Seeing Beyond Orange: My Weekend in Jail (Part II of II)
Last week, I wrote about the first day (Saturday, June 13) of the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshop on nonviolent communication (NVC) that I participated in at the San Francisco County Jail. This post covers my experiences on the second day, Sunday, June 14.
It was about 8.30am. We greeted each other with our adjectives and names. Mellow Marilyn was feeling like she was in a community of friends that morning. That’s because she was.
Our activities took us deeper into our chosen themes of fear, anger, low self-esteem, and poor communication skills. First we discussed responses to fear, and soon enough I noticed that some of the responses we were suggesting for the given scenario (a 14-year-old female is at home alone and a seemingly unstable male arrives at the door looking for someone to retrieve a loan from) included lies, like “Let me get my Sheriff Uncle from upstairs.”
My integrity meter began to flare, because the guidelines for NVC state that we must take a position of truth. I brought it up and we discussed the intersections of fear and authenticity, as well as honesty and safety. I realized that as a human being and as a facilitator, I’d be pondering this issue for a long time to come. How might we address fear in ways that have integrity? How might we be honest and stay safe in dangerous situations?
After lunch I noticed that one of the inmates, Quintessential Quinton*, who had been on the phone when I went outside to have lunch, was extremely upset. I smiled at him and we communicated non-verbally from across the gym. I sent him supportive glances and after an hour or so he relaxed and began to participate again. I wondered what had happened to him. Later, I would find out.
Sunday was a colder day, and by now our venue, the gym, had become an icebox. Quintessential Quinton* watched us don all our layers, share blankets from the cells, and commence shivering, and then called it. We need to move, he said. Hallelujah, we sighed.
We moved into the classroom, which is much smaller and intimate. We shed our jackets and continued with our workshop much more comfortably.
In the next phase, we began to share the choices, circumstances, beliefs, interactions, and relationships that had brought us to our current situations. We analyzed emotional triggers and traced them back to the first incident that had embedded the triggers in us. This was powerful, and we helped each other with strategies for how to be non-reactive.
For me, feeling like other people are not respecting my time is a huge trigger, and it goes back to childhood when my dad would be very strict about being on time. I was offered a gift by one of the facilitators, Alright Alexandra.* She reframed the problem for me: “You could use the extra time you spend waiting for someone as if it were a gift, the way an exhausted new mother might.” I realized that I could use unexpected free time to meditate, read, or enjoy my surroundings. I was reminded that 90% of what happens to us is how we respond to it. I began to think of ways apply this wisdom to my current dilemmas, choosing to drop expectations in situations.
Quintessential Quinton* shared that the mother of his daughter was telling his daughter that he was not her father, and this triggered him deeply, fueling his anger. We talked about the fact that he could not control the woman’s actions; all he could do was tell his daughter whenever he saw her that he was her father and that no one could ever change that. The pain his eyes, and the knots in his brow, eased a little, but only a little. Irealized why he was so upset.
It started to sink in for me; many of the predicaments inmates face are incredibly complex and painful. Being in jail, indoors with no sunlight, and being expected to change one’s mindset and behavior when surrounded by jail politics, gangs, and hierarchies, is very, very challenging.
Later, in the Lifelines exercise, we mapped out our current age, the age we expected to die, our values, goals, and action steps. We then sealed the envelope and dated it for the day we wanted to open it up again and see how far we came. I’m opening mine on January 14, 2016, the one-year anniversary of a very special day of transformation in my life.
We realized through our discussion that violence, and the events that could lead to violence, such as arguments, were often distractions from our goals. Once we had set goals, we could constantly evaluate situations with respect to our goals, and make better decisions; constructive decisions that would promote nonviolence. This is what I took away: Having clear goals gives us the structure we need to help avoid violence and keep our eyes on the prize.
We wrapped up the workshop with a very powerful exercise called Acknowledgements. In pairs, we first listened to what our partner wanted to be acknowledged for, and from whom, then we took on that role and verbally delivered the acknowledgement. The revelation for me was that I expect a lot from myself, and push myself to do more, be better, and give more. But, I spend very little time acknowledging myself. When my partner, Marvelous Miguel,* acknowledged my progress in self-development and releasing of old patterns, my heart began to expand with gratitude. How might we spend more time acknowledging and uplifting ourselves and each other?
One of the inmates, Resilient Richard, broke down in tears after the Acknowledgments exercise, stating that hearing an acknowledgment from his partner, who was role-playing his father, made him realize how much he misses his father. This was a beautiful moment, where all the rest of us, inmates, participants, and facilitators alike, held space for this brave man to cry for his father and his children, and vow to make better choices that would get him out of jail for good, and fulfill his dreams.
After some quick written feedback on what we had learned in the workshop, it was time for graduation. We didn’t have music, so some of us hummed cheerfully while certificates were presented. We did victory laps, shook hands and hugged as we celebrated the strong bonds that had been built in just twenty hours of time together. Our last ritual together was a moving circle in which we bowed and said Namaste to one another. The Divine in me sees the Divine in you. YES.
While the facilitator team debriefed in the classroom, Aspirational Amanda,* a fellow participant, and I hung out with a few inmates at a table in the common area of the pod. We chatted about our relationships with our parents and how they had instilled positive and negative patterns in us, and shared our process of taking charge of our lives while continuing to feel tremendous love and gratitude for our loved ones.
This conversation continued as we also started playing Last Card; I rarely play cards but when I do, it’s typically with my family. I noticed how relaxed I was feeling, surrounded by inmates in orange who now felt like part of my family. Aspirational Amanda,* Laid Back Larry,* and Resilient Richard* were sitting with me, and Braniac Bobby* looked on.
I won the first game and as we kept playing, the inmates started joking with us. Here are a couple of the jokes that we laughed about:
Resilient Richard* to Aspirational Amanda*: “Now we’re going to play for your watch; this IS jail, you know!”
Braniac Bobby* to me: “Is your backpack made of hemp?
Resilient Richard*: Can we smoke part of it?
Aspirational Amanda*: Well, if they were to smoke part of it, which part would you give them?
Me, after thinking for a bit: The front pocket.”
Braniac Bobby* comes around to study my little backpack’s front pocket. We laugh hysterically.
We started talking about our favorite games from childhood, and mine, Scrabble, was brought out. Before we could begin, however, the deputy called us away to stand behind him, killing my excitement. He was concerned for our safety.
That took me back to a whole different kind of surreal. The difference between Saturday morning and Sunday evening was world-sized. I couldn’t believe I was leaving, and not returning tomorrow…
I left the jail feeling connected to humanity, healed in ways I could not have expected, grateful, humbled, and deeply moved. We had been our real selves with one another, and that was priceless.
I plan to go back to the jail in August for another workshop, and eventually complete a third one so that I can become a certified facilitator. I feel so grateful for this opportunity to learn from men who have faced situations that I don’t even have a frame of reference for. Thank you, guys, for being strong. You will prevail.
*Names (except mine and Ben’s) have been altered to respect the privacy of inmates, participants and facilitators but convey the flavor of how the naming exercise helped us bond.
If you are interested in serving in the SF County Jail through AVP, contact Ben Glass by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone (415-336-4555). For general information about AVP, go to www.AVPCalifornia.org.