All of our noble efforts for the rights of people in prison seems like we’re just putting our fingers in the dyke of a system that for the most part poisons all who enter, a system that without our efforts would flood everyone with even more abuse and diminishment of human rights.
I live in constant gratitude for all that I have in my life in freedom. Whenever my mind starts to whine and worry, I remind myself of the remarkable people I’ve met across the country who are attempting to create a positive life and good relationships behind bars between guards’ glances and camera angles. My respect and often awe at their survival despite daily attempts by a system designed to crush their spirits in a multitude of built-in, dehumanizing ways inspires me to keep on working for tiny crumbs of positive change in the face of a system that hasn’t worked since its inception.
But it is the way we advocates, whether or not we have loved ones behind bars, are also dehumanized, and it is the sharing and outward-appearing necessary acceptance of a humiliating and toxic system that no one except the unaware believes in. Years ago, a high-level administrator told me, “Just because we run prisons doesn’t mean we believe in them.” In his chilling book, The Lucifer Effect: understanding how good people turn evil, author Philip Zimbardo shows how this dysfunctional system systematically dehumanizes all who enter. In his landmark report on the study he attempted at Stanford back in the ‘70’s, Zimbardo tells how he had to stop the experiment after three days, for the volunteer student guards became so abusive to the volunteer student prisoners that they were traumatized. Yet we continue to spend more and more of our precious tax dollars on prisons and war while cutting back on school budgets, health care and the destruction of a safety net for the poor. We expect the same child struggling to learn their ABCs while dodging bullets to and from school to flourish as well as the nurtured capitalist’s kids who will not be programmed to attend the College for Criminals.
The average $47,000 a year we spend to incarcerate one prisoner could pay a teacher’s salary for a year, and the $100,000 we can spend on lifers without parole could fund two teachers for a year. We are a rich country that tolerates high levels of poverty while supporting an increasingly harsh criminal justice system that incarcerates the poor, especially people of color, usually creating jobs for rural America where most prisons are built. This fits in nicely with our militaristic culture, for as long as we’re at war, human rights, especially for the incarcerated, are kicked to the curb, and the thin veneer holding everything together becomes increasingly frayed by fear of the “other” as exemplified by the unspoken racism behind the teabaggers, who see white people as losing control, losing their majority status. This cannot be restored no matter how many people of color are incarcerated and no matter how many Americans are doomed to a life of poverty.
Yet to do our work requires us to pretend that this system functions in a way that helps keep us “safe” from “them” no matter the financial, spiritual and psychic costs, and despite the fact that 700,000 of “them” return to our communities each year, more than 40,000 to Philadelphia, where they all face the same demonization, in the lack of jobs, housing or health care which is the lot of the formerly incarcerated. How many of those returning from prison are afflicted with PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder? We see the effects of this psychological plague in soldiers returning from war.
So we say nothing despite our outrage when guards in visiting rooms harass elderly women whose necklines are a little low, or treat visitors rudely as if they too are prisoners.
It’s like trying to keep our lawns mowed and our gardens weeded while living next door to Abu Ghraib and ignoring the screams coming from inside its’ walls. When violence and torture are so frequent it becomes the norm and we as a nation become desensitized to the daily psychological and too often terror that is the world of Shadow America. No wonder taxpayers don’t want to know the truth about our corrupt and broken criminal justice system, for it’s too horrible to contemplate, for the image of all “those people,” no matter how innocent, rehabilitated or treated unjustly, coming out of prison doors scares them. It’s too horrible to contemplate, something politicians grab onto with their “tough on crime” stances. Many say off the record that they know the system is broken but that it would be political suicide to support anything progressive having to do with prisons, like introducing a bill allowing parole for lifers in Pennsylvania.
As long as we as a culture continue to dehumanize prisoners, their loved ones, families and advocates so we don’t have to care except in a Law and Order entertaining kind of way, nothing much will change and in fact life behind prison walls just gets worse and worse. Those attempting to improve the system end up getting worn out, or with poor health, the price of this country’s denial of the humanity of more than 8.8 million Americans.
As long as poverty is acceptable so will be the prisons that house the poor, returning them back to communities already ravaged and withered by being unable to catch those pieces of the American Pie that were supposed to trickle down to them.
What, if anything, can be done? After five decades of human rights work, the past 17 years working to give voice to the voiceless in prisons, I’ve concluded that we have to add an energetic level to our work through the Virtual Kindness Circles, the distribution of Kindness Cards and the informal setting up of Kindness projects through the more than 2,000 people in prison I’ve worked with through the years, who are now calling themselves “Warriors of Light.” The instructions for how to participate are on one side of the Kindness Cards as follows:
Why Join Our Virtual Kindness Circle?
Every Saturday from 4:00-4:30 pm eastern, sit in silence, alone or with others. Imagine what scientist and philosophers call the Web of Life, an energy field that surrounds the earth. We are all dangling by strings of light from this Light of Kindness. Draw down this Light into the top of your head; let is spread throughout your being, renewing, recharging, soothing and nurturing you until you feel wrapped in Light and filled with Light. If you’re with others in a circle, now connect your hands, sending the Light around the Circle, in your left hands, out right. Then, one at a time, keeping connected, each participant sits in the center of the Circle while the rest send zaps of Kindness to them for one minute. Then the next one, until all have had a turn. If you are alone in a hospital bed or in a prison cell, once you’re filled with the universal Light of Kindness, fill the room with Light, then slowly spread it out to the rest of the building, then let the Light roll out like a carpet, sweeping towns, states, countries, so that if you were an astronaut looking down on earth, you’d see the planet glowing with the Light of Kindness, touching everyone, those at war, those suffering in hospitals and prisons, children, the elders, and your loved ones as we penetrate the culture of cruelty and diminish the violence and incivility that has gripped the planet. Draw down the Light often, especially on Saturdays as part of planetary sprinklings of Light as we all become Warriors of Light joining forces against fear & hatred!
Contact us for information and other ways you might become involved. Join the Global Kindness Revolution & and make an energetic difference. Be Kind All the Time!!!
Why do I think Kindness Circles work? For ten years, as a member of the Bear Tribe Medicine Society, I led Healing Circles around the country and observed first hand the power of working in Circles.
When people do something kind, it raises their serotonin levels (the happy hormone) as well as raising the levels of the recipient, observers and those who read or hear about it. When meditators sat weekly in high crime areas of Chicago, the crime rate went down. When they moved to another neighborhood, the same thing happened. Scientists studying monkey behavior on three Pacific islands not visible to each other, came by boat each day to dump a load of bananas. On one of the islands, one day a monkey washed his banana in the sea before eating it. The next day another one did, and then another. When the 100th monkey on that island washed his banana before eating it, simultaneously on the two other islands, ALL the monkeys washed their bananas even though they had never seen it being done. British biologist, Rupert Murdoch, calls this a “morphogenetic field.” Then there’s String Theory in Physics that postulates that there are eleven different dimensions to reality at any given moment, helping to explain why we think of someone and the phone rings and it’s them.
It’s clear that in addition to all of our advocacy efforts we include a new approach, working on an energetic level to create a different “vibe” in prisons, but also to help us de-stress and enhance our own health and spirits so we can fight for positive change as Warriors of Light. Won’t you join us?