I go into prison several times a year to offer nonviolent strategies. The Alternative to Violence program (AVP) is a successful program with a simple concept. If you practice self-respect and treat others as if you expect their best behaviors, you can live without forcing your way on others. If you examine how to act respectfully in tough situations, then you can cultivate nonviolence skills in your own life. If you believe a power to transform violence exists, then you practice ways to make it happen. Have you seen the fury of a nor ‘easterner pummel the rocky NE coast? Then the next day see how the land swept by storm illuminates emerald meadows? Violence shifts to nonviolence all the time.
I wonder why would a person shoot a close friend? I wonder how tempers fly off the handle? Why would I slap my 2 year old for spilling mango juice? Have you ever seen the like? Furious actions and words cause damage. Why do we shut our doors on the homeless person who comes looking for money? Why do we fail students who read in Arabic or Spanish and can’t read English? Is the system at fault or the individual who doesn’t fit?
Providing shelter, food and language is part of our humanity and us building a land of peace. In the US, land of the free, health, jobs and education is plummeting to an all-time low. I’m trying to live humanly, so I sprout a few tender shoots in prison. Starting with prisoners seems like starting with those who are losers. But they are eager to learn because of the serious mistakes they made. “My first crime was being at the wrong place at the wrong time. We were selling drugs. I didn’t shoot anyone. Now, 20 years later , I’ve been here four times. I don’t know why I keep coming back.”
Any of us who have let anger, punishment and revenge rule our minds need this workshop. Anyone who wants to voice more understanding than put downs. I take some responsibility for a world of woe. I live often by disregarding others, and not lifting up others.
Before I went into Concord prison last Friday, I had a play date with a friend, , Kali is adopted and now 7 years old. She has bright eyes framed in trim black braids. I tell her not to snap a rubber band at me and a scowl dances on her forehead. She walks with me from the bus and we talk about nature’s amazing ways. I show her where Monarch butterflies lay their eggs. Wind showers red leaves around us.
“If you catch a falling leaf, your wish comes true.” Kali tells me. She and I run foolishly around the parking lot, darting and twisting to catch a leaf. We come close, my hand bats at the yellow leaf, but it slips away. I watch for cars. Kali laughs. As nimble as she is, Kali couldn’t snatch the leaf. Another golden leaf returns to the earth. I decide to count my blessings and let the leaves tumble at will.
Prisoners are people first, their crimes are such a tiny part of their lives. In prison the guys live in a cell block. On their unit they describe their criminal exploits and how they survived on the streets. Many were inducted into committing crimes as young teens, many sold drugs or made some quick cash because that was the best way to stay alive. Rarely do they talk about the sadness and loss in their lives. Anger and dominant behaviors get lauded and reinforced. I meet guys in super maximum prison who have tattoo tears on their cheeks. Each teardrop signifies someone that they killed. The indigo tear is a tragedy and a badge.
Doing a workshop on Nonviolence with convicted felons is difficult and ultimately rewarding. It’s like walking in the woods with moonlight to guide you. You have to adjust your pupils and irises to see. All 7 senses are needed. It’s personally challenging; it’s absorbing; it’s funny (I can end up in stitches); it exposes hypocrisies; it’s touching as bullies show their softside. A 24-year old guy told me, “I’ve been locked up off and on for 12 years since I was eleven years old. I just what to grow up. All that I ever learned is in prison.”
In prison there’s a code. The following is what inmates tell me:
“Live with honor. Die with dignity.”
“Don’t be a slave from cradle to the grave.”
“Anger with no outlet is a slop bucket.”
“Are you sure you want to cut in front of me? Don’t be too quick. Because I’ll take you down. Then I’ll go in the Hole’ (solitary) and you’ll go to the hospital.”
“Don’t snitch.” The code of conduct is not outlandish.
The inmates see how unbending punishment squeezes them on the inside. Part of no snitching builds a shield between the men and their enforcers, “Don’t see, don’t tell, don’t stand out.” They unite together. This passivity among inmates not getting involved in any way with their enforcers is reinforced. “Shhh. Don’t tell mama or we’ll all get a whipping. It’s hard to keep your dignity if you decide to hide the truth from those who have power over you.
The AVP workshop has genuineness and opportunity to admit our weaknesses. After the AVP workshop many men come up to me and say, “I really appreciate it. The whole time we were in the workshop, I didn’t think about being behind bars. I could forget about the sh- – out there.”
“Yeah. I don’t see how it works, but I’ll try it.”
” It’s somethin’ different to hear the stories of walking away. You all are being real.”
As an AVP leader I see apathy turn to questioning. I see guys move from hands crossed in front of the chest to open hands cuffing each other. I see grim faces turn to grins. Teaching peace is elusive. It’s done face to face, one relationship at a time. Next week I’ll visit with Kali again.
Maybe we’ll catch a falling leaf this time.
Nature can be very forgiving.