I thought I’d write about my day in San Quentin yesterday. I haven’t been writing much about my GRIP classes in the prisons. A friend told me to keep writing. I told her I have been feeling reluctant to write about it. She asked why. I said because I didn’t want to tell other people’s stories for them, and because I am self-conscious about my privilege, being a free white person stepping into those rooms, and coming out, sharing the stories of our time together. It seems there are nearly endless ways to further exploitation. Through our dialogue I realized that a part of me was shutting down out of fear, and while there are legitimate issues to be aware of, there are also respectful ways to honor the men and stories they share. To deeply respect them in my mind means being conscious, being aware, being confidential, sharing from my own experience (not theirs) and offering the stories as a way of furthering the ripples that they themselves are offering to the world. Often times I ask the group for permission to write or share about the work we do together. Finally, I also recognize that a part of the restorative work is helping in any way I can for folks who are or have been incarcerated to find channels to share and express their own stories.
As for me, I have noticed that when I am impacted by this work and I share it with a friend, they too are impacted and receive the gifts and merits of the healing work. I wonder sometimes if the healing work we do isn’t just for the benefit of ourselves. The number of people who feel touched and moved by stories of folks on the inside – touched by the courage and commitment to deep healing work done by incarcerated men and women – gives us permission, even encouragement, for us on the outside to get on with our own deep healing work. I also hope that by sharing these stories these men and women, locked away on the fringes of society, can still reach out and touch others’ lives, even the lives of strangers.
So I will share a story about our class yesterday and why it is I walked out in the drizzling evening rain with a full and bursting heart.
In our Monday group, which had only met 4 times, we came to the moment of naming our Tribe. This includes a process of asking a series of questions and having each man in the circle answer, and we make a tally of the collective answers. The first question is how many years in total each man has served in prison or jail. After each man answered, we tallied a total of 728 years. Over 7 centuries of time incarcerated. It is important to note that the circle, inevitably, is composed of primarily black and brown men. The silent hovering archetypal legacies of slavery, lynching, and racism sit in this circle with us, as they do in all circles held within institutions of incarceration.
After this we ask how long it took each man to actually cross the threshold of violence, which we call the moment of Imminent Danger. It usually takes seconds to cross such a threshold from a thought or feeling, into initiating the action of violence. After every man answered, we tallied it together and discovered that the men had collectively taken 5 minutes and 40 seconds to cross that threshold. Those 5 minutes and 40 seconds of losing control resulted in 728 years of incarceration. It takes only a second to change a life forever. The gravity of having these numbers up on the board brought us into a sobering silence as we took it in.
We then asked how many lives were lost during the crimes committed. Out of the 32 men, 18 lives were lost. One could say they were taken. About half the of the size of our group, as one man commented. We paused here to allow space for the men to reflect and notice what was coming up for them as we did this. One man said “I didn’t kill anyone in my crime, so no lives were lost, but how many lives did I ruin? My kids don’t talk to me, and when I think of what I did to my wife, my kids, my family, or community, no one lost a life, but how many lives did I ruin by my way of life, and my crime?” He gazed out at the other men in the circle, his hands in his lap, playing with a thread from his sleeve. I saw a number of men nodding.
Then a man I will call Eddie shared. A Latino man in his 60s, he has a soft but kind voice which echoed into the room from the corner where he sat. He told us that his initial board hearing had suddenly been moved closer, to next year, which was incredible news. He shared that he had a visit the other day from his two sisters and his two brothers in law, who have stood by him from the beginning. Through his 30 some years in prison. When he shared with them the news of his parole hearing, he had started crying, saying they had done the prison time with him. That it hadn’t just been him doing the time. It had drastically changed their lives as well. Tears rolled down his cheeks as his voice cracked as he shared this story with us. He told us he had gotten up in the visiting room that day, and that all he could do was get up and hug them all, one by one. As Eddie spoke I saw other men in the circle wiping their eyes, their tears revealing that they could relate to Eddies struggle, Eddies guilt for dragging so many loved ones into state prison visiting rooms over so many years.
Eddie came to a stop, pausing, and then apologized for getting emotional. I took a moment to respond, saying no one in our group need ever apologize for crying or showing emotion. “You are being authentic and real,” I said, “and in that way you are being a model. You are sharing what is on your heart.” I said to the group, “raise your hand if you can feel Eddie’s heart right now.” Everyone raised their hand. He quietly looked around the circle. I explained that he was speaking something real and deep, and something that I imagined most men in this circle were feeling too. I told him he was speaking for them too. Because when one man models vulnerability, it gives the rest of us permission to let down our guard.
And as if on cue, a young man in his early 30’s, sitting upright on the other side of the circle silently raised his hand. He tried to start speaking, but immediately became emotional. In the silence, I told him to take as much time as he needed. I told him we were holding it with him, that he didn’t have to hold it alone. When he could finally speak he said talking about the number of lives lost really hit him hard. “It hit me because I realized I actually don’t know how many lives I’ve taken,” he said as the tears rolled down his cheeks. “In the gang life if one side takes a life, the other side retaliates and takes two lives. So yes I took a life, but how many others lives were lost in the endless cycle? So many people are caught up in it, getting hurt, getting killed. I feel so much grief because of that.” As he finished speaking and looked around the room, I could see his nervous system slowly calming, I could see his breathing deepen. Perhaps for the first time in his life, he could be seen and witnessed in his grief. He no longer felt the need to hide it.
I was deeply touched by his words, his wisdom, but also his raw grief. Here was a man, young in body, but mature in his capacity to touch raw emotion and then share it with others. It is a gift to others, to do that. For many people cannot touch real or raw emotion, no matter how much they might desire to. The veil of numbness coats their experience with a dull heaviness, yet by witnessing others do so can unlock one’s frozenness and give permission. I know this from my own life – having needed models to teach me how to soften into emotion, as I didn’t get that modeling while I was growing up. We learn by mimicry, and grieving is no different.
We all took a few breaths together in that quiet room, as the rain drizzled outside the windows. I reiterated that we do not tally the Tribe name and collect these different numbers to re-inflame guilt or shame, or re-iterate the narrative that they are monsters. Because they are not. For most of these men, hurt begot hurt, violence leveraged violence. We collect and tally these numbers (years incarcerated, time of Imminent Danger, lives taken in one’s crime, use of drugs and alcohol during the crime, experience of trauma in childhood, or having a consistent male role model as a child) to hold the truth of the facts together.
We can only hold such things together. We hold it as sobering, grounding medicine. It sobers us and brings us into relationship with Reality. Sobriety and gravitas speak to an important element of healing. They are the opposite of the flight of denial. In this way we use the weight of the Shadow to see clearly. Atonement and penance likewise have their linguistic root in grappling and reckoning with accountability, and letting it become the Soil that we can grow from. The compost and soil that the roots of the soul can metabolize so that our branches can grow upwards again. For we all need to keep growing, and freezing ourselves into stagnation because of guilt or shame is a common but misguided response to pain.
Today we named ourselves Tribe 728.
We named our Tribe after the 728 years served by these men in order to remember and honor the victims and survivors of violent crime. We want to honor our ancestors and families, the victim’s ancestors and families, as well as the loved ones serving time with these men in blue. Violent crime destroys the family of the victim and the family of the perpetrator as well. No one escapes unscathed. So we must heal from within, and heal from both sides.
We ended the class by inviting the men to dedicate the merits of this work, of their healing, to their victims and survivors, and to the victims and survivors everywhere.
We heal ourselves so we can heal others. We cry together so we can help hold other’s tears. We never knew how. We are learning.