“These past two days, I didn’t even feel like I was in jail,” remarked one of the participants of this month’s two-day workshop inside the San Bruno County Jail. It was two days filled with intense discussions and important lessons for all of us, as trainers and participants.
It’s an honor for us every time we have the opportunity to go inside, and hearing comments like this really reinforce our commitment to this work. To be able to feel free in a community with so much violence – even if for only a moment – makes the early morning trip all the way across the bay well worth it.
And it really didn’t feel like we were in jail. Jonathan and I are obviously in a VERY different place than the rest of the guys – we get to go home at the end of the day. But the two days we spent with these 19 men were some of the funnest and inspiring times we’ve had in a while. The jokes, the stories, the conversations, the lessons.
Of course, there are the constant reminders that put us back right into the jail. The officers coming in for regular counts of all the men, the prison food, the inability to turn off the lights so we could show a movie, restrictions on video and pictures we can take, etc.
And I am always amazed at the depth of conversations that happen when we are able to do this work in the jails. All of these men know very well the impact that violence has had on their lives and on their community, so the conversations get real and get deep quickly.
The first activity we do in our workshop is an introductory exercise where participants are paired up and ask each other basic questions about their name, family, favorite childhood game, etc. What is usually a fun but not too deep conversations often times turns into deep, emotional conversations about our history. Story after story of abusive or absent families, difficult experiences that they’ve faced, how they ended up getting locked up….
One man asked “what should I say if I don’t have a family?” while another said that he “didn’t have a childhood, so never played any games growing up.” It reminded me of the old saying, that “hurt people hurt people.” All of these men did do something in their communities to end up in jail, and none of them shy away from that responsibility. But it is also very clear that we have failed so many of them long before they committed their first crime.
While some people view the 2.5 million men and women inside this country’s prison system as nothing more than violent “super-predators” who are capable of nothing but harm, our reality is that we have an opportunity to spend two days with a group of men who have made mistakes, are owning up to them, and are trying to find ways to improve themselves and their community. It’s humbling to be reminded of that.
And unfortunately, while not all of them will be able to stay out of jail once they leave, their commitment to trying to change their community is always inspiring to see. As I wrote earlier, these men have seen what violence has done to their lives and their communities. They understand better than anyone how badly their communities need change.
In response to a survey question about whether they would ever go to jail in the name of justice as others have done in the past, the majority of them check “yes.” One participant selected “maybe,” and wrote in” but I have two strikes.” That’s commitment.
Every once in a while on the second day of a workshop, we get an “it worked!” story from one of the participants. Someone was able to de-escalate or reconcile a conflict using some materials we covered in the first day.
On the first day, one of the participants (we’ll call him David) shared a story with us about a conflict he is currently going through with another man (we’ll call him Evan) in his pod (the jail is divided into several pods). They had been arguing and things were beginning to escalate. “Even as we talk about all these things, I got Evan in the back of my mind,” David shared.
And sure enough, that evening a conflict erupted in their pod. During dinner, David walked by Evan and asked if things were cool between them. It was big of David to try to smooth things out, but it backfired and Evan exploded instantly and started yelling in David’s face. We were told that Evan continued to yell and cuss out David for hours, but throughout the entire time, David was able to remain cool and not lose his composure. No physical violence occurred, no one got hurt, and while Evan was put in the hole, David was able to stay focused on his goal and stayed away from trouble.
And while not getting into a physical fight may seem like a small victory, it was one that David was (and should be) proud of. And it was great to see the other participants from his pod encourage him and give him props for that too. Slowly, the culture may be shifting inside the jail.
Another Bad Reminder
At the end of the two-day workshop, we were all in a good mood as we were walking downstairs. Jonathan and I were following a group of men being escorted by one guard back to their pods, and then we were to get escorted back to the lobby.
The happy discussion about what we just experienced in the past two days was cut short by a command from the guard, who told the inmates that they must be quiet during the duration of the walk back to their pod. This was followed by a long, uncomfortable and silent elevator ride and walk down the corridor.
One thing we talked about a lot during out time was Principle #4: Accept suffering without retaliation for the sake of the cause to achieve a goal. We discussed how all of these men had goals to live a long life, to be better parents, and to improve their lives and their community. And in order for them to reach those goals, there are times when they may have to suffer.
Going from the joyous conversations on our way out of the space we created together to the silent march back to their jail cells was so sudden and unexpected that it would have been easy to lash out or say a smart comment back to the guard.
And not doing so, not reacting on emotion and not saying another word the entire walk would not be because they are being weak or passive. As Jonathan said, they are not running from anything, they are running towards something more important. They are accepting that momentary suffering and staying disciplined because their lives are more important than that one conflict with a guard.
As the guys were lined up outside the gate to their pod, Jonathan simply said out loud, “principle 4.” They simply smiled and nodded.
While we were not able to say a proper good bye, perhaps that was a fitting final message. Stay focused on the goal.