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.

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