Recently, PPWN has ramped up our work inside the San Bruno County Jails. Since April of this year, we have conducted two-day workshops in Kingian Nonviolence for 200 incarcerated men. We have already scheduled our next four workshops, which will allow us to reach as many as 200 more by the end of October, and we are expanding into some of the other jails within San Francisco County.
It has been such an honor for us to do this work with these men. The wisdom and the love that they have shown us each time we go in is an inspiration for us and helps sustain us as we move forward in this work. Here are some stories that we’d like to share with everyone from our most recent workshops.
This project is currently unfunded, and sustained only through the love we have for this work. Please consider supporting PPWN so that we may continue to offer our workshops to the incarcerated community.
“You’re gonna be in the violent pod today. Oh, and there was a fight this morning so the jail’s in lock-down so you may not be able to start on time.”
That was how we were greeted as we walked into the jail on the morning of August 6th. While we’ve gotten used to having incredibly deep conversations with these men, there are also these constant reminders of where we really are.
And yet even with these constant reminders, there are also constant reminders about how similar we all are, and how the labels we attach (inmate vs. civilian, good vs bad, etc.) can seem so superficial once we break down some walls and begin to dialogue. We may have been the “nonviolence trainers,” and these men may have been the guys deemed “the violent inmates,” but the two days we spent together were in deep discussions about how we can all create peace – within ourselves and within our communities.
In fact, during our introduction exercise in another workshop, one participant commented on how easy it is for all of us to get caught up in labels and see each other as nothing more than the sum of our crimes. We asked each of the men to pair up and interview each other about some basic facts (name, family, favorite childhood game, etc.).
The participant commented that when a new inmate comes into the system, the first thing most people usually ask them is “what did you do to get in here?” With that being the first piece of information they all learn about each other, in their minds they become the sum of their crimes. ”Oh, that’s the guy who robbed someone,” or “that’s the guy who was involved in that shooting.”
“We never even ask about other things. But this activity showed me that we are more than the sum of the crimes we’ve committed.”
Another man got up and thanked us for teaching them how to create peace. And that was just after the introduction exercise!!!
Grateful for the Gratitude
While doing this work in the jails is not always easy, and so far it has yet to pay us at all financially, the gratitude we receive from the men inside is all the payment we need to keep going.
One man commented that he “hates coming back to jail over and over and over again. But if I didn’t come back this time, I wouldn’t have met you. So this time, it was worth it.”
While so many people in society have already given up on these men and labeled them as outlaws, our experience is vastly different. These are all men who have been victimized by violence long before they committed their first crime. These are all men who care about their community, especially about young people. They are men who have made mistakes (who hasn’t?), and are trying desperately to be better.
A while ago, one inmate in the group stood out from the rest since he was wearing a bright red jump suit, as opposed to the orange suits worn by the other men. We were told it was because he had recently committed a violent act while being locked up, and therefore was labeled as a security threat. And yet this man told us that he “agrees with nonviolence. I’m a nonviolent person!!! I just don’t know how to control my anger.”
None of these men started out wanting to harm their communities. But all of them have so much pent up anger, so many unresolved conflicts in their lives that when something happens they explode.
Nonviolence is about offering an alternative to using violence to respond to the conflicts in our lives. These are concepts that most of these men have never been taught, and with the violence, poverty and overt conflicts that they are surrounded by from day one, it’s no wonder they turn to violence and crime. But that is not the sum of who they are as people, and if we only take the time to get to know them, it becomes very clear very quickly.
Even I’m Listening!!!
One of our favorite things during these workshops have been when we get (rare) positive comments from the deputies who are on duty during our sessions. While seeing the interactions between many of the deputies and the inmates are often another reminder of the violence and divisions inherent in the system, it’s a great feeling when we get love from the guards.
One deputy came up to us afterwards and told us that he “has been working at that jail for many years and have seen many presenters come and go, and most of the time half the guys are asleep. You guys really have their attention. Hell, even I was listening!”
Another deputy came to us after the training and whispered that “I’m gonna practice some of what you were saying too, just don’t tell anyone I told you so. (hence he will remain anonymous here)”
And as we were leaving the jail from our last workshop, the deputy at the gate asked us what we do. When we told him that we teach a form of nonviolence developed out of the teachings of Dr. King, he simply gave us a fist in the air. His name? Deputy Love.