Fatherhood and Healing in Prison

I am always glad for a chance to be pulled away from the subterranean grip of politics on my mind and yesterday was such a chance.


I had the opportunity to bring in a young man and a young woman who had grown up with one or both parents incarcerated into our GRIP class. As we circled up, and did our 5 minute mindfulness meditation, I noticed the prisoners looking uncertainly, almost hopefully, at our new guests. I could sense their excitement, their curiosity, but I could also within the uncertainty looks of uneasiness, and of shame. This was no small moment. Most of the men in our group have children, and fatherhood is a common topic. The grief, the shame, the remorse for leaving children, often babies and infants, alone with their mothers and often under financial duress and stressful circumstances has been a heavy burden to carry. Such burdens can easily grow into nasty and vicious voices of self-judgment and self-hate. And loss of family, loss of connection and love, is a wound that heals slowly if at all.


So I watched with baited breath as our guests, in their early and mid 20’s, shared about their experiences – their childhood visitations in prisons, the pain of not being able to hug their father who sat behind the glass, the alienation and shame of lying about the whereabouts of their parents to friends. The confusion. The anger. The refusal to reply to letters. The difficulty in understanding their feelings. The push and pull of attachment.


The young man broke down and cried as he described what it was like to lose his dad when he was 3, and the subsequent difficulties of his childhood. I saw many men in our circle, heads in their hands, crying. Some quietly, some loudly. They simply listened, and couldn’t stop the rising up of their own grief and pain. It was clear that there was a common experience being spoken aloud.


When the guests had shared and the inmates began to respond, it was completely still and silent in the room. All eyes were on the man who was speaking. The first man to speak completely broke down. His body shaking, the muscles in his face taut as he tried to maintain composure, he talked about what it was like to be pulled away from his family (his crime was committed in an attempt to protect his family from a violent situation) and especially his two sets of twin children, who were young at the time. He felt such grief, such shame, such regret – I could see it most clearly when he lost the ability to speak and his chest heaved in silence. Other men murmured and nodded, the man sitting next to him simply put his hand on his back, and kept it there.


As he was speaking I noticed the guest, the young woman sitting next to me, was crying as well. I spoke, thinking aloud to the group, “S. thank you so much for your tears. Its almost like you are speaking on behalf of everyone in here, or all prisoners, and the grief and pain of losing your children.” He nodded silently, looking between me and the guest next to me, who was gazing back at him. Then I turned to her and asked if she would like to step in as a representative almost, of all children who lose their parents to prison. What would she like to say to them?


What followed was so deeply moving that neither I nor hardly anyone in there could hold back tears. She spoke so tenderly, sharing her grief and pain, but also acknowledging and taking in his grief. Mostly they just cried together, both wiping their eyes, going in and out of eye contact, reassuring each other – she would say, its ok, I know, I know. It was as if in some invisible, non verbal way she was giving him permission and acceptance to feel deeply. Feel all of it. Prison is a hard place to feel. And in some way she was giving him forgiveness. And he was giving her his pain, his grief, and his remorse. It was beyond words though – it was a somatic, energetic exchange, like sponges dried from separation finally coming into life-giving contact with water. I simply don’t know how else to describe it.


By the time we stood holding hands in a circle at the end of the group, it was clear that much medicine had been shared on both sides. The air felt clear and even the cramped classroom felt wide open and spacious. Our Native American facilitator, who had been witnessing it all in silence, spoke of the work we had done that day as sending prayers into the future – seeding the future generations and sending ripples into all directions.


It felt like healing on the root level, and I was taken aback, as I often am, that when deep healing occurs, it is never only for one person or one group. It affects everyone. And often on many different levels. Today I am giving gratitude for that.

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