There is No Restoration in Dehumanization

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A bird flies over barbed wire on top of fences at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, California. In 2014 when this photo was taken, California was under a federal court order to lower the population of its prisons to 137.5 percent of its designed capacity after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling that inmate health care was so bad it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Photographer, Sam Hodgson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This past weekend, I had the honor of serving inmates a Donovan State Prison through restorative and healing work.  In the process, I connected with a Samoan brother, Utu, who’d been incarcerated for nearly two decades and, most recently, spent four years in, what the inmates and prison guards refer to as, the hole, solitary confinement.  Utu held a type of innocence that is very difficult to maintain in inmates who’ve experienced and perpetrated the most tragic and heinous acts of violence.

There was an immediate spiritual connection that occurred as he began to share pieces of himself in a place where even a little bit of vulnerability can get a man killed; one that allowed me to see we are both greater than our experiences and our choices.

In 2010, do to over crowded and under-equipped California prisons,  Utu was one of many inmates forcefully persuaded to sign a prison transfer request from California to Arizona. He was told it would be a temporary five-year arrangement.  While in Arizona, he discovered that what he had signed up for was “to live in hell,” and doubted he would make it out of Arizona alive.  Not only were tensions between prison guards and inmates more hostile, but racism and inequity were used to instigate more animosity and violence among the inmates.  Without going into details, he told me he got into a confrontation with another inmate, and beat him unconscious.  The next day, Utu was sent to the hole where he would live out the rest of his five-year incarceration sentence in Arizona.

A prisoner named Ahmad Al Aswadu wrote an essay titled “A Black View of Prison” in the April-May 1971 issue of the Black Scholar. In his essay, he describes the experience of living in the “hole” while incarcerated:

The “Hole” (called such because its locality is usually under the prison’s first floor) is solitary confinement. One could stay in the hole for a week or a lifetime depending upon his color and attitude. It is here in the hole that men are made and broken at the same time. It is here that the previous threat of getting “hurt” can realize itself all too quickly. And it is here that the seeds of Black Consciousness have been cultivated in the minds of many black men.

It is very difficult for a layman such as I to describe the atmosphere of the hole but I shall try. I believe that the very first thing that the brother notices about the hole is the desolateness and the feeling of utter aloneness. The first time that I was sent to the hole I felt as if my soul had deserted me. I don’t believe that I had ever experienced such a feeling of intense emptiness in my life before then. I had been sent to the hole to have my attitude changed, because, as they stated, it was not conducive to “good order.” 

His father died shortly after he was placed in the hole.  Samoans follow a code of living and culture called the Fa’a Samoa which means “the Samoan Way.” Central to this culture is the Fa’amatai. The family is the most significant socio-political element of Samoan society. Family responsibility and the care of family land are the keys to the culture. For Utu, not being able to be at his father’s funeral or with his family was devastating and a source of shame; and there was nowhere for him to escape this shame.  As he began to unravel into hopelessness and deep depression, a few months into his solitary confinement, he heard  a clank as someone opened the  small window of his iron cell door and asked if he wanted to find God.  God was nowhere to be found, he thought; that hole was the furthest he could be from God.

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Photo credit: Modesto Bee Newspaper/ Bloomberg via Getty Images 

A clergyman visited him once a week, on the same day, at the same time, like clock work. He learned to keep track of time by keeping track of his visits.  He’d be Utu’s only visitor for the four years he remained in the hole.  Utu was not allowed any possessions, but the clergyman somehow got the prison guards to agree to allowing him to have a bible, which he fiercely read and studied during his four years in solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement strips away anything that can possibly remind a man of his existence. There is no radio, no television, no books, no pencils or paper and no hobby-facilitating materials. Inmates are provided institution-issued clothes and possibly, but not always, sheets.  Personal hygiene provisions are reduced to only toilet paper, which some inmates may not receive.  Cells frequently have no windows and inmates are housed with a vacant cell between them to reduce the possibility of communication. The 23/1 rule (23 hours in your cell and one hour outside of it) usually applies, but only if the guards get around to it. This could mean that inmates may only get one hour every five days, and often during that one hour, inmates are not allowed to go outside or anywhere with windows, but are confined to a “common area,” alone. Depending on the institution, sometimes they are provided with golf pencils and paper to write during their hour, but may only be allowed to mail out and receive one letter a week. Utu felt his mind slipping away from him while in there, and reading the bible was the only experience that helped him hold on to his humanity.

No one is ever SENTENCED to solitary confinement – the determination of that punishment is made in each institution at their own discretion and for a duration they presume to be necessary. It could be because an inmate violated a rule within the institution or merely because an inmate is presumed to be affiliated with a gang. It also could be just cruelty and sadism on the part of the institution administrators.

Utu was transferred back to California a little more than a year ago.  His mother passed away three months ago, and though he wasn’t able to attend her funeral, he was close enough for his family to come visit him and pray with him. As he shared  glimpses of his life with me, I wondered how a man who has lost so much could still hold innocence and gentleness in his soul.

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During the three days of restorative and healing work, we delved into discussions and activities that pushed us to think more deeply about transformative power through forgiveness, empathy and consensus building.   One of the activities in which the inmates were tasked to practice the consensus building strategies they had just learned required that each select a photo.  The objective was for each person to partner up, and through consensus building, agree on one photo to represent both.  Once the partners agreed on the photo, they looked for another set of partners and the process of consensus building began again until one photo was selected to represent the group of four, which then joined with another group of four to repeat the same process.

I partnered with Utu who had selected a photo of a blueish-turquoise ocean gently swaying against black cliffs abundant with vegetation. That morning he had spoken of going home to Samoa where his heart had always told him he belonged. His family came to the Unites States when he was a little boy, but it seemed that leaving his motherland had been more of a curse than a blessing.  His family broke apart in the United States.  Upward mobility and the accumulation of things became a priority.  Home to him means returning to a place that nurtures family and community, something Utu feels he can no longer achieve in the United States. There was a profound longing in his eyes for home as he described the aspects of his photo that reminded him of Samoa. He is homesick for a feeling, an experience he hopes to find when he returns to Samoa.  One where his heart is full, his body loved, and his soul understood.

Then came my turn to explain why I chose the photo I held in my hands.  The photo reminded me of the purest love between a child and his parents or grandparents; the bond that exists when a child is nurtured as the one who will continue the wisdom and legacy of the elders, and in turn, of the ancestors. It is this passing on of knowledge that creates strong and dignified communities.  I told Utu that the photo reminded me of the unconditionally love my grandmother poured into me. When children are raised with kind love, veneration and respect, they grow up to be the keepers of the greater community.  Finally, I explained, that most of all, the photo reminded me of the importance of knowing how to give and receive, the collaboration that manifests in a beautiful way within families and communities when everyone is working together toward a common goal.

Utu timidly asked, “which one should we pick?” I told Utu that I had the privilege to experience home, and nothing would fill my heart more than for him to experience home, even if was just symbolically.  So I told him, “You choose.”  His eyes became watery and he said he’d choose the picture I held in my hands, because more than the beach and the tropical trees and the smell of the salty mountains, he missed the love of his mother and father.

Utu is due to be released in 2021.  In a place void of humanity, where vulnerability and compassion can get one killed, where suspicion lurks in every corner, and where brick, steel, cement and barbed wire remind inmates of the total aloneness of enforced solitude and deprivation, Utu was able to maintain an innocence and gentleness rarely found behind bars.  I pray he makes it out.

Another inmate whose been on a long, arduous path of healing said, “I’m thriving in prison. For the first time in my life, I am thriving.” If these men whose hearts have been hardened and hopes shattered can transform themselves in a place meant to annihilate what little love they remember from their childhood, imagine what could be possible if we created opportunities for healing and restoration.

Restorative justice and restorative practices are ancient approaches that are being revived in modern-day systems. Aboriginals around the world have used religion or tribal leaders to peacefully resolve conflicts or crime for hundreds of years. This traditional approach to restoration is rooted in the belief that there should be social harmony, redemption and a pursuit of absolute good for the individual and the community in the handling of conflict and crime. Rather than the punitive elements connected to shame, guilt, humiliation and dehumanization, aboriginal cultures around the world have focused on restorative elements of redemption, reparation, rehabilitation, healing and forgiveness.

 We have long known that in the act of destroying the other, we are destroying ourselves.  In Mayan tradition, there is a greeting that many people working with Mayan tradition know of. In Lak’ ech Ala K’in means I am the other you and you are the other me. It is an honoring for each other, for the sacredness of our belonging.  Ubuntu is an ancient African word meaning, “my humanity is inextricably wrapped up in yours.” Bayanihan is a Filipino custom derived from the word bayan, which means nation, town or community. The term means being in bayan, which refers to the spirit of communal unity, work and cooperation to achieve a particular goal. In ancient Sanskrit Sarvodaya mean universal uplifting; the good of the individual within the good of the whole. So you see, we come from each other, to commune with each other, and to thrive with each other.  Even scientifically, we have discovered the presence of mirror neurons, which allow us to feel the other’s pain.  In essence, what we do onto others, we do to ourselves. This is who we were before colonization, industrialization and capitalism.  Who we were has been erased from history, but the memories remain in our DNA, and we are once again being called to rewrite our history, and re-right the injustices we have participated in.

I recently came across this:

Remember: Oppression thrives off isolation.  Connection is the only thing that can save you.

Remember: Oppression thrives on superficiality. Honesty about our struggles is the key to your liberation. 

Remember: Your story can help save someone’s life.  your silence contributes to someone else’s struggle. Speak so we all can be free. Love so we all can be liberated. The moment is now.  We need you. 

Remembrance and imagination are the greatest tools we have to create a world in which our children can love and be loved, fully and unconditionally.

The Meaning of Life in Prison, Part I

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What is a sensible prison sentence when prisoners who have committed a crime, even a violent crime, are no longer a threat to society?

As I entered through the gates of Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, the irony of the word “correctional” didn’t go past me. I felt a sense of loss, a vacuum of emptiness in the pit of my stomach, a sort of erasing of everything that feels soulful, alive. Replaced by metal fences, circular barbed wire, concrete walls, and barren landscapes, the only thing that seemed to remind me of my humanity were the surrounding mountains and the chirping and chitter of birds that found shelter in the few cacti scattered around the perimeter and entrance. The sky was blue, the sun a little too warm, but still inviting. It’s October, the time of the season when Santa Ana winds give way to hot dry weather, often the hottest time of the year. As I enter through several gates, I am reminded that I am walking into a cage.

In a chapel, twenty-two men in baggy blue denim pants and light blue scrub-like shirts provided by the prison start to trickle in, sitting in a circle as they await for the start of the workshop. They seem to be in good spirits, shaking each other’s hands, some introducing themselves for the first time. They are handed an ice-breaker activity, which they immediately seem to engage in, enthusiastically, with each other. The chapel is sterile – white brick walls, a podium, a few bookcases with religious and spiritual literature and stackable chairs organized in a circle – with an unpleasant smell that reminds me of a combination of latex paint, locker room sweat, and hospital rooms.

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There are currently three facilities designated as Sensitive Needs Yard (SNY) and I was in one of them. SNY inmates are those inmates that are remanded to the custody of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations (CDCR), but due to safety concerns, they are separated from General Population inmates to serve their term of incarceration. SNY inmates have the opportunity to work and attend education programs that include Adult Basic Education, college courses, GED programs, Career Technical Education (carpentry, welding, electronics, building maintenance), Inmate Work Labor and an ample offering of programs that afford the inmates opportunities for self-improvement such as the Alternative to Violence conflict resolution workshop, Project PAINT: The Prison ArtsINitiative, Playwrights Project, and the Pooch Program in which inmates train puppies to become service dogs.

There are lots of opportunities for the men to learn and grow. The men, in fact, sometimes find themselves forgetting the limits to their freedom, even if just for a short period of time. However, one is quickly reminded of this fallacy when you see the guards, rigid and distant in a militant-like stance, in the yards they patrol, in the towers from which they watch over everyone, or when they come in to round up inmates for cell count. It is to be reminded that this is a place in which one is not entitled to their time, space, or body. “A cage that allows someone to walk around inside of it is still a cage.”

Many volunteers come and go, but once the volunteers leave, the men are left to survive in a brutal, corrupt, and sometimes animalistic environment. Their participation in these programs is sometimes an escape from the violence and hopelessness that they often feel in prison. It’s the little bit of hope that feeds their determination to survive.

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I spent three days in this cage with men who are locked up and forgotten; left to rot under the fist of repression, oppression, cruelty, and dehumanization. Many of the men are serving life sentences, some without the possibility of parole, for murder, drug related charges, robbery, etc. Many are serving disproportionate sentences because of mandatory sentencing laws. These inflexible, “one-size-fits-all” sentencing laws undermine justice by preventing judges from fitting the punishment to the individual and the circumstances of their offenses. And for a number of them, the sentences they are serving are for crimes they committed when they were teenagers.

Immigrants in Our Own Land
We are born with dreams in our hearts,
looking for better days ahead.
At the gates we are given new papers,
our old clothes are taken
and we are given overalls like mechanics wear.
We are given shots and doctors ask questions.
Then we gather in another room
where counselors orient us to the new land
we will now live in. We take tests.
Some of us were craftsmen in the old world,
good with our hands and proud of our work.
Others were good with their heads.
They used common sense like scholars
use glasses and books to reach the world.
But most of us didn’t finish high school.
.
The old men who have lived here stare at us,
from deep disturbed eyes, sulking, retreated.
We pass them as they stand around idle,
leaning on shovels and rakes or against walls.
Our expectations are high: in the old world,
they talked about rehabilitation,
about being able to finish school,
and learning an extra good trade.
But right away we are sent to work as dishwashers,
to work in fields for three cents an hour.
The administration says this is temporary
So we go about our business, blacks with blacks,
poor whites with poor whites,
chicanos and indians by themselves.
The administration says this is right,
no mixing of cultures, let them stay apart,
like in the old neighborhoods we came from.
.
We came here to get away from false promises,
from dictators in our neighborhoods,
who wore blue suits and broke our doors down
when they wanted, arrested us when they felt like,
swinging clubs and shooting guns as they pleased.
But it’s no different here. It’s all concentrated.
The doctors don’t care, our bodies decay,
our minds deteriorate, we learn nothing of value.
Our lives don’t get better, we go down quick.
.
My cell is crisscrossed with laundry lines,
my T-shirts, boxer shorts, socks and pants are drying.
Just like it used to be in my neighborhood:
from all the tenements laundry hung window to window.
Across the way Joey is sticking his hands
through the bars to hand Felipé a cigarette,
men are hollering back and forth cell to cell,
saying their sinks don’t work,
or somebody downstairs hollers angrily
about a toilet overflowing,
or that the heaters don’t work.
.
I ask Coyote next door to shoot me over
a little more soap to finish my laundry.
I look down and see new immigrants coming in,
mattresses rolled up and on their shoulders,
new haircuts and brogan boots,
looking around, each with a dream in their heart,
thinking they’ll get a chance to change their lives.
.
But in the end, some will just sit around
talking about how good the old world was.
Some of the younger ones will become gangsters.
Some will die and others will go on living
without a soul, a future, or a reason to live.
Some will make it out of here with hate in their eyes,
but so very few make it out of here as human
as they came in, they leave wondering what good they are now
as they look at their hands so long away from their tools,
as they look at themselves, so long gone from their families,
so long gone from life itself, so many things have changed.
.
“Immigrants in Our Own Land” by Jimmy Santiago Baca, from Immigrants in Our Own Land