Bridge Of Voices
Newsletter of Forum For Understanding Prisons(FFUP)
a 501c3 non profit
I don't know if you can hear me
Or even care to see my face.
But.. here I am.. shaking like a tree.
The last time we met, my actions were a disgrace.
I could muster up the courage to kill; but not to save.
To my ignorance, I must admit, I was a slave,
Blinded by my false principals,
That were built upon the shadiest foundation.
Now I sit sentenced to life and a name
That brings the harshest damnation.
But within my darkest hour, I still see a dim light.
And ,to my surprise, by my side you stand,
Ready to advise and fight.
I have done nothing to deserve your kindness,
All I've earned is hostility.
In my hours of friendlessness, it's you who
Lent me a hand, and befriended me.
The one that took your life and caused
Your family great pain.
And still you allow me to come in from
The judgment as it rain
It rain down upon my soul so hard.
A fire within me you built, instead of leaving me charred.
You built it with care, with love for flames and forgiveness for coal
Slowly it grew, purifying my soul and
Reaching your ultimate goal.
You saved me…from me.
You never yelled, never judged, all you did was stand there,
Silently in the doorway of my consciousness.
In life you was my victim, but in death
You became my rescuer.
Dedicated to: Charlotte F Brown, an innocent victim of a senseless crime
Written by Shareef James Williams 335432; GBCI
Transport to the prisons: Please spread the word about these services
At present FFUP knows of two services going from Milwaukee to most of Wisconsin's prisons. You must call for an appointment and prices vary.
Voices to the Prisons; Ms. Boyd ; 1-414-687-9828; firstname.lastname@example.org
"Your family unification/re-unification program ministering to heal, connect and build families through transportation and support group settings." Servicing Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha and more. If you don't get an answer please leave name, institution, phone number and a call will be returned."
P.O.H. Family Transportation Services; Robin Saffold ; 414-395-7413; 414-350-8571 email@example.com
"Our #1 priority is keeping families with children connected"
Founder's note: It has been about 6 months since an FFUP newsletter has come out. Much is happening at FFUP but little reportable yet. Lots of hopes/plans. We have quite a backlog of prisoners submissions and apologize for the long delay in printing. We would like to put out a newsletter 4 to 6 times a year and would like your support. The main drag is lack of funds. If you have extra funds and would like to see more newsletters, free for all, please send a donation to FFUP and let us know it is for the newsletter. I understand it is hard to donate to something as sporadic as this rag is, but once we start to get regular, it will be easier to believe that your contributions are helping. Make donations out to FFUP c/o 29631 Wild Rose Drive, Blue River, WI 53518.
All the selections here were submitted by prisoners and most are, in my view, excellent reading. We do edit/cut for space when necessary. Enjoy. All submissions of Essays, poems, articles etc are welcome.
THE BLACK CHURCH by Eric L Small
January 1, 2010
Some people might ask, "What is the Black Church?" The Black Church has long been a place where black people found hope, peace, love, strength and inspiration. Since coming to America black people have struggled both internally and externally. That same struggle remains today, except now it's hidden behind prosperity and a facade called brotherhood inside the Black Church. And as a black man of God, one who seeks to belong to the Black Church, I have long ago doubted its integrity. Every day becomes more of a challenge to be a part of what I've always known.
For over a decade and a half I have been a prisoner of the Wisconsin DOC. I have witnessed many injustices from day to day inside this system, beginning with the limited bed space due to overcrowding. The denial of parole grants for men who have met their eligibility date, and men being made to participate in programs that are not needed. Therefore this entire system can only be understood as warehousing in rural communities.
With nearly 69 to 70 percent of black males and females that make up the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, many who were members or attendees of the Black Church, has lead me to express my personal opinion that a bold, Spirit-filled voice from the Black Church is needed in destroying future generations of conservative slavery.
The Wisconsin DOC has certain criteria that inmates must meet before being released. About 25 percent or less are privileged to make it to minimum camp where work release is available; helping to make one's transition more successful upon reintegration. But, when it's all said and done, those prisoners who have little or no support are forced to return to the environments from which they came. This should inspire those inside the Black Church to question the motivation behind what is clearly evident. Racism and greed.
Our hands are tied! As prisoners we cannot aggressively speak out, without repercussion, for what we believe are keys to helping us live as productive citizens when out, and respected humans while in. But the Spirit-filled voices from the Black Church can force the Wisconsin DOC to react in a more heartening way concerning those who are still in and working toward rehabilitation and beating the odds when out.
What has already been offered in the assisting prisoners back into society gives little or no hope to the one being released, and frightens those who are soon to follow. So, with that said, and the many earnest prayers from despised... we challenge those in the Black Church to step forward in faith; boldly trusting our Lord Jesus to provide the courage and solutions to help us who are crying out!
Sincerely, Those In Chains
ON PENPALS: FFUP is committed to getting the prisoners voice heard and spends much time to posting your art, articles, making blogs, and we always include your addresses and a note that ALL prisoners would like email and feedback. BUT we do a poor job on penpals as we have no staff and slow internet tools. We offer forwarding service but still do not get enough people writing prisoners to justify the time and energy expended. So please do not send penpal ads to us as the “ad” stack is high and penpals are the last thing on the long “to do” list. We will continue processing those we get, just consider yourself forewarned.
The good news is that there are now some very good services- free to prisoners with staff, volunteers and good linking. There are short wait lists but are much more reliable than we are. These sites also post your essays and Between the Bars can also upload docs. So you can use these sites in addition to ours if your work is already on FFUP's site.
1)Between the Bars; P.O. Box 425103; Cambridge, MA 02142 :this is done by MIT students. They were shut down for awhile but now are back- they post your writings directly online with excellent linking and the photos are large, which blogs cannot do. They also have volunteers type the posts- good site. Directions from coordinator: “anyone can send in an informal request with their name and address. We have begun a wait-list and after new requests have been entered into the system, they will first receive a post card letting them know this and the current wait time (as it stands, about 6-8 weeks).
2) Reaching Beyond the Walls; PO Box 6905 Rutland, Vermont 05702-6905; Tel: 802-773-4029
This is an excellent site and we will be linking with them . They have agreed to take our overload. Good linkage. They send you a questionnaire after you mail your request to them.
To whom it may concern:
In the eye of the beholder, one may see or picture true kindness and then act upon it like a weakness. To think, now we have another tool in our grasp to have work for us. Taking one another for granted is one of life's deepest secrets and mysteries. All we see is a object that we can use to either improve ourselves or use against one another. With little to no knowledge of the true pain that will bear upon the individual who gets used. The memory will always be hidden deep inside our memory banks along with the times of lost loves and devastating events that will occur during our life time. We may try to either forget about it, but a simple glimpse or smell can reawaken a sleeping dragon that thrives upon our mentality. We as human beings strive to survive in a world filled with hate and despair. A new morning but still the same burning flame of hate that invokes the worst in us all. Nightmares full of screams and images of past regrets. When we prey upon others as fuel for the fire, we never think or realize the torture we burden them and there families. Now I must ask you this, Are you using anyone? If so just think back to the times when someone has used you. And preyed upon your kindess. Is it worth the pain to bring upon them just so we can further our future progress in OUR own lives.
Currently I was observed using someone to further my desire to achieve prosperity, and caught myself in the act of betrayal. I sat down and thought back to the time when a certain individual preyed upon my own weakness and tortured my soul. Used me and my love in the worst possible way. The tears, the days full of pain. The instances of unable to eat due to the terror looming in the depths of my own soul. And still to this day I do seek vengence upon that person for the actions they have done, now to sit here and think of ALL the people I have hurt in my lifetime, and used. I must be the most hated person alive. I believe that every day someone wishes death upon me to be slow and painfull. Just for the vengence they seek upon my soul.
Now once again I must ask you this, the next time you use someone. To gain in your own life. What else are you bringing upon yourself? I feel my soul inside burning with frustration. I need to embark upon a long journey to ask forgiveness upon all the people I have hurt in my life time. I know some will not forgive me for the pain I brought upon them, but the ones who do, makes it worth my time. And places my soul at rest from the blackness of the abyss that I brought upon myself.
This came from deep in my heart to help the few who receive it, guidance with in their life and so OUR own friendship will never retire from pain. Nick Laubmann 478367; WCI
I want to acknowledge the fact that this message is solely intended to recognize some of the struggles our communities face, further give a sense of purpose for the youth , those children who have not yet grown into their position in life; provide hope for one’s circumstances regardless of the situation, and encourage through means of proper education and guidance. The content of this article is merely intended to bring this struggle to light. Ghetto Hero.
One Ghetto Hero
Every Ghetto across America has a hero: one improvised community sees as the heart of unity, the nexus of balance, within a common struggle.
A struggle, one that has yet found peace: A lost soul- a child- one that is unconscious of the life he or she will live. Reflecting personality traits yet to be educated on. The blind leading the blind.
A ghetto is a poor community with no fair chance of acceptance. It lacks resources, appropriate government funding, housing, and is the downside of a local state economy. Within these communities there is an urgent voice for support, a cry out for a productive movement to uplift our youth and set a course of action to bridge together the pillars of our redemption as a dysfunctional people.
Poverty is a complex struggle to tackle, considering the dynamics of what a welfare system is: To simply provide the minimum income needed to survive in a community structured for the disadvantaged, dysfunctional non-working class.
Please note: this is my personal observation of these circumstances. These leading non-working individuals represent the uneducated population and single mothers that are often young children themselves.
• And these fathers represent the youth as well. For the young adult male who once had his opportunity through means of a scholarship that supported his well developed athletic abilities. All this came to a halt when his mother used the government funding provided to maintain livelihood and schooling to support a substance abuse habit.
• For the fathers who labored hard to provide security and a steady income on minimum wage and resorted to criminal conduct to make means with overdue bills.
• And yet the girlfriend who was his only hope of a more productive cause stated, “I’m pregnant with your child.”
These barriers suffocate the youth in Wisconsin communities. It is safe to state that the majority of prison facilites in the state of Wisconsin house more males and females that come from these dysfunctional areas. These areas seem to be segregated to house families that receive government assistance which are written off as a liability in the eyes of a more nurturing society.
In time itself, as the youth age, they too can only see adversity in the unfolding events taking form in their communities. Reflecting a cycle that all have lived and experienced all too well. Without proper guidance these teens often develop self –destructive concepts of what success is. These teens , male and female alike, resort to anti- social behaviors creating situational dispositions that leads to dis-advantage in the work force and academic institutions, leaving one without purpose and carrying the ills of crime. Prostitution, armed robbery and deliverance of drug substances- all provide an income to reach a status of comfort.
Yet this comfort level is a misconception of living and there is turmoil that clings to one’s soul , effecting even deeper aspects these communities face-such as high risk of violence and substance abuse.
But the exception to this struggle is the Ghetto Hero, that all longing voice, the presence that is felt out of a common pain, love, and story. This seed has grown and faced adversity in its complete essence. This one of whom I speak is transcending in all forms of human development. Fortunate enough to endure the struggle by means of suppressing and modifying these stressors. This person is me and I am this because I lacked the means and understanding long before conceived to an unjust society. I have lived and continue to experience the very exciting factor: I am able, due to the accumulation of knowledge and understanding, to speak for us as a whole.
A hero stands in the light to offer hope for the people. Without the striving and tears there is no story for the hero to live. I am a ghetto hero and all who reflect a struggle can very well become a hero as well…
Words from a friend to the people: “ As long as you remember that you hold the key to your success, your heart and your sanity, no one can really lock you up-they can only lock you out!”
In loving memory of two great men and mentors.
Ladatrian Haskins, 1977-1999
Allen Clark, 1982-2009
By Herbert Burrows 465214;WRC; PO Box 220;Winnebago, Wi 54985
a basis upon which something stands or is supported; a supported structure, the ground work for which an idea, belief, or action is built upon. So the question is: can a towering structure be built on a weak foundation? The answer is common knowledge, but far too often many men become pretentious and attempt to construct the being that they want to be, in substitute of the being that they are. This flimsy facade in technical terms is known as the "masked complex". These men are shielded from the society while simultaneously injecting their surrogate into a world in which they think they will be rejected. The displays of strength, valor, and intellect are only conspicuous covers for vulnerability, cowardice, and ignorance. When the inevitable crumble happens these men are left with themselves, the problem is, they no longer recognize themselves. The image they created was the very essence of who they were so when it disintegrates, all that is left is rubble.
A man's foundation should never be based on personal attributes or characteristics because they can be easily influenced. His structure must be built on motivating factors such as family values, morals, and education because these are things that cannot be molded or shaped by outer influences. But the argument can be made that personal
values and morals can be changed, but the general concept remains present. For instance, religion is the most common entity in the family structure, but if a person practiced Christianity while growing up but later embraced Islam in adulthood, the specific belief may have changed but the core value of religion is still existent. In addition, one may have had the belief that they must obtain money by illegal means, but once that ideology fades the means in which funds must be accumulated will change but the core moral of making money will remain the same. So in essence these things cannot be taken away from you.
As a man my foundation does not define me, it accentuates me. It enables me to stand erect and confident. It ensures me that I will not implode and to destroy what has already been solidified, explosives must be in place. It is the reason why I endure so much. It is the purpose of my joy. It is the key ingredient in my recipe for life. It is my motivator, it is my inspiration, it is my family.
King Lewis III
Notes on our blogs on overuse and abuse of solitary confinement
Laigha A. has left a new comment on your post "prisoners in seg now needing encouragement and sup...":
It is these types of stories that Make me want to become a social worker. it is completely unfair to treat these people like pieces of trash just because they have a mental illness. when a person with a physical illness goes to prison they get all the treatment they need. However, these people get treated like they are worthless. If i was older i would write to
one of these men but because i am only a teenager, i will have to wait til i am in collage.
Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "prisoners in seg now needing encouragement and support...":
wuao..I cant believe what i just read..I was looking for information for my project about mentally ill people and I came across with this...It really makes me disgusted, mad about that situation in Wisconsin...How could be possible nobody support..where is the humanity these days??Is true that people get advantage of ill people, I know someone close to me that people have taken advantage of...I will like to help somehow...
WALK A MILE IN MY SHOES by Ma1com Eiland. 0520580. June 8. 2010
Even though you think you may have it rough, there's always somebody who has had it rougher than you! But at the same time your problems may be harder to deal with depending on the situation.
Some people may say, "Your problem ain't that bad," but really, they don't know that it's deeper than what they know. A lot of people think it's easy to handle other people's problems. But I say no problem is easier than the other.
Right now I'm experiencing my own set of issues. Some people could say, "Yo' problems ain't nothing to worry about." That might be the case, but sometimes you might take some things to heart, and then you might get hurt emotionally. When you have a problem and your feelings get involved it goes deeper now because you're emotionally affected by it.
Being in prison, I have faced a lot of disappointments because I believed what family & friends told me. But when promises got broken, and, "I got you," would never get me, I would feel as if there is no need to lie to me, or say what you think I want to hear. But as time went on I kept going through some of the same bullshit. You begin to sense when someone is lying or just blowing smoke up yo ass, and I'd tell them, "Don't tell me what I want to hear; tell me what I need to know!"
"What don't kill me only makes me stronger," is what Kanye West said. I believe that statement is true because it's like it can make you or break you. Being physically strong is good and whatnot, but being mentally & emotionally strong is what makes you totally strong. Some people can look at you and say, "I wish I had your life!" I just laugh because only if they knew that everything that glitter ain't gold! I've learned how to cover up my problems and make it look like my life is good when it ain't.
As you grow older you start to feel like you have been through everything, when in actuality, you're just beginning your life. That's how I feel at 19 years old. Even though I'm young, my soul feels old and beat up. But now that I'm incarcerated, I feel sometimes I'm all alone with just my thoughts. Even though I laugh it off or play basketball to help escape the pain I'm going through, it's still there because I wake up in the same place (prison).
And then when you have people who claim they're there for you, but yet when you need them or ask them to handle something, they make it seem as if you're asking them to go to the end of the world. Sometimes I feel like not writing or calling anybody but I know that would be selfish of me to just cut my ties to the world! I got two little sisters who look up to me and are waiting for me to come home and fill that emptiness of not having a big brother there to protect and comfort them. When you're looked up to, and hated on, that's how you know you make a big difference in life. Being that you always have eyes on you, you've got to make sure you're on point for the haters and show loved ones how to overcome the haters.
WAIVED by Todd Jones
Christopher Poley - that is his name, a judge - never will 4get what he did,
Compared me 2 an animal a couple times even though he wore glasses he failed to C I was a kid.
Sat there in his chair, hiding behind a robe man couldn't look me in the eyes
He wasn't deaf, yet I often wonder if he heard my cries.
I was soooo scared - won't lie... shit this was different from being on punishment,
There I sat shackled in a chair as my mom sat appearing to B lost - staring in astonishment.
What happened? What did I miss? Her questioning how she could‘ve---missed the signs,
I didn't tell her, but she now knew this mistake was mine & only mine.
Still there was hope, he felt my truth, said he knew I was sorry.
Vowed 2 B against me getting waived 2 subject me 2 the adult system would B robbery.
Social worker Anthony Zingalie - yeah, that's his name, told my mom he'd fight 2 C me saved
Something happened overnight, I guess, becuz’ the next day at court he recommended I get waived!
ELDERLY SENTENCE MODIFICATION Is It Time?
Isn't it conspicuously strange how in time of national, economic and state budgetary crisis and with politicians at each others' throats, none with any real solutions; that we hear nothing of the usual talk on demogoging of crime and punishment. Yet at a time when so many families are hurting, there is no question the crime rate is climbing.
Many states have already taken steps to relieve some of their fiscal burden by early release of some non-violent offenders. Should the economy go totally down the drain, the government not having the revenue to afford it as jails are not self-sustaining and are very costly to operate, there will be further early releases from already overcrowded facilities.
One class of prisoners that thus far seem to receive no consideration is the elderly prisoner. They comprise a class of prisoners in every state's prison system who are 50 years or older, many of whom have been imprisoned for decades. Many have chronic medical conditions requiring ongoing care making them the most costly to incarcerate. As they age their medical problems multiply, further deepening costs to imprison them. Every statistic has shown that elderly prisoners who have been released are the least likely to reoffend. In prison many are already reformed people, yet they are the most invisible and neglected group when policymakers seek fiscal solutions.
A small number of prison activists across several states are working to reform release policy concerning elderly prisoners in their respective states. In Illinois House Bill 4154, the Elderly Sentence Advisement Act has received some attention before the Illinois House of Representative Prison Reform Committee. HB4154 as presently written would allow prisoners who have served 25 consecutive years and reached age 50, and who demonstrate genuine, consistent behaviour change over a period of years, to apply to the original sentencing courts for a sentence adjustment. The original court would have the sole power to adjust sentences.
A non-mandatory restorative justice program similar to Missouri's quite successful impact of Crime upon Victims Classes(sp?) [ICVC] is a 40 hour program that, in part, involves classes led by crime victims and their families, for example parents of murdered children, who speak at the ICVC dialogues, sharing their stories, helping prisoners to change by understanding how others have suffered from crimes to them and their family members.
As of January 1, 2009 there were 658 prisoners in the Illinois Department of Corrections that were older than 50 and have served 25 years. Many of whom, under the old law, have long been eligible for parole. In every prison system across America there are many hundreds of these same prisoners. Some have life sentences while others have excessively large sentences. Activists here in the State of Wisconsin anticipate introducing their draft version of an elderly sentence modification bill.
America has always been a predominately Christian country. Yet today, in terms of sentencing and the amount of time as well as the number of prisoners executed, this country is second to none. It has been at least 30 years since America has abandoned rehabilitation and the possibility that people can change. The lofty precepts of mercy love and forgiveness resonating from the pulpits throughout this nation fall deaf-tone to the criminal justice system.
When the economy is thriving crime and prison expansion becomes a handy scapegoat to satiate political demagogues who fear monger the public with what is in fact a symptom(crime) of societal malady in order to win power and direct the national fate. The present economic crisis, its very roots sprouting from these very same political leaders who have for decades out-sourced American jobs and what was left of the american pie to foreign countries, have similarly been giving away to private corrections and corporate interest control of public policy on crime and punishment. In "Race, Gender and Prison History" Professor Angela Y Davis writes : "In arrangements reminiscent of the convicts lease system, federal, state and county government pay private companies a fee for each inmate, which means that private companies have a stake in retaining prisoners as long as possible and keeping their facilities filled."
In state-run-jails and prisons this privatization usually takes form in contracts given to private vendors to supply and/or operate the prison's canteen, or to furnish and sale according to prison policy and specifications food and medication, electronics, clothing, stationary, phone service, and every other community service or device needed to maintain and live in jail. The prices that prisoners pay for these items are always inflated compared to what they cost on the outside. For example, prisoners in the supermax in which I am confined, for a 6oz tube of colgate toothpaste, are made to pay $5.15. A 44 cent embossed stamped envelope costs 48 cents from "canteen, 64 cents from one of the four "vendors."
The corporate prison industrial complex and beholden politicians drive public policy and prisons to serve their limited interests, their bottom-line, instead of a humane and sensible approach in criminal justice, the true public interest.
Democratic systems should operate on the principle of minimal restraint, only that force which is necessary to maintain public safety. Many elderly prisoners, having done 25 or more years, are prisoners who have grown matured and changed while in prison. Draconian practices such as capital punishment and prison sentences in excess of 25
consecutive years, like sentencing juveniles to life without parole, and deny elderly prisoners a pathway to redemption, all are practices that are not the norm among democratic societies.
Any activist or concerned person wishing to help to reform and refocus criminal justice policy away from corporate interest and back to a sensible approach of redemption and rehabilitation, or if you have an opinion to add to this mix, let me hear from you. May 4th, 2011 Peace & Love, LaRon McKinley Bey, WSPF; PO Box 9900; Boscobel, WI 53805
I write this as an informational letter to all people who wish to read it. Mr Salas put a request in after he moved from CCI to WCI and they stopped his vegan diet and played games. Mr Salas went on hunger strike and fought over three months but now Madison came down with a decision to approve that Protestants and Native Americans can get vegan diets if they want under their religious beliefs. Most Doc institutions would not allow inmates to receive vegan food if you were protestant but with this decision out of Madison, inmates can now receive vegan food.
I asked that this informational letter be passed around and if anyone has problems receiving a vegan diet if they want it, that they write me and I will send you help in getting your vegan food as it is way healthier for you and for personal religious or ethical beliefs.
I fought hard to get this now all I ask is that people respect us vegans and get the word out that we can receive our food and not have to go to self-selecting any more as that is not working to keep us healthy.
Thank you for your time.
Animal rights activist, Manual C Salas 504212; WCI; PO Box 351; Waupun, WI 53963
The creative corner
This section of the newsletter is dedicated to what to do after you get out of prison, which is the most important reason you should plan now. Employment is the focus, but this section will cover many facets of earning a living. From tips on how to even get an interview for a job, to developing your own business concepts. Anyone can start a business. All you have to do is think of one!
The creative corner is going to use mainstream information as well as direct experiences form people who have already been successful in business. There are many organizations what will help people develop their business as such as S.C.O.R. E. The nationwide organization of retired business executives will guide a new business owner through all the road blocks of beginning a new business to the development of a business plan, which is ab22right wing conspiracy" to advantageously shape the voting constituency. I call this a process of political eugenics whereby elected officials legislate to "improve" the voting pools by controlling who can vote. Of course, there have always been certain restrictions as to who can vote, and, historically, these restrictions have sought to eugenicize the voting pool to ensure the perpetuation of the status quo.
At first, persons of African lineage were forbidden that inalienable right; then women; then, after the enactment of the 15th and 19th Amendments to the U.S. constitution, certain states promulgated legislation denying that right to the "unlettered" or "ignorant" (euphemisms for people of color) and the "slight" or "fair"(euphemisms for the fairer sex: women) on the grounds that there existed in these people some inherent qualities inhibiting their capacity to understand their own judgments.
These attempts at political cleansing of the voting pool are still present in a large number of states that prevent convicted felons from voting. To be precise, 48 states and the District of Columbia prohibit inmates from voting while incarcerated for a felony offense with only two states- Maine and Vermont, permitting prisoners to vote and 35 states prohibiting persons on parole from voting, with 30 of these excluding persons on parole as well.
Though I enjoy discussing and commenting on history, that is not my agenda here. Rather, I would have you view this as a short critique of the newly enacted law and a call to Black, Hispanic, Native and Democratic leadership to roll up their sleeves and take their conservative colleagues to task for their efforts to bring about the social disenfranchisement and civil death of broad spectrums of the politically vulnerable constituency.
Men who have nothing left to lose find
they have everything to gain
By going inside while serving time
Although it's called the "big house," prison is anything but roomy. The stats
you see About the overcrowding in state and federal institutions can't prepare
you for the visceral Reality of entering buildings that are bursting at the seams
Sturman, known for his altered Polaroids of celebrity yogis, among other photo-
graphic works, for a visit to the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, California, where we got to see firsthand the stockpiled humanity that state penitentiaries have become. Deuel is a prison and a reception center for prisoners recently committed to the California Depart-
ment of Corrections and Rehabilitation. It's where men from Northern California
county jails come to get "processed." New arrivals wear orange jumpsuits;
"mainliners," who are serving their sentences at Deuel, wear blue. Some are
here for life.
The word "Vocational" in the facility's name is outdated—while it originally
opened as a vocational-training prison, there's no longer an emphasis on
rehabilitation or vocational training. The industrial buildings echo with the
racket of thousands of inmates talking and walking. The clank of gates opening and closing is jarring; guards shouting orders add another layer to the soundtrack. Handcuffed prisoners shuffle by, their faces conveying shame tinged with hostility.
The official capacity maxes out at 1,681 inmates, but there are nearly 4,000 men here. To house all these bodies, the gymnasium has been converted into a dorm. The seemingly endless rows of three-tiered bunk beds result in hundreds of men spending their nights — and day —literally stacked atop each other. Three TVs are suspended from the ceiling.
It's loud and echoey. The energy in the atmosphere is equally overwhelming, heavy with the weight of stress, tension, and aggression. But behind the gym-turned-dorm is a little nook where Swapan Munshi, a recreational therapist who works at the prison, teaches yoga once a week. Sturman and I join Munshi to meet with the inmates and ask them to sign
release forms that will enable us to publish their photographs.
When I hand a form to the first inmate in the room, he looks puzzled. "You want my CDC number?" he asks, referring to his prison identity "No," I explain. "We need you to print and sign your name." His big brown eyes look
into mine. "It's so nice to have someone ask my name. And not just be a number." I look back at him, aware of how dehumanized these men must feel.
Still, half the prisoners are smiling, probably because this class is a respite from prison life. "The only other time like this that they get is in the yard," explain s senior psychologist Steven Sherman, who has worked at Deuel for five years and who accompanied us on our visit. "They can work out in the yard, but it's filled with politics—who's with who, what trades are going on. It's anything but relaxing."
It wasn't easy to get a yoga program set up. But S. M. Salinas, the warden at Deuel, is a fan. Having seen yoga work its magic in San Quentin and other institutions, she is convinced it can help prisoners. Salinas tells me that she thinks yoga gives the men an opportunity to put things in perspective. Prisoners who practice are more sedate, show more respect, and develop better coping skills, she observes. "It's hard for them to find their little piece of peace," she says. "This is my way of encouraging them to find calm, though there may be chaos all around."
Munshi has noticed that yoga helps the men with anger management, reactivity, and impulse control. He's heard criticism from those who don't think these prisoners deserve a "spa treatment" like yoga. After all, some of them have
been convicted of violent felonies, including rape, child molestation, and murder.
But, Munshi notes, many of these prisoners themselves come from fractured backgrounds, having been subjected to violence from early childhood. Most are victims — as well as perpetrators — of crimes. Surely they deserve compassion. Surely they shouldn't be excluded from the benefits of yoga.
We work out a lot, but it's all aggression. It's stress. And we're angry. But this is real peaceful. You close your eyes and just relax. It gave me the opportunity to escape from here. KENYATTU CLARIDY
"WHAT DO I GET?"
Visitors like us are few and far between. These men, as a group, have been
rejected by society —demonized, sent off, locked up. But as they stand before me,
it's clear that each one is an individual with a story and with the basic human desire to be
free from suffering. A few of these 14 guys have been to several yoga classes since the
program started seven months earlier, but some of them have come to try yoga for the first
time on the day of our visit. They each retrieve a yoga mat, which the mat maker has
donated to the facility.
I notice one young guy not smiling, who has four teardrop tattoos on his left cheek.
Tattoos aren't uncommon in the room, but I recall hearing that each tear tattoo
symbolizes a murder that the wearer has witnessed or committed. He has several on his
other cheek too. "What do we get for doing this?" he demands. It's his first time in yoga, a
nd he wants a reward for attending. Prisoners are eager to earn "chronos," prison-speak for
certificates that entitle them to perks or that prove they've done something "worthwhile" in
prison that might help their case when they're up for review by the board. "I don't know,"
Sherman replies. He later explains to me that guys will do things, like group ther¬apy, not
for the sake of doing them but to earn a carrot. So staffers don't always tell inmates
whether a particular activity with reap them chronos.
This prisoner doesn't yet realize that yoga is its own reward. When he talks, you can
see his "grill," a row of metallic dental jewelry that functions as a status symbol. He's wearing a do-rag on his head and a
wool hat on top of that. The look on his face warns, "Don't Mess with Me." My guess is that he wins most of the stare-downs he's in. I figure that he's probably not going to be one to talk to. Especially not about yoga.
Munshi starts by suggesting that the men remove their shoes. One guy goes bare¬foot, but everyone else decides to keep his socks on. Munshi explains that yoga is a tool, and they can do with it what they want. He starts with a simple seated medita¬tion. "You'll notice a lot of thoughts," he says. "You might think, 'This is stupid,' or wonder, 'Am I doing this right?' Don't listen to those thoughts. Just let them float away. Feel how good it feels to just breathe deeply." Similar words are spoken in yoga studios all around the country, but as I take in both the instructions and the environment, they sound totally novel. Next, Munshi introduces some breathing prac¬tices before moving into asanas.
I've found a space on the freezing concrete floor, behind a pillar so that my presence won't be too distracting, and am sitting on my jacket for warmth as well as padding. As Munshi leads them through some forward bends, the man closest to me gets up and walks away. Is he bored? upset? too cool for yoga? He's back in a minute and presents me with a mat to use. "Here you go." I'm touched by his simple, thoughtful gesture.
Munshi doesn't smile. His face looks stern and serious. He's not a big guy, and he clearly wants to command respect. He leads the group through Sun Salutations and standing poses. Forty-five minutes later, he announces, "Congratulations, you've made it through the warm-up." Groans all around.
A major turning point is when he invites the group to partner up for a pose he calls Russian Dancing. The
guys are told to hold hands and help each other do a lunge. Every size and race is represented here, and who knows what kind of personal histories. I suspect that political dynamics are at work in the room, too. And I'm nervous that they won't like touching each other while performing the hip opener. But, surprisingly, every student is game.
They shake their heads in frustration when it's obvious that they aren't imme¬diately good at the physical postures, and their macho egos don't like it when they fall out of this partnering pose. But you can
tell they like the challenge nonetheless.
Once they get settled in, the lunge, Munshi has them hold each side for 30 seconds.
"This is a loooong 30 seconds," protests one man. The entire room erupts in laughter.
Munshi wants the guys to realize yoga isn't for sissies, that it's a discipline requiring
strength and focus — physical and mental fortitude. He leads them into lots of Warriors
Triangle, Three-Legged Dog Pose, and various standing poses with arms opened into
"dragon wings." An hour and 15 minutes into the practice, four guys have taken off
their shirts. Every face glistens with perspiration. The men are working hard, but they
look calm."We think we're strong," observes the guy with the do-rag, taking off his
head coverings to expose cornrows. "We're not." Others nod their agreement.
Finally, Munshi lets the men enjoy a Balasana (Child's Pose), which he calls Baby Pose. He asks them to turn their minds off: "Instead of telling the body what to do, listen and be receptive," he intones. "Feel the sensation of your forehead on the ground." "I love Baby!"exclaims the man beneath the cornrows, whose name I later learn is Michael Mitchell. Next come seated forward folds and backbends: Locust, even Wheel. Supine twists follow. But the best part is, of course, the finale: Savasana.
It's amazing. I didn't realize how weak I was. I thought I was really strong. You know what I'm saying? MICHAEL MITCHELL
"You don't have to think or worry about anything. Just completely relax and feel bliss. You might think, 'I'm angry' or 'I'm smooooth,'" says Munshi. "Those might be a component of you. But here, you can get in touch with who you really are. You are not your thoughts. Thoughts, emotions, and moods come and go. You are something else beyond all that."
Observing the men practicing yoga was interesting, but Savasana is profound. What a blessing, I think, what a gift Mun¬shi is giving these men whose existence is fraught with conflict, violence, and strife. I imagine how rare it is for these guys to close their eyes and feel relaxed— maybe even momentarily safe —in this environment, where survival requires being hyper alert. I consider these men, spread around the room in deep repose, and am aware that no matter what actions may have landed them here, they are not unlike any other group of students in Savasana, diving into the sweetness of remembering, albeit briefly, that every¬thing is actually OK just as it is.
"Now see if you can get upset without tensing up a muscle in the body," chal¬lenges Munshi. No one makes a move. The room is completely still. Munshi slowly brings awareness to the room and invites them to try a seated meditation, giving them permission to approach it however they want. "I'm going to talk about a chakra, the third eye, but remember that yoga doesn't have to do with religion, just spirituality and not being scared to try new things," he says. "You can pray or be silent; that's cool. But we are going to sit here for five minutes." And they do.
After class, the psychologist Sherman invites me to talk to the inmates. I'm nervous — and curious. The first-timers all agree it was harder than they thought it would be. A22-year-old named Juan Flores says he regrets making fun of his girlfriend for doing yoga, because he now realizes his disdain was, quite simply, "macho head crap." They agree it's peaceful. One calls the session "liberating."
"How many of you felt high?" I ask. Hands go up, heads nod. "I was floating!" says one. Michael Mitchell, the one I was sure wouldn't talk, is perhaps the most effusive about the experience. "We signed up just to try it out to see what it was," he says. "But it's amazing how you learn more about your body and mind. It's a beautiful thing to take in. The guards might think this is a waste of time, but it's not a waste of time. It really gave me the opportunity to escape from here. Especially being in a dorm, you gotta always stay alert. So it really gave me the chance to relieve some stress. I really appreciated it, though. You know what I'm saying?"
Munshi gets a new moniker from the men: "Boss." One man marvels at how "generously" they are now communicating with one another, post yoga. They all recognize that they feel different some¬how. Transformed in away One man who has been to class several times shares his wonder, knowing that those good feelings will affect the interactions the participants have with each other and with the guards for the whole next week. Their consciousness has been heightened.
The tranquility I felt was like I'd been soakin' in the tub for an hour. When [the teacher] says, in relaxation,"Now, get mad," I can't—not to gain my freedom or save my life. That feeling carries on for a whole week. KEVIN O'CONNOR
We talk at length, and I'm surprised at how open and eloquent they are as they describe the experience of seeing differ¬ent sides of themselves. Almost everyone exulted in the experience of finding free¬dom within. I ask
everyone to describe, in a word, their experience. Perhaps it's a simple example of how universal and transformational the practice is, but I'm surprised to hear in their answers the same words heard in studios everywhere: Exciting. Vital. Relaxing. Beautiful. Peaceful. Tranquil. Soulful. Exhilarating.
I make my way back through the doors and gates and security checkpoints and drink in the fresh air. I'm grateful for my freedom and have a new appreciation for my ability to get in my car and drive away from the chaos, the stacks of beds and bodies, the unrelenting noise and smells, the conflicts and tensions. But I'm also considering what free¬dom really means. It's not uncommon for people everywhere to talk about feeling trapped — shackled to work, restrained by daily responsibilities or difficult rela¬tionships, caged by aspects of life they can't control. I'm free, relatively speaking. But we are all imprisoned in our own way. Freedom, regardless of where we stand relative to prison walls, is a state of mind we can choose.
And this is why yoga is so valuable to everyone —those imprisoned by bars, and those of us imprisoned by our own thoughts. The practice I just witnessed showed me, once again, how yoga pen¬etrates our ideas about who we are, about the limitations imposed on us and those we impose on ourselves. It can connect us with a sense of peace and well-being that has no relationship to our circumstances. For all of us, yoga is a key to freedom. I recall Michael Mitchel's words: "I really appreciated the experience. You know what I'm saying?" Yes, yes, I do.
Reflection MAY 2011 by Diane Anderson-
Diane Anderson is a contributing editor at Yoga Journal in San Francisco.
Submitted by Prince Atum-RA Uhuru Mutawakkil
Note : Next issue we would like to publish a list of good meditation and exercise classes available to prisoners from any of the healing disciplines. If you take a correspondence course or know of outfits who actually visit prison as does the one above, let us know
My Tender Experience
Is defined as an expression at best;
This tranquility, the sensation of affection,
Is magnified by the bounds of her existence.
Ripened by the core of effort and strengthened by the touch of kindness.
She is my science; for I'm her chemistry,
Together we've given birth to humanity.
Bridge of Voices is put out by Forum For Understanding Prisons (FFUP); a 501c3 non -profit organization
Donations needed and welcome:
check or money orders are payable to FFUP; 29631 Wild Rose Drive; Blue River , WI 53518
Newsletter printed on 100% recycled paper
The mind of a Pessimist is quite intriguing to say the least, although some say that it serves a person well to have this perspective, I happen to think otherwise. Pessimism by definition is an inclination to take the least favorable view or to expect the worst. Most believe that low expectations lead to no disappointment, but to the contrary, low expectations lead to no achievement, no vision, no ambition, and no hope. Tragedies are an inevitability, a course that at some point will be walked by all of god's creations, but the most tragic of all is when the pessimist treads the path of contentment. The path of mental stagnation, emotional gridlock, and spiritual punishment must not be traveled by man. I find it fascinating that with so much good in the world these perpetrators are fixated on all that is wrong. If I dare bring a beautiful bouquet of roses in offer of my kindness why must the only focus be the eventual death of this simple floral arrangement? If I provide my advice without an ulterior motive why must it be suggested or thought of as anything other than constructive? If there are blue skies above us, why must you bring an umbrella?
Pessimism is only the symptom of the underlying problem ~ and that problem is trust, if one does not trust, how can one live. If one refuses to trust life he ultimately forms a bond with death, no not death in the physical, but the death of love, the death of companionship, the death of experience. It shall never serve a person well to have such a disrespectful outlook on life. Why? Because the most valuable possession in life is life itself and to disrespect life you disrespect all that you know. Parents that make efforts to create what would have been their lineage, their mark on this world, only to be all for not. Children, would have continued the bloodline if it were not for selfish degradation on behalf of a pessimistic party.
Pessimism is not an ideology it is an excuse. It is an excuse not to pursue the things that are most desired. It is an excuse not to work hard at the things that are obtainable. It is an excuse to just be. 1 would love to challenge a pessimist to see things in a more positive life but a challenge would only be seen as a mere obstacle. One who sneezes may have allergies but one who doesn't believe in the prospect of possibilities is a pessimist. Why must one wear pessimism as if it shelters them from the frigidness of life? Coats of discouragement, scarves of despair, and boots of apprehension are not to be worn in ninety degree weather. Undress, put on the appropriate garments, it's nice out. Smile! For it is the first step in becoming an optimist.
KING LEWIS III