American Friends Service Committee
Patrica Watson, Editor
Sara Burke, Assistant Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
2161 Massachusetts Ave.
Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
Letters from the Inside
Imagine living in your bathroom
Diana Lion gave this talk to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship National Board. From Turning Wheel, Summer 2000.
Imagine that you live in a room the size of your bathroom, about 5 by 10 feet, with a person of the same gender whom you never met before. This space has two bunk beds, one locker for each of you to store your belongings, and an uncovered metal toilet at one end of the bunks with a small sink beside it. The standing space is so small that one of you must be on the bed if the other is off it. You can't sit up straight on either bed without hitting your head. Imagine that this is your home. And you are both living there for a whole day. Now imagine you are living there for a week...a month...a year. Or five or ten years.
During the days, you work in shipping and receiving. You remember two friends who you worked with for years, the only people you could be real with. But one got transferred suddenly and you never got to say goodbye; the other got stabbed in the yard. That's when you decided to never again get close to anyone--too painful. You work for 23 cents an hour--a raise from 17 cents.
You have attended 12-step groups and church services, and you play on the baseball team. You feel proud to have earned your G.E.D. while inside, and you even completed a few community college courses: you are the first person in your family to go to college! You've gone to some of the Alternatives to Violence Project groups--partly to meet new people from outside, because how else can you do that behind bars? But also because you've realized that the drugs and alcohol problems were sitting on top of some deep pain, and that those groups might provide some healing for the rage that surfaces when things get tight. You've realized for the first time that the beatings your Dad gave your Mom, your brothers, and you might have been connected with the fury that explodes out of you at times, like the froth from a Coke that's been shaken vigorously. That insight gave you hope about maybe being able to change.
Imagine you've got only four months left in this place. Excitement and fear are competing inside you. Freedom--you can almost taste it! What a kick to drink a beer when you want, and scratch your butt without anyone watching. To get up in the morning when you like, and earn more than 23 cents an hour. To be able to touch your girlfriend or boyfriend with no one else watching. Free--to cross the street, buy a soda, see your kid, and smell the night air. And scared--knowing you're gonna walk out the gate with just $200 in your pocket and what you've got on your back. With a prison felony record, and the only people you still know being your Mom and some drug dealers. Your parole officer may keep you on a tight leash. (About 70 percent of ex-cons are back within a few months for some "serious" parole violation, like being in the wrong neighborhood, or calling their parole officer five minutes late.)
You're worried that the stress may get to you, and it's a short ride back if you turn to the relief of that sweet feeling--mellowed out, smooth, energized, confident, unafraid--who wouldn't want that? Still, that choice you might make to go back to drugs is nothing more than your one-way ticket back.
Imagine being told to find a job when you have no clothes to interview in; no home address to give; no phone number people can reach you at. Imagine trying to find an intimate relationship. Trying to accept someone and love them in a way you've never had a chance to learn. Imagine trying to be cool about all the changes since you were last on the streets: pagers, cell phones, clothes, music, street names, freeway exits, even area codes.
You're out of prison but you're afraid of the prison
that still resides in your mind--which, of course, is totally
So I'm able to be versatile and survive
The following is a letter written to interns at AGAPE, a nonviolent intentional community in Massachusetts, from a man now 27 whom AGAPE staff have known since he was seven. He is serving a three-year prison term in Massachusetts.
The first thing that comes to mind is how are we going to relate. It's almost as if I don't know if you and Dave speak the same language as me. I speak in African Ebonics (mostly) and phrases, broken English, and use examples as references to the point I'm trying to make. Urbanite language as it is commonly called.
Second about me, well my skin is colored so I'm called a black man. My earth, which means mother earth from which I came, is white. So how do I deal with that, well I must go by what people see, I'm black. But I am unique cause I can go from talking in my people's language (ebonics) to talking professionally (white). So I'm somewhat of an actor or chameleon able to be versatile and survive. I love my mother for who she is and what she represents and means to me. Example, she taught a boy to be a man and being white she helped me find out the meaning of my blackness. So I sit here writing you this letter as what I was when I was born, a black man.
My Prison Life: Imagine waking up with 3000 killers, rapists, mob members, gang members, bank robbers, people who have sex with children, etc...Eat breakfast with these people. Live your life day to day with them. The air is filled with violence. Violence with the guards, violence with the prisoners. I have to always watch my back 24/7. I must be ready for offense (to fight) and defense (defend myself) on the drop of a dime anywhere. Whites and blacks don't mix in here. Whites stay with whites, blacks stay with blacks, and latins stay with latins. You can't even be put on the same tier (level, landing) never mind the same cell with anyone other than your race. Men get their manhood taken often. So people get stabbed with forks etc...in the chow hall like 400 people at a time, weights dropped on them. The Guards literally destroy the human body when they lug (this means take you out of the population) people.
So I have to worry about violence from inmates and violence from Guards 24/7. So people get (expletive) up all the time. Second, these are no over hyping, these are facts which are accessible to the public. Dirt, lust, disease, disaster all exploding constantly.
The only anchor I have is Love. Love for my folks at home which sustains me. Cause I have to adapt to survive. I fought my whole life not to become a monster and I won't let them win now. Sometimes I forget who I am until I come back and read my letters or have time to myself. Have you ever seen a man broken, after he had his manhood taken, and on top he's got freedom taken? Just imagine the eyes of the animals you see in the zoo. What do you notice? The Sadness in the eyes. The break-down of the mind. You might see the lion walk around in circles for hours losing his mind--all he knows is that he must get free. When in fact you don't see a lion in the true sense his spirit, you see his shell, a ghost. Also, it's like being on a slave ship, and being a slave. I don't know if you guys ever read books by Alex Haley but I can't give you a better example of prison.
Everything is designed to break down the mind systematically. Which to me is a mental war cause if you ask me my mind power is my best attribute.
Violence, yes I'm violent. I know how to break a man down with my hands. I'm immune to violence, ask any kid from the city. What turns your stomach and gives you nightmares for weeks is an everyday occurrence here. Example, your best friend gets shot in the head two feet away from you in broad day light. His brain splats on your face. Happened to me before. Very common here in the city. I do condone violence. If a man tries to take someone in my family life I feel I should be able to handle it whether it be hand-to-hand combat or guns. I have scars 360 degrees around my face and head from violence. I was left there alone as a child to be a man with no means of survival in a violent world but violence.
Love, love has saved my life. I been privileged in life to know true love. Many people never get a chance to know love. I teach love to the kids. I live my life, make my own choices, I could have gone to college and been a mathematician. Bad decisions keep me from doing so. Love keeps me alive in the streets. Love lets me want to live. I have so many things to be grateful for.
I've sacrificed a lot giving in to the vices of poverty...I've sacrificed my freedom on my own free will. My staying power fell or faltered for a moment. All things happen for a reason. This time in here could be saving my life. I mean I survived crack (as in crack cocaine) wars, maybe the next one I wouldn't have survived. I have numerous friends who aren't here today. Friends I played marbles with, took baths with as children, went to summer camp with. Also friends in here doing 18-20 years. On this very tier I have three close friends from the street. One is doing 18-20 years. One is doing 10 years and a day, and another is doing 7-10 years. Murder, attempted murder, and masked arm robbery.
So to answer the question my roommate asked me, are we crazy or insane? I don't know.
Anyone interested in writing, visiting, or supporting this
prisoner and his family while he is in jail, please contact Agape,
Church people used to donate warm jackets; the warden canceled that
Susan Crane, via Jonah House, Baltimore, MD <firstname.lastname@example.org>]
I write from the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women (MCIW), where I am serving a 27 month sentence--a consequence of civil resistance to our country's warmaking. I am no stranger to jail and prison; I am no stranger to life with the most marginalized of our society--the poor, the mentally ill, those who have experienced so much misery in their lives that drugs seem a way to deaden the pain. In this prison I live with women who have been over-charged and over-sentenced by the criminal injustice system, with women who are innocent, and with women who defended themselves against battering husbands. As often as I have experienced them, I can never get used to conditions that are not only inhuman but unnecessary.
There are large issues which deserve investigation if we call this a "Correctional Institution"! Job training, education, rehab, counseling, medical care, and exercise programs are grossly inadequate. It can take two or more weeks to see a medical person and get any treatment; meanwhile the prisoner--who might be contagious--continues to go to her work even if it's food preparation or serving. Jackets, protection against wet and cold, is a small issue but it makes a difference. In this--the only prison for women in Maryland--we walk to and from work, mess hall, and clinic. Though it is often cold and wet, the prison issues only a light wind-breaker and a tee-shirt. Some women are able, through a one-time package from home or through a catalogue order, to get appropriate clothing. Some, who work outside, are given a jacket. I was dismayed to learn of a woman whose prison job requires that she walk to all the buildings on the compound wearing only a thermal shirt and tee shirt. She is a large woman; the prison does not stock her size--even in a windbreaker. She is cold; many are cold.
In the past, this problem was addressed by church people who donated
warm jackets for needy prisoners. The warden cancelled that program.
In an ironic twist, many women work at a sewing-shop here and
make sweatshirts for distribution to men in state prisons. But
the women have no sweatshirts. This problem can be solved; call
on Marsha Maloff (410-799-5550), Warden, MCIW to reinstate the
jacket program. Call on William Sondervan, Commissioner, Division
of Corrections (410-585-3300) to ensure that she do it.