Fleet Shinryu Maull Dharma Talk: Rumblings from the Inside


Rumblings from the Inside

by Fleet Shinryu Maull

Just the other day at mail call, which immediately follows the 4 p.m. “standing, bedside count,” I received a very kind letter from Ms. Carol Evans, a social worker at an inner city New Orleans hospice, thanking me for the prison hospice literature and training materials I’d sent her to help her organization establish an inmate-staffed prison hospice program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola to serve the many lifers who die at this historically infamous maximum security prison.

She also expressed her gratitude for the critical support they’d received from the staff of the National Prison Hospice Association (NPHA). Based on my experience in the pioneering inmate-staffed prison hospice program established here at the Springfield, Missouri U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in 1987, I founded NPHA in 1991 to promote this highly successful approach to the care of dying prisoners throughout the country. So it’s difficult for me to express the deep gratitude and satisfaction I felt in reading Ms. Evans’ letter.

Shortly before that, at a weekly meeting of the alcohol and drug abuse recovery fellowship I’ve attended regularly here for almost 12 years now, we were blessed with the presence of five outside sponsors and long time friends of our group, several of whom we hadn’t seen in a while. It was an exceptionally good meeting. Two of the outside sponsors, when it was their turn to share, spoke about how important our meeting was to their own recovery and spiritual growth, including the role I have had in that as one of the few long time members here.

It probably sounds like I’m beating my own drum here, but the point of this account is actually to reveal something about prison life and our society’s approaches to the punishment and/or rehabilitation of those who break our laws and violate the community trust — those we call criminals. The experiences I relate above would make anyone feel good, in or out of prison; but the reason that I am so grateful for such kind recognition is that in prison such experiences are rare, almost unavailable.

Instead, day in and day out, the prison environment communicates one thing to prisoners–shame. As we go about our day, it’s built into the wake-ups, the body counts, our prison jobs, the mainline stampedes to the mess hall and the body searches upon leaving, the periodic room shakedowns and urine drops for drug testing, and the “bend them over and spread’em” full body searches coming and going from the visiting room. There are continual messages built into the system and consciously and unconsciously reinforced by staff and prisoners alike reminding us that we are second class human beings at best–just a body to count, of no real value other than as grist for the mill of the growth-oriented corrections industry. Even when staff and prisoners exchange pleasantries or good-natured banter, the subtle or not so subtle message is almost always there: “You’re an inmate, a thug, a criminal; I’m not. I am a human being. I count; you don’t.”

I’m often amazed at how well prisoners seem to get along in such a negative and disheartening atmosphere. But the truth is we pay a great price for this adaptation. We steel ourselves with layers and layers of anger and bitterness, shielding ourselves from the external barrage of condemnation and the internal world of vulnerability and pain–the fear and loneliness in our gut.

Buried under a mountain of guilt, shame, and demonization heaped upon us from day one of our arrest onward by prosecutors, judges, jailors, the media, politicians, correctional staff, and society, we have a very difficult time making contact with the appropriate and genuine feelings of guilt and remorse we need to acknowledge in order to begin a process of change and healing. Instead we tend to project our shame and self-hatred outward in the form of anger, bitterness, and hostility toward the system and its representatives–the prison staff or the police, being the most readily available.

Most of us don’t walk around with grim faces all day, and there’s actually a lot of jailhouse humor and carrying on. But just scratch the surface a little with almost any prisoner, and you will find raw anger, even explosive anger if you’re not careful. Just ask the right question, and most of us will launch into our story–a well-rehearsed monologue describing in great detail how bad we’ve been abused and maligned by the government, prosecutors and judges, our own attorneys, our former crime partners turned informants, and eventually by our wives or girlfriends, if we’ve been down long enough for our unrelationships to unravel (a few months or a year at best, usually). It’s a rare prisoner who acknowledges any part he might have had in all this personal and social chaos and pain. Our stories are instead all about anger, blame, justification, and resentment. It’s all about them; never us.

Some of us eventually tire of hearing ourselves telling this same bitter story over and over again. We also tire of hearing our fellow prisoners’ stories and become skilled at avoiding them. I became thoroughly bored with my own story many years ago, and I am always quite chagrined when some chance encounter with another prisoner and their story gets me going, even momentarily, on mine again. I admit to avoiding newcomers and their stories like the plague, but when I do stumble into one, I try to listen with compassion, remembering my deep need to vent anger and frustration with someone after my own trial and sentencing.

Bo Lozoff, the author of We’re All Doing Time and founder of the Human Kindness Foundation, publishes a quarterly newsletter sent to approximately 20,000 prisoners and read by many more. He explains that the problem with our past and current approaches to penology, namely the rehabilitation and punishment models, between which the pendulum of social policy and politics has swung back and forth over the years, is that they both make the prisoner the sole focus of attention, thus reinforcing the already strong narcissistic character traits which brought most of us to prison in the first place.

Those favoring rehabilitation have primarily pushed the treatment model, making the prisoner the focal point of various psychodynamic, cognitive, and behavior modification treatment strategies, in effect turning prisoners into clients or patients. The punishment model does essentially the same thing, except in this case the treatment combines callous, lock-em-up warehousing with continual reinforcement of prisoners’ self-hatred: “You’re no good, you’re a criminal, an animal, a thug,” which leads to: “I’m no good, I’m a criminal, I’m an animal, a thug.”

Neither approach encourages, much less empowers, prisoners to take responsibility for what they’ve done, to make amends, or to change themselves and their future. The current system demands that prisoners be docile, institutionalized consumers of penology, whatever form that takes. The most recent trend is to turn prisoners into good low-wage workers for prison industries and good consumers of prison commissary stores and lucrative telephone contract services, creating wealth for well-placed companies in the newly emerging criminal justice industrial complex.

This punishment model will only produce waves of angry, bitter, desperate, broken men coming out of prison year after year. The currently out-of-fashion treatment model tends to produce dependent, narcissistic ex-cons who feel they should continue to be centers of attention upon release, treating their families and communities as if they were somehow owed a lifetime of special treatment and support.

Lozoff suggests that we instead take the seemingly radical approach of treating prisoners with kindness, decency and respect while empowering them to take responsibility for changing their own lives through work, education and service. He encourages us to find avenues of service, volunteer activities responding to needs inside and outside prison, as a way of getting out of ourselves and our stories and focusing instead on the needs of others.

The hospice program here at the U.S. Medical Center where I’ve been incarcerated since December 1985 is one such avenue. Started in 1987 by a wheelchair-bound, paraplegic prisoner and two staff sponsors, this first of its kind inmate-staffed hospice volunteer program has now ministered to the needs of over 325 terminally ill patients and become a national model for other prison hospices starting up all over the country.

Not only have these patients not had to die a lonely, bleak death devoid of the caring presence of another human being, but scores of volunteers and patients alike have had the opportunity to move beyond the resentment, blame, and justification game and deal with the real issues of their lives and the real consequences of their past. Death has become the great teacher, guiding us to discover the basic goodness inherent in ourselves and others and the compassion which flows naturally from an open heart.