Lessons In Freedom

by Christine King

I initially became interested in prison work upon hearing a colleague say “I learned about freedom by going into prisons.” As a long time mediator, this captured my attention. It seemed an oxymoron. How could one learn about freedom in a prison? And yet, at some level I knew we are all walking around in our own self-imposed prisons with bound hearts and emotional wounds needing healing. So I wanted to find out for myself.

San Quentin State Prison is California’s original prison. It has the distinction of being built by the prisoners themselves during the Gold Rush, which brought all the trappings of greed and desire. Perched on one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in California, San Quentin is a commanding presence on the San Francisco Bay. As the fog lifts, one can easily imagine it as a luxury hotel, health spa, or even a midlevel palace. I once heard someone say the only reason property developers haven’t gotten their hands on it yet is because the only death row in California provides a comfortable livelihood for many San Francisco lawyers.

Being in such close proximity to the bay area, literally thousands of volunteers check through the heavily fortified gates each year. I, a middle-class, middle-aged white woman, am one of them. The male inmates are mostly minorities of all ages from less privileged backgrounds. As a teacher of Nonviolent Communication, I bring with me the desire to support these men in how they communicate their needs. I attend, listen, and validate their lives and their stories. Yet a niggling thought in the back of my head wonders if they are willing to accept me. The only time I was ever incarcerated was for blocking the road in front of Lawrence Livermore Labs in the 1980s along with 1000 other protesters. Our experience was more like a summer camp than a state prison.

After several years of assistant teaching, I have a class of my own. Of the six men, two are white and the other four are mixtures of Black and Hispanic. We spend the first class getting to know each other better. It’s a level two NVC class and I’m curious to know how well they understand the process and concepts. They get it. I’m pleased because it means I can spend my time going deeper with this work.

I used to think of Nonviolent Communication as spiritual work. These days, I consider it life work, connecting us at the level of our humanity. In class, we often spend time processing something a prison guard said that led them to believe they are sub-human. Certainly the penal system can suck the humanity out of anybody. A friend of mine once said “violence is caused by the very deep belief that one is too flawed to belong.” The message “you don’t matter” is rampant in a place like San Quentin. It is based on a simple rewards and punishment system—the same method used in most American institutions including schools, churches, corporations, and families. Ironically, the gangs that govern the prisoners work on the same hierarchical system as do the prison guards.

I feel safe in San Quentin. These men are ‘watching my back’, and they have things to teach me. I am transparent and real with them. Their concerns are the same as mine—health, survival, and relationships. One inmate wants his reluctant sister to bring his niece and nephew to visit him. Another has a wife who is seeing another man. One inmate diagnosis with a brain disorder is concerned about how he is perceived by others. And another has issues with his cellmate. I share my own pain and suffering. My son is dual diagnosed. He is in Mexico living la Vida loco, brushing up against the law and struggling with addiction. I am distressed and deeply worried for his safety. He calls and asks for money.

The men understand my pain because they too have seen themselves as the cause of this anguish in those who love them. I ask for their advice. They tell me “he’s just doing what he’s doing. You gotta take care of yourself. Turn all that NVC stuff around on yourself girl.” Easier said than done. And yet, their voices stay with me when my son returns to California and is arrested by Homeland Security for outstanding warrants. When he is released after one week and continues the same behavior, I learn to say no. I don’t let him into my home; I don’t pick up his phone calls. I am weaning myself off my addiction to my son and his addict behavior.

As I write this, my son has checked himself into a treatment center. He says he is not finished with drugs and alcohol. Perhaps he wants “three hots and a cot” as they say in the incarceration business. Maybe he had no place else to go. And possibly, he really does want help. I have a “God box” in my kitchen where I have placed his photo—a constant reminder to turn him over to a higher power. From the support and advice I have received, I know I am not his higher power, despite wanting to control his behavior. This is not easy for me. From the prison guards, I understand that when everyone else has given up on inmates, mothers will continue to visit.

The last day of class, I make a request of the men. Would they be willing to write a letter to a 25 year old man who can’t decide which side of the law he wants to be on? Below are the unedited letters written by these men. When I read their letters, tears well up in my eyes. I can’t even write these words now without crying. These men poured out their hearts to my son, and in doing so, I felt their deep love and caring for me.

Dear Jack,

For several weeks I have been hearing of your ‘adventures’, and in support of a good friend, I would like to share some facts of my life when I was 21—my last year of freedom. (I am 45 this year).

My exterior image—my grooming, the car I drove, the clothes I wore, and the amount of money I could spend on ‘fun’ (sex, drugs, and rock and roll), these were the most important things in my life—my values. I was on active duty in the US navy in San Diego. While there, if I did not maintain my grooming, I was disciplined. And it happened that I was (note: is there a word missing here?). It was a humiliating experience. I also was subject to random drug testing. Once I was caught—again I suffered humiliation. My self-image was in a conditioned habitual behavior pattern where my lack of self-discipline was being corrected by the authorities I was subject to in the military. I didn’t have enough time left of my freedom to learn self-discipline. One weekend when my car was working fine, a friend came up with the $400 dollars he had owed me. I spent $150 to have a keg party. Someone brought a gun and I felt I had to use it because my image was threatened. I felt fear—then anger at the person I thought was the cause of my fear. I was very drunk and not in control of these feelings—my inhibitions against violence were removed—I was under the influence and a man died because of my temporary inability to think. Society has judged that I am totally responsible for what happened.

Today, I try not to live up to that image. It is not my true self. Changing habitual behavior has taken time. I believe every human being is addictive by nature—we are addicted to breathing. Just look for a life enhancing addiction instead of life damaging ones and you will probably avoid my fate.

Sincerely,

John

PS My addiction that gives me the most joy is writing poetry. You can find out more about me at www.keepthetrust.com

Jack,

First, let me introduce myself. My name is Mike. I’m currently 29 years of age. A little history as well should I give. I was 17 years of age when I received a life sentence in prison. I’ve been here ever since.

I know you are wondering why I’m writing this letter. Well, there’s one reason I will share with you. An older man helped me many years ago to change my life for the better. So, I’m taking the stand or, “paying it forward.” We should help each other in any way we can.

I understand people think you ain’t living so well. Maybe you agree or maybe not. Whatever the case, someone truly cares for you.

Nowadays, anything can lead you to prison. Believe me, this is no country club or strip bar! It really does suck in here.  My point is that some of the things you are doing may bring you here! Maybe you’ve been in jail and this would be no sweat. After eleven years, it is something to sweat.

My advice to you is take the help offered to you and better yourself. Life is so much more better sober and free! But, you have to work at it. Remember, you have something we want, we have nothing you want!

Respectfully,

Michael 

Jack,

I live in a rectangular 9’x4’ shared room. I have been living like this for almost 28 years. I chose to live here because it is the result of living a criminal lifestyle. I no longer feel angry about the circumstances that led me to this imprisonment. I may feel angry because of the politics that continue to make things difficult for me to parole. I have the need to be heard and for freedom.

I do feel frustrated when I am told there are others who have made the choice to have. I don’t understand why someone would make the same choice.

Jay

Death…I see bodies falling….Wasting away without hope….Lost in a system of hate….Without a spirit or a soul….Buried in the CDC&R

The secret of living is to learn how to die while still alive. It is the kind of freedom that I seek even while in prison.

Of course, for too long, I became a slave to smoking, drinking, and snorting all kinds of drugs. I did not (could not) know or want to stop living as a slave. In the process, I was slowly, but surely hurting myself, hurting my family, and ultimately committing a slow suicide.

Then, the end came when I was busted (arrested) and sentenced (condemned) to the California prison system. I found my freedom as I walked into and through the prison gates. In here, I was forced to get off drugs. I was made to accept myself—as I am.

After Life….Living in the moment….Forgiving myself first….Accepting life on life’s terms….Being real too myself…Inside, doing life….In the S.Q.

For me, (R. Calix), there is no past, and no future. These walls have cut me off from that world which includes all of the things you now take for granted.

But it is okay, because I am free. Free from drugs, free from harm, and safe from myself. But most of all, my family will never suffer again from my selfish acts.

I have no advice or suggestions. Your decisions or choices affects more than Jack.

Be good to Jack,

R.E.C. 

Jack,

I write this communiqué with the hope that we could come to an understanding of the needs that could and would be met if only we took the time to look at someone else’s condition, and we may be affecting the world through our deeds and actions. I’ve been incarcerated now for 25 years and it took me 20 of these years to start understanding that it’s never been about me. Every action that I’ve taken has always been about someone or something other than myself, believing that they owed me or that I deserved it, which left me always in a position of taking from someone that I should have been giving to instead.

That person that I’m speaking about is me/you…through these years we find ourselves with this self-inflicting personality, which means we abuse ourselves, and in the process abuse and hurt anyone close to us. So look for your true self and find peace or play the role you’re playing and I’ll see you here in prison.

Yours truly,

Me Me Me 

Jack,

To begin, let me say that I can empathize with you and what you are going through. Over the past weeks, I/we have come to know a bit about you by way of the hurt your mom goes through. So from what I hear is that you have had a few brushes with the law, nothing major, yet. I too was once young with a need to do things as I saw fit.

Well in hindsight, my foresight was shortsighted. I did not see the value or the wisdom of those around me who I knew loved me and had been on this earth for longer than I. If I could go back and do it all over again…well we need not go there. However, where we can go is here. My doing this, writing you, is meeting my need for compassion, not so much for you, but for your mother. Dude, you only get one and trust me, when she’s no longer in your corner, you have to really, really take a look at yourself. Life has a way of all of a sudden just taking off on us and if we are not anchored to some strong ideals and principles, one can end up bring taken for a ride. At present Bro, you are on the fast track to end up either in here, destitute, or dead. Live. I am no fortune teller, however, what I do know is that you are living a lifestyle that is very old, played out by many, many before you and the end result is always the same. Dude, I wish I had had someone to attempt to pull me out of my addiction. It took my coming to prison for LIFE to convince me to sober up. Regardless to how bad it may seem, you can pull yourself out if you want to, but you can’t, can’t do it on your own.

The bottom line is this--you are breaking your mom’s heart and killing yourself. Don’t allow yourself to be just another statistic. Though you do not know me, I sincerely do care about your well-being simply due to the beautiful work your mom has done in here for us. So with that, Bro, I pray that you are able to find your way out of the madness of addiction. There truly is more to life than the drugs will allow you to see. Take care and God Bless.

In true sincerity,

Abraham

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