December 13, 2002
Dear Inside Circle Supporters,
It’s time for our year-end report and fund raising drive. With Spirit’s guidance and your support we have made it through another year. If we are to continue this important work next year we’re going to need your help again, as we are nearly out of money. Some of the breakthroughs we’ve made this year have been nothing short of miraculous. Here at years end we have although, suffered a minor setback as the State has completely cut the funding for the creative writing program, as well as all of the arts programs in all prisons statewide. First, an update.
The group in Old Folsom continues to grow but at a very slow rate. The community resource manager only lets the group meet every other Thursday night in the visiting area. He has also indicated that men who want to join the group must be approved by the warden which has drastically slowed the rate in which men can join. It is happening but is very slow. The men continue to work but are hoping that we can meet every week. We also want to get another group started as there are many men who have seen the difference in the men from the original group and want to be a part of the process. Since the training two years ago, (the first one we did) only two men are now not in the group, one who paroled and another who dropped out for personal reasons. All the others continue to work and grow to integrate what they have learned into their daily lives. Don and I continue to facilitate this group.
CSP-Sac, A Yard
Antoine continues to lead and set the pace for this group. I doubt that we would have a group in A Yard if Antoine had not stepped down from his status on B Yard and gone over to A. For those that don’t know Antoine was the number two man in a statewide prison gang. He was a major “shot caller” among his race, which is black. He has served 25 years on a “seven to life” sentence for kidnap which is almost unheard of. Most convicts serve about 10 to 15 years on a 7 to life and are paroled. After being in the men’s group for about three years on B Yard and going through the four day training he decided to debrief, quit the gang and go into protective custody on A yard. I believe that because of the men’s group he understood that the parole board was never going to let him parole until he stepped down from his position in the gang. He did so, and continues to do so, at great risk to himself and his family. I believe that he began to believe in himself as an accountable man and see himself in a new way. He knew that his gang affiliation would always hold him back.
Most convicts believe that they can never get out of a gang once they join and in fact some have literally died trying. Antoine continues to set the example for other men who are considering reclaiming their lives and getting out of prison for good. It is by no means easy, but it can be done.
In any case A Yard houses men who are, for one reason or another, in protective custody. Antoine continues to wade through these individuals to find men who are ready to make a change in their lives. The group there is strong and we are to have another four day training scheduled for February 19th – 23rd in 2003. Contact Bob Petersen for staffing details.
CSP-Sac, B Yard
Toward the beginning of 2002 the administration downtown designated B yard a SHU kickout yard. What this meant was that they needed a yard somewhere in the statewide system where they could send men who had served a lengthy term in a SHU. A SHU stands for Segregated Housing Unit. Or, “the hole”. If a man commits a crime in prison he can be sentenced for a period of time in an isolation unit. Pelican Bay and Corcoran are two of these kinds of facilities.
In the past after a man had served his SHU term he would normally be sent back to a mainline facility. Now they are sent to B yard in New Folsom to see if they can make it there without causing any problems. If they make it there they can then be returned to a mainline prison somewhere. This had a disastrous effect on the men’s group on B Yard.
The Yard has been on lockdown status for almost the whole year. We have only been able to meet with everyone twice for all of 2002. Currently only the “blacks”, not including “crips”, and “others” are not on lockdown. Fortunately most of the men in the groups on B Yard have been able to transfer over to C Yard. The number of men in the groups have dwindled down to ten and we meet on Sundays when we can. For those of you who have been inside on B yard “Indio” and “Younglife” continue to lead and set the pace for the group in a strong way.
CSP-Sac, C Yard
We have achieved absolute miracles on this yard this year. As I said most of the men from B Yard were able to transfer to C Yard. This has had a profound effect on the groups, of which there are three and soon to become four. There are about 20 to 25 men that attend every group, of which over half have attended the four day training. What this means is that many of the men have stepped up and are facilitating the new men coming in.
We currently have a lengthy waiting list of men who want to join hence we will be starting a new group early in 2003. We have also scheduled a four day training for the 21st through the 25th of May. Again, anyone wishing to be on staff for that training should be in contact with Bob Petersen.
In the past we have pretty much operated under the radar screen of the administration. That is to say Chaplain Merino would schedule the trainings, we would get an ok to do them, we would disappear into the Chapel and come out four days later. The prison staff didn’t really know what we were doing in there. As long as there were no custody problems, which there weren’t, they pretty much left us alone.
That all changed in August of this year when the Associate Warden, Mark Chastain, in charge of C Yard, came in the Chapel on three different occasions during the four day training. It is difficult to describe what it is we do exactly during the four day trainings. Those of you who have participated in anything like this know what I mean. When deep spiritual psychological transformation takes place it is difficult to say how or why it does.
In our trainings we have told the prison administrators and staff that we basically create an environment where a man can experience any or all of his emotions in a new and safe way. On the one or two occasions when someone has asked, “How do you handle anger and rage?”, we have always responded, “Carefully”. I could see them wince as they signed off on the training request.
I have always seen that no one has had any problems with allowing these men to feel and experience emotions like sadness or fear or any of the other emotions, but with anger I could always sense the apprehension to go there. The truth is we have found safe ways to allow a man to go completely into his anger and rage and not hurt himself or anyone else. Sometimes it does include restraining a man. For these men it is almost always the first emotion that has to be dealt with, as it is anger that keeps all the other emotions bottled up inside the man in the first place.
When a man can descend into that dark place, in a safe way, and explore why he has shut himself off in the first place, he can, more often than not, begin to reconstruct himself in a way that no longer requires the suffocating armor that he created to protect himself. When he can bring out the tender caring part of himself, when it is safe, that he has locked away for decades, his armor begins to melt away by itself. When he can begin to make his gifts available to himself and those around him the changes that takes place in that mans life is always, nothing short of miraculous.
At any rate I have always been apprehensive about what the administration would think and do if they truly knew and understood what we were doing in the groups and in the four day trainings. We go as deep as a man needs to in order to get to the core of his life and I have been afraid that the administration might not trust us, as well as the man himself, going that deep.
One day when the Associate Warden, Mark Chastain, dropped in we were separated into four circles with approximately 15 men in each circle. In one circle there was a grief/death process going on with nearly everyone in tears. In another, men of every color were laughing and hugging each other. In the corner of the chapel one group had a man pinned as he raged on and on. The last circle was on break with everyone wandering in and out of the other process’ and sharing one on one with each other, paying little or no attention to whatever was going on around them. One of the convicts, a huge 250 pound black man, not knowing who Mr. Chastain was, came over to him and squeezed him in a giant body hug, saying hello.
He stopped in two more times over the weekend. During his last visit on the final day the convicts and the volunteers were doing a naming ceremony honoring the work they had done and professing the gratitude everyone felt about being there. The irony was, during that very touching moment Mr. Chastain was called to deal with an inmate suicide that took place in 5 block. Such is prison.
I didn’t really know how he would respond to everything he had seen during the training. I felt he was somewhat stunned by what he had witnessed. It didn’t take long to find out what his reaction was. Every Monday morning the Warden holds a meeting with all the Associate Wardens, Captains and departments heads from each Facility briefing her on what had happened in each facility and go over planning for the week to come.
I was told that during the meeting Associate Warden Chastain spoke for over a half hour about what he had witnessed during the training. He said that in the twenty some odd years he had worked for the Department he had never witnessed anything so powerful and promising as the training we had provided. He said that if the Department was to seriously approach anything even remotely resembling rehabilitation that this was the way to do it. He spoke about making it available to every inmate inside CSP-Sac and how to make it available to other institutions around the state.
In other words he understands and supports the work we are doing 100% and the Warden does as well. The difference in the support we are receiving from custody staff all the way down the line is like day and night. They help us in any way that they can and want to see us succeed. We have been told that, especially on C Yard, the incidents of violence are down and they are giving us some measure of credit for that. I have known all along that we are making a difference, only now the administration understands it as well.
As of yesterday I was notified that the creative writing classes I have been teaching will no longer be funded as of January 15th, 2003. As a result of the current statewide fiscal shortfall the entire Arts-In-Correction program has been slashed from the budget. Other than the money we get from donations that was the only reliable source of income I had. I will continue to teach my classes even though I will no longer be paid for it. It has been, and will continue to be, an integral part of our program. Almost all my students in the writing class eventually join the men’s group and as well, many of men from the men’s group are discovering creative writing as another tool available to them for self discovery. As a result I need your support more than ever.
We are currently almost completely out of money. It is our hope that we can put a serious dent in our yearly expenditures with this campaign drive. I will quite literally be unable to pay my mortgage in February and we will be unable to do the February training on A Yard, if some money does not come in. It has been an extremely humbling experience for me to depend on contributions to pay my expenses these past few years. I have always taken great pride in the fact that I have paid my own way as a talented carpenter. If I have to I will go back to that, but it will be at the expense of one or more of the groups. I know in my heart that this work in the prison is what I was created to do. I have felt shame about the years I seemingly threw away shooting heroin and doing time, but inside the prison they have value. Everything I have been through in my past has prepared me for doing this work and it is clearly what I do best. I need your help to be able to do it.
If you can’t contribute financially maybe you or somebody you know out there knows how to write grants and put them in front of the right people. We need as many people as we can find to step up and carry a piece of this thing. It does us no good to tell us to try this foundation or that foundation, we need someone to go after them. Maybe you can put together an event in your community to help raise funds. I am willing to go anywhere at any time to talk about the prison work and raise public awareness around this deeply troubling condition in our culture.
I strongly believe that the old methods of addressing crime and punishment are bankrupt at every level. I also know, as those of you that have been inside to help us know, that what we are doing is working. Until the people of our society requires our government to take a responsible approach to this problem and fund programs that are effective it will be up to people like us. We are making a big difference in the prisons. Please help us keep it going. We are now also able to receive your contribution electronically through our web site, at www.insidecircle.org
Peace and Blessings