous. But AVP has learned that laughter and silliness break down walls and isolation and help build connection. Several inmates have told me the games drew them in. “I was never allowed to be a kid. I was never able to play. This has brought a new joy into my life.” When strangers laugh together they are well on the road to becoming friends.

AVP also strives to have facilitators from the culture we are working in. (Facilitators not teachers – AVP stresses we are all learners and all teachers in this facilitated process.) So in prison we have trained inmate facilitators co-leading the workshop with outside visitors. In schools we have student facilitators. In the U.S. AVP has some 2,500 community facilitators and 1,500 inmate facilitators in 35 states.

AVP will give you an unforgettable experience, teach you the true meaning of compassion and empathy, sharpen your communication skills, help you learn to handle conflicts productively and with less stress. Those interested in going further can go on to be trained as facilitators, learning AVPs sophisticated effective facilitation techniques. Most of all AVP equips people to move peacefully through life and conflict and become connected with all around them.

And so I find myself saying how long is it till I go back to prison. But what I am really wondering is will I see you there?

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