San Quentin

This weekend, I went to Prison.

It wasn’t the first time. I guess you could say I’m a repeat offender.

I went willingly. I even raced there, on an empty tank of gas. As I passed the ferries of the free in Larkspur, there was a break in the storm clouds. Golden light outlined grey shapes in the sky, as waterfowl congregated on the bay below. I remembered a time, years ago, when I travelled the same rainy road to nearby Tiburon, in service to the Sakyong of the Great Eastern Sun. I never saw him in person, but the point was to serve, attending to my basic goodness, to his, to everyone’s. My heart lifted as I touched in on that spot of bodhichitta. And then I started to laugh in delight at synchronicity, as the radio confirmed my mood. (Turn it up.).

I waited at the East Gate, to have my identity confirmed. I personally had the most excellent of company in a friend (I love you America!) and there were many of us. Some of us held brochures, some of us held boxes of lettuce starts, all of us held anticipation.

Past the first guard, we were chauffered to the next check point. Ridges and hills hold San Quentin on three sides, coyote bush and coastal sage in bizarre contrast to the cement, the barbed wire, the intimidating artifice of an institution that defines authority. It is not a little bit ironic to me that this vestige of preserved wildness also houses its antithesis. As we rounded the last corner, a coyote crossed right in front of our car. Leaping across the road and then sauntering up onto the ridge line, it paused, looking out at the water, acknowledging us with the barest of glances. We were all enchanted by its beauty, the thick technicolor dreamcoat, the penetrating eyes that seared right through us, through space, through metal and glass. A witness to truth and soul.

At the next check point we were identified again, and detected for metal. Entering the yard, I saw the other visitors. Gulls and Canada Geese stroll about the muddy grass. The epitome of freedom, with ability to go anywhere, the grounds of San Quentin are where they fold their wings. I passed the sign prohibiting the feeding of wildlife, and then we all crowded into a small classroom, to wait. Waiting, I realize, is the first and most prominent thing one does at prison.

Finally, we walked back across the yard to the chow hall, passing a small garden and a sweat lodge, wonderful and ridiculously wild in such a controlled place. Inside the dining room, sparrows that have figured out how to work the system swoop from ceiling fans to scavenge crumbs. We took our name tags, put up our banners, and settled down to wait some more.

I have had the honor several times before to volunteer as an ecopsychologist at the Insight Garden Program. Beth Waitkus, the program director, connected with Holos a year ago at the Bioneer conference. Since then, a few of us interns have attended her class, helping to guide the men through meditation, visualization, inquiry and reflection. Working within Beth’s frame, we help them make the connection between the cycles of the natural world, and their own internal life. The men we work with are not violent offenders. Most are in for substance abuse and robbery. All of them are wounded. All of them have stories. And all of them bring me to my knees.

This saturday, America and I were there to represent Holos at a “Green Career Fair” that Beth organized. Two dozen organizations were in attendance, offering hope upon re-entry into life after incarceration. There is one story that I have heard the men tell, over and over. It is of fear and anxiety over being released. They don’t want to go back to prison, they want a fresh start, and it is the promise of new life that both sustains them through punishment, and also keeps them up at night. Most do not have family to support them, many are ineligible for a well paying job, there is no permanent shelter or way to avoid the same ol’ crowd and crew that brought them trouble in the first place. Three strikes become inevitable.

On this day, while most tables offered pamphlets and job opportunities, my colleague and I offered an empathetic ear. We heard tales of loss and hope, of lives that lacked resources right out of the starting gate, of life before that remembered a grandmother’s roses, of watching whales in Hawaii, of backyard gardens and intrepid aphids. I could talk to these guys all day, and then come back the next for more. And oh, how they can talk.

Towards the end of the morning, I saw a student from Beth’s class that always remembers me from the first time I came. He knows I have a young daughter, and always begins each contact by asking after her. Part Native American, his spirituality is his lifeline behind walls. He regularly takes part in the sweat lodge ceremonies, and his sentences are peppered with natural metaphors. He caught us up with his going ons, currently working hard to write letters to family and friends, trying to weave his world back together. Like so many of the prisoners I have met, it becomes apparent to me that he is a wounded healer. Scraping his knees on his own rock bottom, his heart has opened wider and wider. There is so much he knows about redemption, encountering darkeness, digging deep and the possibility of restoring wholeness.

To each of you at San Quentin, I bow in humility. To each person who no longer knows privacy or the sanctity of being treated like a human, I learn more about grace through you than the most celebrated teacher. YOU are teachers, you, who are learning about the potential of planting seeds, of protecting what sustains us, because YOU know what it is like to have it all taken away.

The thought that occurs to me most frequently during these visits is…The real crime in the lives of these men is not being addressed. The infractions are symptoms of wounded nature.  The prison system is punitive, but it does not rehabilitate. Here is a great post by Ph.D M. Nagler on the need for a non-violent  approach to the criminal “justice” system.

Have a great week!


6 thoughts on “San Quentin

  1. Dude. This was beautiful. And somehow timely for me. I read your links to the Shambhala Sun and The Sakyong… Can you reccommend any books for me? I’d like to find out more both about Buddhism and Shambhala. My nana was an advocate for peace through gardening, she believed that gardening made people better versions of themselves, and she had the best garden…i promise to include pics of our little garden over on my blog soon. Prisons. I have too much to say about this. The premise of a jailing period for someone whose actions are deemed harmful to society……with other people deemed unfit… dehumanizing. And without rehabilitation, of course there is a high possibility of re-offending. I visited my brother in jail, he was only 18, it was an odd circumstance, my lasting memory is of the man (who seriously looked to me to be about 14) who made me a coffee (he was on tearoom duty). And the gigantic gates. My brother fondly reminisces about being taken out on the truck to go to work…low offenders got taken out to farms to help out, and he was able to do that once a week. They got to swim in the river. Thankful for small blessings. I’m glad there are people like you who are willing to open their hearts and minds so wide.
    Also, I got your email, and emailed you back too.

    1. teeny, i came to shambhala by way of pema chodron. “when things fall apart” is my favorite by her, but they’re all great.

      ok, and now i want you to post pictures of your garden AND your nana’s garden. your memories about visiting prison, and also your brother’s experience, are really amazing. i love the detail about the coffee.

      and i got your email! gonna do email tomorrow morning. xo

  2. i have such confusing feelings about prison, and the whole system. i don’t feel like writing it all out here. but over tea, yes , please! when can you meet? i loved reading this, feeling like i got to be there right along with you. what an experience. what a kind brave human thing to do. i hope you have a great week too. i’m so ready for great. come on greatness!!!

  3. wow, what a cool program to be involved with….. interesting and rewarding on so many levels. each time i have ever driven near san quentin, i get a real sense of awe……it’s all those stories you’ve talked about here.

    1. it’s a totally powerful spot…but the prison twists that power is such a strange way. it’s like where dreams go to die, or be attended to with everything the men have got. heavy.

  4. Such a beautifully written and powerful post Mary. Wow, what an amazing program to be involved in. Thanks so much for sharing this experience with us! I enjoyed seeing these men illuminated by the light of your words and I imagine them feeling that same light as they shared their stories with you 🙂

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