"I am an inmate who is sincere about his healing. Not everyone is pleased to hear an inmate talk about his healing; this may offend. However, healing has to take place. It is ironic that committing a crime and going to prison can be the catalyst to healing one's character.
"Many of us are broken, some share the same pieces. But not everyone takes the time to heal. I have been given a meaningful opportunity to be a part of Houses of Healing. It has given me the ability to understand myself and the tools to help me correct wrong behaviors. I am changing for the better, and I'm grateful for Houses of Healing."
The above was written by an inmate at a nearby state prison, as part of the Houses of Healing program facilitated by Maria Telesco and me. Thirty-year veteran (Maria) and the rookie (me) have been ride-along partners the past couple of years, taking the good news to local prisons.
Though we work under the name "The Prison Ministry of the Fresno Center for Nonviolence," we are not proselytizers of religion. Rather we minister to the sense of self-worth and possibility of the inmates we work with through this amazing curriculum, written by Robin Casarjian, a psychologist in Boston who specializes in prison issues.
HOH is a 13-lesson workshop comprising a text, a facilitator's workbook and DVDs — all used to stimulate in-depth discussion in a class setting. HOH addresses itself directly to prisoners and is filled with words and stories from incarcerated men and women Casarjian has worked with.
She has a profound understanding of the experiences, thoughts and feelings that both lead to and result from imprisonment. And she is here to tell the inmates: "You don't have to be trapped by your past. You can see yourself differently; you can learn to respond to your environment differently; you can experience forgiveness and the chance to be a better person."
As we proceed through the curriculum over a three- to fourmonth period, the changes in many group participants are palpable. Our charges are called on to work deeply, including homework involving consistent meditation and journaling practices.
They are called on to face difficult truths about their pasts and their presents, to experiment with alternative approaches to understanding and getting what they really want in life. Most of those who continue past the first couple of meetings come because they are desperate for change.
Some hope to be released and not return; others, the lifers, come because they believe they can build a better life for themselves and others even behind bars. I tell them that, in some ways, they are working more intensively and successfully at gaining inner freedom than most people on the outside. I'm not sure they believe me, but it's true.
From another inmate: "Houses of Healing has brought me so much insight on forgiveness. For many years, it was ingrained in my mind that I was a lost hope and deserved every moment in prison … and in many ways, I do. But it wasn't until I learned what it means to forgive myself that I was able to forgive others also.
"There is so much power in forgiveness. I can't change my past, only the decisions I make for my future. After 23 years in two prisons, one behind bars for my crime and another in my mind for not forgiving myself or others, I'm finally able to clearly look at myse
lf in the mirror and see a man forgiven for a past filled with pain."
Words may be easy to write, and some people may doubt the sincerity of what is written here by inmates. Are those cons just doing another con job, trying to look good for their parole hearings?
It is certainly possible. But being with these men as they take the difficult journey into their universally painful childhoods, as they look wrenchingly at how they've affected others by their harmful actions, as they make doubt-laden efforts at giving and receiving forgiveness, I am convinced that for most, their admissions are real.
For one thing, a critical aspect of our sessions is the work they do in small groups, where there is no authority to impress, and they are called on to show trust in one another, the biggest taboo in prison life. Almost weekly, exchanges happen that move me to tears.
If you would be interested in learning more about our work or even in joining us, please contact us in care of the Fresno Center for Nonviolence at (559) 237-3223.
Richard Stone resides in Fresno.