Walking Through the Yard

One day I was walking down the paved ramp at San Quentin State Prison, towards the yard to my destination, the education building. I like walking down this leisurely quiet route verses the stairway, which seems so abrupt and crowded. I admire the greenery on the side of the pavement; the agapanthus in various states of bloom, the blackberries and their occasional large fresh, juicy berry. I enjoy the mixed brick and mortar texture of the ancient brown, gold and tan colored walls, cracked, full of story, like old parchment.

Usually I walk this route between classes, so it provides me with a few seconds of solitude, as no inmates are allowed on the ramp. I’ll use these moments to “reset” my energy between groups, clear the slate, take a few bites of my flatbread and almond butter sandwich or a sip of water and breathe in the birdsong as it trills between the coils of razor wire. Those few moments of contemplation shift gears as the ramp rounds the corner into the large, open yard, consisting of a track, tennis courts, football field, baseball diamond, exercise areas, basketball court and several picnic tables where various games and activities take place daily.

On this particular day, as I rounded the corner, I was taken aback by how crowded the yard was, even for a Friday. I had never seen so many men here. My normal path around the perimeter of the yard was not accessible. My breath stopped short. I was going to have to walk straight through what looked like one large crowd of hundreds and hundreds of men, many without shirts, all standing, running, or sitting very close to each other.

As I approached the corner of the yard, I felt eyes shift towards me. I did not want to show my vulnerability by pausing. “Use this as an opportunity” I said to myself. “All these beings together in one place-what a great moment to generate compassion and bodhicitta!” I embraced my vulnerability, raised my eyes and walked forward, breathing in a prayer of peace and out a prayer of protection for myself, all these men, and the guards, all-one, no one alone.

In that very moment, as if by design, the alarm went off in the yard. In a single motion the hundreds of men sunk to the ground on their knees in silence, as if praying with me, bolstering my prayers for them, for us. Who but The Divine could have orchestrated this moment?

It was like the parting of the waters. Now the hundreds of men I thought I was going to have to pass face to face, were all kneeling down, lower than me. As an outside “free” person, us volunteers are the only ones besides the guards who move when an alarm is called. My path to the education building was suddenly clear. I did not have to weave or wind my way through anyone, as the men were frozen until the alarm was called off.

I continued my way through this miracle, saying hellos to the upturned eyes but imagining the power that could be generated if all of us on the yard at this moment WERE praying for the protection and welfare of all sentient beings. Behind my sunglasses, my eyes filled with the grace of this experience, this blessing. My heart swelled with love, which I imagined going out to all of the men and birds around me. “Hail Mary full of Grace! Shine your love on these men as they kneel!”

As I crossed the basketball court and walked through the gate to the ramp leading to the education building, the alarm was called off. Instantly, the yard went back to its high degree of activity and hubbub as if nothing had ever happened.

But something did.

Prison Chaplaincy: The Mike Tyson Talk

Stamper-MichaelReflection on the Mike Tyson Talk

By Rev. Michael Stamper, Ph.D., Chaplaincy Institute, Board Treasurer

I gave a talk about Mike Tyson and the issue of sexual abuse at several Florida prisons in the fall of 2014, the first being the Zen Buddhist sangha at Lake CI in Clermont. I was uncertain about the reaction that I was going to receive, and was nervous giving the talk for the first time. I have a neurological disorder that results in tremors and the intensity of those tremors is a pretty good indicator of the level of stress that I am experiencing. My built in stress-o-meter was registering “high.”

The second thing I noticed was that the talk made many of the men uncomfortable. It is an explosive topic. Sex abuse statistics are sketchy but what little exists suggests that a majority of inmates were sexually abused as children. Moreover, a significant portion of the prisoner population are sex offenders. Within the walls of a prison, no one is more despised than a child molester/sex offender. They experience isolation, verbal abuse and physical abuse. They are truly outcasts amongst the outcasts. And understandably, many are in the closet about their offense, and live in fear of being “outted.”

Moreover, the men in our dharma group were not expecting this topic. So, they were on their heels from the start. But, after a short period of awkwardness, some of the guys opened up and we had a discussion – a bit stilted – but a discussion nonetheless. One theme that resonated was the idea that the forgiver benefits from the forgiving. There was considerable discussion about this point, often illustrated with examples from their own lives. None of the examples, however, dealt with sexual abuse. The topic of forgiveness was comfortable to talk about, the topic of child sexual abuse was not.

When I came back to the prison the following week, I noticed a vehicle from the county medical examiner parked on the prison grounds. Once I was in the chapel, I was informed that an inmate had hung himself in the shower of his dormitory. The inmate apparently was a sex offender and had been hounded by the other inmates: suffering both physical and verbal abuse. When his body was removed from the shower, some inmates had lined up and cheered/jeered, chanting: “cho mo” (child molester).

That morning two men came to me and shared their experiences of being in prison as sex offenders. As they told their stories, I noticed that the energy in the room shift. As the facades were dropped and the rawness and honesty of the real person emerged. I was pulled deeper into the intensity of the NOW. I was so focused on the experience that I was having that at several points I began hallucinating – I would look at a face and see light emanating from it – and the areas around the face fell out of focus and broke up like cubist paintings.

That afternoon, instead of giving a dharma talk, we let the guys talk and process what had happened. Two of them had written reflections that they shared. This discussion was much more open than the previous week. Much of the discussion was about the nature of prison life: anger at the abuse that inmates receive from the Corrections Officers, and anger at the abuse they receive from bully inmates. Frustration was expressed that kindness and compassion are usually seen as weakness and that an “every man for himself” attitude becomes the norm. And, although no one knew the deceased personally, several of the men expressed regret that they had not done more to reach out to him and alleviate his isolation. Some admitted that they had avoided talking to him out of a fear that in doing so, they would become outcasts themselves.

While the substance of what was shared was moving, I was most impressed by the fact that the discussion took place at all: that the men opened up and exposed more of their inner lives. They demonstrated a level of vulnerability that I rarely see in prison – or out of prison, for that matter. It was an honor simply to be there as a witness.