Back inside prison

Angola photo

The men keep teaching me, whether those inside Angola State Prison, or those in the reentry program. This week some amazing men on the inside, who I first met in the summer of 2017, and some new men I had never met before, and the men on the outside all taught me about character, resilience, faith, caring for each other, and the joy of recognizing each other’s inherent dignity and worth.

Several of the men on the inside are actually anticipating release after decades inside Angola. And they are fine men. We judged them for decades based on their worst day in their adolescence. They used the time to grow in character, develop or deepen their faith, receive education or ministerial training, and become mentors to other men.

One of the guys, (I’ll protect names), spoke at the Day of Compassion Wednesday about what it is like “when compassion seeks to marry justice.” He spoke with great wisdom, and I told him so afterwards. One of the guys talked briefly about serving as a volunteer hospice worker for over a decade, in addition to serving as a daily AA sponsor for up to 10 men a day. He inspires me and I told him so. We share big hugs of mutual appreciation when I get to return and see these guys again.

Other guys talked about preparing for reentry in the next six months. One of them wrote a manual on being a good father while incarcerated, which has been shared in over 250 U.S. prisons. He mailed me a copy and it is full of hard-won wisdom. So I brought him a copy of my own book, finally, after promising to do so a year ago. As I told him, it was embarrassing that he managed to accomplish that from prison before I exchanged my book with him from the outside. I hope I get to meet up with him once he is back out in the free world.

One after another, incarcerated men made my heart happy as we greeted each other like long-lost friends, even though we have only had a few conversations in the past 18 months. My little contributions to the day included leading a few moments of guided meditation for the group of 150 people gathered there by Lara Naughton, certified Compassion Cultivation Training teacher, and offering my sincere joy in connecting with the men.

Wednesday was a beautiful day, a day when free people from the outside learned from men on the inside, and together we built another bridge toward inner freedom for all of us.

The evening before that was fascinating too. I was facilitating the Tuesday reentry group with the returning citizens. These men work all day, and then they attend the weekly meeting in support of their own reentry into society, in addition to meeting with their probation officer and judge each week, attending AA or NA meetings, and showing up for random drug screens. Their consequences are not over just because they are outside Angola. And their struggles are daily.

This week I was challenging the men to take a deep dive by asking an unusually blunt question, in hopes of helping us all keep cultivating our compassion for each other. The request was for them to share a response, if they chose to, which began with: “I suffered when….” The role for the rest of the group was to listen with compassion and answer the sharing with: “May you be free of suffering.”

I modeled by sharing first, and told some of the harsh details of going through the breast cancer journey with my wife. They responded with the group blessing: “May you be free of suffering.”

The guy next to me spoke next, and briefly said, “I am suffering right now. I am really wrestling with my demons and it feels like they are winning. That’s all I have to say about that.” We all shared the group blessing.

The next man spoke of his frustration over having limited income to help provide for his kids. He said he felt bad after years of being inside where he couldn’t contribute to the family at all. And now he faces the many costs of daily life, and of the reentry program, with the result of having to tell the kids “No” to some of their requests. He said, “I hate having to tell them ‘no.'” We offered the group blessing.

Then most of the men started passing on the sharing as my singing bowl moved from one man to another. The intention was to sound the singing bowl when each man finished. But seven men in a row passed. I started to wonder if the resistance was going to upend the rest of the hour together. The room felt like it got cold. I felt anxious about what might happen if they all resorted to a stone cold silence. One of the guys who had already shared asked the question that they all might have been wondering: “What are we doing this for anyway?”

One guarantee in the group of returning citizens, they always keep it real. They do not play nice or pull any punches. They say what they really think and often challenge me. So I responded: “This is just an exercise to practice caring about each other.” He retorted, “We spent years together on the inside. We already care about each other.” I responded with trepidation, knowing I am still an outsider in their tight-knit group: “Yes, and we are just continuing to cultivate compassion for each other. We all know their is enough hatred in the world. We can all use some practice.”

The room stayed quiet for a moment.

Then the youngest man took the singing bowl and launched into a detailed story. “I am suffering now with my old man. I still live in his house and he decided to raise my monthly rent by 50%. He questions me about what I do with the money I earn. I tell him to mind his own business. Then he tells me my daughter can’t spend the night there anymore. It’s like he keeps looking for new ways to frustrate me and make life harder.”

At that point several of the men jumped in with their advice of ways he might handle all of that. I let them go for a few minutes and then interrupted: “Let’s try just listening to what he has to say and caring for him in these struggles. Anyone can give advice, so let’s really hear him.”

That was too much confrontation for the unofficial “voice of the people” to take. The former drug dealer, who tends to resist whatever I offer, challenged me: “How can it be wrong to offer our input when we see our brother struggling. That is caring.” I said, “Okay, tell me more about that.”

“We get what he is going through. We’ve been there before. This is what we do to show we care. We tell him what he can’t see and how he could handle this.” The unofficial leader was making sense. I started seeing that their challenges and confrontive advice were the best way they knew to care.

So he interpreted what he thought the dad was doing: “He’s trying to push you out. He wants you to become a man. Hell, I was out on my own at sixteen.” Another guy said, “Yeah, when I was eighteen I was already buying a house and supporting myself and my old lady.” The “leader” carried on: “Your dad probably cares about you but he wants you to learn how to stand on your own. And that’s what you need, to be a man. He’s gonna keep pushing on you ’till you get out on your own. And you’ll thank him for it later. Then you can do what you want.”

The discussion and challenges invited the man, who had started his sharing with anger, to admit he could see their point. Several more guys got on that bandwagon until he seemed through with his story. I invited them to speak our group blessing one more time: “May you be free of suffering.”

Two men jumped up, checked the time, and said, “We’re done.” Then they all got up and, in fact, we were done. As I said, they don’t “play nice.” These guys don’t follow the rules of polite society. Their lives are too hard. And they lost their freedom and felt controlled by others, often white prison guards, for way too long. Now they can do what they want. So when they are done, they are done.

It’s weird, but I am pretty sure I am going there to learn how to practice compassion cultivation inside their difficult world. So it seems funky that I still have an ego that can feel offended inside with each week’s confrontations, challenges, and resistances. I guess I am just human that way.

But at the same time, I like the challenge. I like having to face my fears and learn to go with the resistance. And this week I learned that I could be wrong. Maybe advice is not always wrong. Maybe, probably, for these guys it might be the most caring way they know.

Being back inside prison, and working with men as they come out, it is so clear again this week that these men are becoming some of my best teachers. May we all be free of our suffering as we take our own baby steps into cultivating compassion.

*Compassion Cultivation Training classes begin soon in New Orleans. I am taking registrations now from the general public and starting the eight weeks of classes on January 2 from 5:30-7:30 pm, or January 3 from 12-2 pm. You can register through the website of The School for Contemplative Living at http://www.thescl.net. Come help me keep learning how this works!

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About soulcare4u

I am the author of Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic World, published by Wipf & Stock and available through Amazon.com; and of a blog on Wordpress.com, "A Contemplative Path." I serve as the founding spiritual director of The School for Contemplative Living (www.thescl.net), adjunct faculty of Loyola University, and as a pastoral counselor and spiritual director in private practice.
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