It's About Your Stance Not Circumstance
Syndicated from, May 29, 2015

37 minute read

Janis: Jacques Verduin can speak with deep understanding about being worthy of our suffering. In 1997, he founded the Insight Prison Project, an innovative in-prison rehabilitative program in the notorious San Quentin prison, and later in 2011 the Insight-Out Program. There he works with violent offenders, listening to their stories, hearing what lies beneath their crimes. Through mindfulness training and deep trauma healing, his incarcerated clients transform their lives by learning to care for themselves, then in turn by becoming change agents in their community, be it their neighborhoods or the prison system itself.  What are the greater implications of this work for the rest of us? Jacques has some very powerful insights to share, so let's get started. Welcome Jacques.

Jacques: Yes, thank you. Thank you for having me.

Janis: We're just delighted. If you would, could you paint a statistical picture for us about the culture and sadly the business of incarceration in the U.S.?

Jacques: Yes, I'd be happy to. It's a bit of a bleak picture, but it would also be amiss to not include it. We ourselves have chosen to work on the inside of prison walls and in the trenches more than the straight out activism. You can't fail to notice the greater context that you're working in, a greater context wherein 1 and 107 Americans is in prison, 1 in 34 Americans is under correctional supervision. That could mean prison, jail, probation, parole. If you're African American and between 18 and 35 and male, 1 out of 8 of you will do time at some point.

You have a greater chance to go to prison as a black male in that age bracket than to go to college.  1 in 28 school age children have a parent incarcerated in America. In California it costs an average of $60,000 a year to incarcerate a being in state prison. That leads to, in California, a budget of over $10 billion, which is actually more than we spend on higher education. Their [inaudible 00:02:44] rate is a whopping 64%, so that's 64% of prisoners released come back within 18 months. You could say that this system is somewhat cynical, but unfortunately it's true. It profits from its own failure.

There are voices emerging that want to change that also within the system, and I think it's very important not to fall into the us and them fallacy. Nowhere perhaps is it stronger than with crime and justice in the way you have the good guys and the bad guys, to do that us and them piece with it. We firmly believe that offering transformation to the prisoners themselves is a big part of what prison reform should look like is to empower the stakeholders, and so that actually is the work on the inside.

Janis: We're going to be hearing much more about that in a little while, but yes those figures are staggering and behind those figures are real human beings, so it is, as you say, bleak. That's obviously just in California. Is there a typical person whose story you can share with us that suggests to us how these people go where they did and what lies beneath?

Jacques: Yes, I think on a very human level and perhaps not limited to prison, there's a story that comes to mind that I'm fond of telling because it explains so much, where I was teaching my class in San Quentin and a shot caller, meaning a person in charge on a prison yard, came to sit in the class and he was former of the Crips, a gang from Los Angeles. He sat there with his arms folded, big guy, and he didn't say anything, but he came back and kept sitting there. Then we paired him up one day with a younger prisoner that was from his neighborhood and said, "Can you please help this man?" Then he came alive, and the two of them really became active in the class.

One day he raised his hand and he said, "I got something." I said, "Okay Warlock," that was his nickname, "what did you get?" He said, "Hurt people hurt people." He said, "I lashed out from my pain because I didn't know what to do with it, and it goes all the way back to having my mom shoot my alcoholic abusive father and having the house surrounded with police and having a standoff because the police didn't know quite what was going on inside." He said, "All of that got bottled up and that's how I connected with the hurt inside of me."

Then his apprentice, Brother G, big 265 pound guy was there for domestic violence, raised his hand and said, "I got something too," and I said, "Okay, what did you get?" He said, "Healed people heal people." He said, "Because this brother here has been teaching me how to live." Then both men wept, and so everybody else around there, it was a very touching, moving moment.

In eight words, it described our program. "Hurt people hurt people; healed people heal people," so it's the bad news and the good news, right?

I think that element of how perhaps all of us are doing time when we don't know the pain that drives us. We talked a little bit about judging before we started, and I think that's very endemic to the phenomenon of judgment as well that some people commented on. That there's a pain underneath there and quite frankly often a fear, some fear of feeling separate from that leads us to condition our ability to show up in the moment with some judgment, some way of qualifying.

It can be very subtle. It can also be not so subtle. One of the guys came up with an acronym for the word blame. He said, "I think it means blatantly lying and making excuses."

In a sense that's true because what you do when you judge is you turn your ability to be present for what is into some reason not to show up. You feel inspired, but nonetheless. Instead of going through the process of inner validating the emotion or the sensation of fear, it gets turned outward and somebody offers them to blame.

It is an avoiding of responsibility because really it's all we have. I have a Sicilian prisoner with a Texan accent no less, who's fond of quoting Viktor Frankl, and he says, "Mr. Frankl said they can take anything away from you, everything except one thing," which is what he calls the last human freedom, which is no matter what situation you're in, no matter the circumstance of the time, you get to choose how you respond, and that's your last human freedom. When we're in judgment, we give that up. It's the circumstance.

That's another acronym in the program is it's not circumstance, it's your stance that matters. We've played a little bit, as you can hear, with language to bring some transformational material to a multi ethnic incarcerated population. We have our own language for that, and it's a little different than workshop.

Janis: Yeah. It sounds like this is a great way for them to connect. It's not some high pollutant theory; it's very easy to remember and it's something that they can readily incorporate into their day to day.

Jacques: You use the word connect and that's really the key piece of the program, when we have a kick ass curriculum. I think the greater element here is the connection that's provided. The Native American Navajo have a saying for how they describe somebody whose committed a crime. They say, "He or she who acts as if they have no relatives."

That too refers to how we're all doing time right now in terms of the growing alienation and the looking for belonging. The groups are run like a tribe, and the tribe is called after the amount of years that the men have collectively served. That includes juvenile time, any incarcerated time. That becomes the name of the tribe, and we close by standing in a circle, raising our hands and naming the tribe and the closing statement, and it's echoed by everyone in the room, is "For us, by us, about us," so that there's ownership that the guys feel about the program.

It's a little bit like a gang, except it's flipped into something constructive.

That element of connecting people is very much at the core as to what leads people to crime or addiction or excess or something that's not constructive. It's a blind reaching out to try to find something that you can bond with. It's very interesting going inside a prison, and after a certain amount of years, starting to reflect, "Hey, there's so much here that tells a story about the human condition period, no matter what side of the gate you are." This is more like an anthropologist and a teacher, because all these crimes are also symptoms of a greater social breakdown. By just throwing people behind the walls and throwing away the key, you don't have to look at that.

There's this shadow and this sense of denial that when you begin to interact with it, it's incredibly instructive about way more than just criminals.

Janis: Can you speak a little bit more to was this a slowly evolving realization on your part or was there the proverbial piano falling on your head that made everything click together for you as you're speaking of this?

Jacques: No, I duck pianos on a daily basis. I wish it was neatly jammed down in packages. No, it definitely over time grew on me, but there's also ah-ha moments, like the story I just told about the "hurt people hurt people." It's a privilege to be given someone's despair. It completed me as a human being, that path of service in ways that I could never fashion, never have imagined. I'm very grateful for the amount of direction and clarity that has seeped through and has been a real gift to me.

Janis: You came into this work in some very extraordinary and personal ways. You and I had a conversation previous to this, and you said one influence was within your own family, and another was through a dream. The third was through an invitation. I'd love it if you could weave those stands together for us.

Jacques: Okay, I'll give it a try. To start with the family, my father was a prisoner in the 2nd World War. I grew up in Holland and he was kidnapped and put to work to do forced labor for the Germans. Had a pretty rough time, and was in that part that later became East Germany close to Poland. When the war ended, he escaped and began walking back to Holland which was quite a ways. Germany was being bombed and there was anarchy and he'll admit to stealing food and there was danger everywhere. He did make it back obviously, and we sometimes used to hear him scream in his sleep from the traumatic experiences that he had as children.

When the Berlin Wall came down, he decided he was going to go back and find his captors, or whoever survived from the captors, and make his peace. We were all like, "Well that's a wild plan." I grew up in a blue collar neighborhood and you didn't leave town, let alone the country.

Janis: How old were you when he was talking about this?

Jacques: Yeah, I was about 21, 22. Anyway, he went with my mother and it's a longer story obviously, but they did find his captors or for whoever had survived from that, and they sat around in a circle, no curriculum, no great book to read on, and made their peace. He came back a radically different human being from that trip.

I'm his son, and that affected me. One of the programs we've pioneered does exactly that, brings victims and offenders together, and has become an important element of what we do. That's one. Then the other one was a dream that I had, and I'm not a dreamer, I'm a Dutch peasant. I value dreams, but it doesn't happen to me that much to have visionary dreams. About a year into doing my work and starting my work in San Quentin, I had this dream of this buffalo, a big majestic male buffalo bull that was standing in the prairie, a desolate, empty, eerie prairie, and it was pawing the earth. It'd stop and would look around, and then it would paw the earth again a quarter to the right, same thing. It would go through all 4 directions and stand there and then it would repeat that.

That was pretty much the dream. It was just this image, but very lucid, very strong. Finally I work up and I sat up straight in bed and I thought, "What is this? What is this?" It came to me and it came through the heart of the bull that the herd was gone and the bull was looking for the herd, and that this is what happened of course. Our forefathers killed off the buffalo herds, which were tremendous in size. There would be more than 100,000 buffalo sometimes in one herd. Drumming the membrane of this nation alive with the feeling of togetherness and belonging to something greater, and we've killed it off.

That became a call to me, that dream, that perhaps nowhere else but in our prison systems was that phenomena stronger to be felt, of not being instructed by a greater story, by greater tapestry that holds us together and people following through and ending up in prison and being discarded, being forsaken. I don't have a romantic idea about prisoners. I think we need prisons and just feel there is a way to do it, but this clearly isn't it. I resolve to make that my life's work, coming out of that dream and that continues to hold me and construct me. I have images of herd buffaloes in my office, because it was so poignant for me personally. That was very instructive.

I think the third reference you made was I live near Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California, and my teacher Jack Cornfield gave a dharma talk and he made a call to the community to see what we can do for the prisons in our community. A number of people responded, and long story short I was the only one that stuck with it. Jack remained very supportive, and that was an important piece for me to, to respond to that call and doing something for people that don't have access to the kind of spiritual awakening that we can just pick up the phone for and get as much as we want at any time we want. There's something that erupt there for me that this wasn't the case for a lot of people of certain economic and cultural status that were incarcerated. That was the other piece there.

Janis: That's just a remarkable trio of story Jacques, and thank you. First of all, thank you for having the experiences, and then thank you for sharing them with us. I'm also reminded that as we're talking about extreme pain and disconnection, I believe your work also extends to veterans, is that correct?

Jacques: It does, indirectly. I had a veteran in my class who got a lot of out of being there. This man had seen a lot of action as a Special Forces agent, and so carried a lot of baggage and trauma and pretty much after talking to him for a few hours in the hallway at one point where he revealed a lot of who he was. I said, "The only way you're not going to commit suicide is to become a special agent on the healing team. Which means you would have to do the work and then show your buddies how to do it."

He did. I was the program director for that program for a moment to get them started. It's called Veterans Healing Veterans From the Inside Out. It's been really so inspiring, so beautiful to see these guys rediscover the unit that they had, the legendary loyalty that you have when you're under fire. To rediscover that loyalty in the work that they're doing right now. It is true that there's an element of veterans being in charge of their own process there that's important to support. Because they have a connection that is unlike what any professional could bring to it. Since I'm not a veteran -- I actually got kicked out of the Boy Scouts myself -- I said, "I'm going to help you set it up and you take it from there." That's a very promising program.

Janis: As we talk about disconnection, it's unique for them because in a way they are that band of brothers that they can only understand the experience by talking with each other, but at the same time they are this band of brothers within a larger community where even perhaps their own families can't understand the trauma that they've been through and why they have the PTSD and how come they're not getting with the program again and taking so long. It's good that they have each other, but in many ways we, who have not been through it, need to be more sensitive or educated, I don't know what you would call it.

Jacques: We're in a trance about both the way we imprison people and the way we deal with people coming back from the wars. We're no doubt in a trance that leads us to send people to wars too. Definitely and when they come back because that's a comment I made to him about suicide was not lightly made.

There are more veterans that have been killed through suicide in the last Gulf Wars than have been killed in action. Now that's a staggering number. You can't just put that down on some level. Is it really true that what we put these men through leads them to commit suicide on a greater level than they've been killed in action?

That's an unacceptable statistics. The way we wrestled with it is on Veteran's Day last year, we had a ceremony on the prison yard where we had lists of the names of the people killed in action who were named as to honor them, and then a bell was run after every hundred names 10 times for those who had committed suicide.

Because there are no monuments for these people because there's shame involved around that and there's government joining the hype of numbers. Amateurs maybe, but with deep conviction, we made a quilt with 50 MT dog tags, the military ID tags that soldiers wear and hung it up as a way to find some expression to honor those that were unnamed here. Because there are no lists of people that have committed suicide as veterans. That was our humble but poignant memorial to them.

Janis: You and I also had a conversation about for those of us who don't bear stigma of either prison or combat, what are some of the things that we can do? What's the most important thing that we could do as we either encounter these people personally or even think about them? What can we do?

Jacques: Yeah, we could speak at length on that one. There's complexities in there. Often people work inside with the guys and sometimes it's clergy and sometimes it's other organizations. Of course there's the light and sympathetic joy of rejoicing when somebody's released and sometimes hiring them to have a position in your organization or being part of being welcomed into your congregation, right?

Then sometimes what happens is this phenomena where someone like that carries a lot of the joy that people have, the need that people have really to project all the redemption on this one person, that they succeed too if this person succeeds and it's a lot to bear sometimes for somebody that has been incarcerated for a while.

It creates a little vacuum around them where they often don't feel confident speaking about their struggles, and a little gap begins to open up between their public image and their own experience. I've seen that more than once. What we suggest is what is called COSAs, a Circle of Support and Accountability. We should all have one, no doubt, where you have 3 to 4 people that you can call 24/7 that are meeting once every 2 weeks or once every week, depending on how serious their struggles are. People that you can rely on that say, "Yes, tell me," and if somebody stands up to be your support system and so you can say no matter what to these people and they can to you too, so that there isn't that huge expectation that comes with a bad guy being a good guy now or somebody that is redeemed and represents the other side of the stigma of being incarcerated but a stigma nonetheless.

Janis: As I explained to you previously, I had often worked in a reentry program where in the course of one week, 3 of our most accomplished clients, ex-offenders just fell by the wayside, and I was devastated. As you explained, there is the burden of success, and if you have not known much success at least in the conventional sense, how do you handle it and how do you say to somebody, "I am not comfortable with the attention or I'm not comfortable with this amount of expectation." You're right, where do they go with that?

Jacques: Right, and shame runs deep right? Shame runs very deep in all of our lives. A lot of that is internalized where it's strongest, and we work with that in the program a little bit. Quite a bit I should say. Some point at the beginning of the program, I'll ask the guys, and I say guys because that's all I know, I work with guys. Some of our programs have also been adapted for women's prisons. I say to the guys, "Who's here to improve themselves or better themselves?" Innocently most hands go up and we stop right there. I go, "Okay, all of us who had our hands up, let's step outside for a moment. Let's step outside the classroom and I'll come too."

We step outside the door and I ask them, "Would you be willing to entertain going back in without that notion of "I'm here to better myself or improve myself," and there's no box, we'll put it in there and if we need it still on the way out, by all means, get it back and look for another program. No blame here, but let's explore." They go, "What's he been smoking?" We go back in and we look at that, and we look at what subtly is expressed when you do things to improve yourself is that you must be messed up to being with on some level. There's a level of unworthiness there that must be fixed. A lot of the consciousness industry works that way actually.

Janis: Yes, you're right.

Jacques: There's shame, this greater culture is shameless. It will adapt your beautiful, original inspirations and turn it into something they can commodify. What I'm trying to say is a gap opens up between your old wounded but authentic self and your to be new and improved self. It almost sounds like a commercial. There's a new age fashion that starts to happen about I must become this conscious person. This gap starts to widen and create a tension that is often the prime motivator between, say, relapse, when you speak of addiction, or re-offense. Just undo that tension and return back to a dysfunctional way.

Then what we try to resolve is to say rather than fix it and aspire to be somebody who we're not or not yet, let's come from a place of acceptance that this is who I am, warts and all, and let's begin to talk about the warts. Because I've learned that that's a very effective way of taking the power out of shame is to be vulnerable and realize that you actually have a lot in common in that vulnerability. Then things become a little more real and connected.

Janis: Yeah, there's that word connected again.

Jacques: Yep, it is.

Janis: We're connecting to our self when we all do this. It's not just our clients that we were talking [inaudible 00:34:14], the feelings of judgment which come from a place of shame or insecurity.

Jacques: Yeah.

Janis: Just accepting who we are in that moment.

Jacques: Yep. Yep. Absolutely.

Janis: That sounds like something we can all benefit from.

Jacques: Yeah. Yeah. If I ever get the time, because I'm just seeing enough of those connections, is I would like to write about how we're all doing time and what can be learned from Downtown San Quentin. That actually odd place to think maybe, but would have some real gifts to give back to the greater culture.

Janis: Yes. Wouldn't that be just the perfect irony?

Jacques: I know. I know. Particularly on violence, right? Violence is such an epidemic in our society.

Janis: We seem to glorify it.

Jacques: Yeah.

Janis: Which is just mind boggling to me, but I guess there's money in it, so that's why we do it.

Jacques: Yeah, and you get to feel things in a twisted way.

Janis: Yeah.

Jacques: There's a lot of arousal that comes with watching violence that in some sense, as the old instincts have it, make you come alive, except that it's so fabricated and so produced and so overstimulated, and ostensibly used to sell commercials no doubt, that it also conditions us of course and in some sense lessens our ability to feel because we're so taken in by it.

Janis: Yeah, it sounds like because we are so numb on some levels or in some areas of our life, that we have to supercharge the one emotion that, as you say, makes us feel a live because it simply surges through us.

Jacques: I think it was [inaudible 00:36:33] who said something about perhaps everything terrible inside of us is simply something that needs our attention or needs our love. Rather than reacting and adding to the terror, to ask the question, what I'm terrified of or what I'm afraid of needs my attention. Take Marshall Rosenberg from Nonviolent Communication had a great definition of violence where he spoke about it being a tragic expression of an unmet need.

We've developed a technology to inquire what are the needs here and how can I get in touch with what's needed? It's a beautiful question to answer a situation into what's needed here? What's needed? Violence then becomes much more than just physically hurting somebody. It relates to how we have placed mind over our [inaudible 00:37:55] awareness or our tensions, and therefore can justify polluting the planet, going to war, hurting other beings because we can rationalize it, whereas the natural order seems to be that tensions is served by our mind. How would life look like if we lived out of that question, how can my mind serve this experience?

Rather than how do I judge this person, how is this person my teacher or how is this situation my teacher, so that things begin to open up and we use our resources to express the incredible mind boggling awesome beauty of everything that has feeling awareness. That's perhaps a little more abstract way of looking at violence but it works. It holds. I'm excited about finding ways of how Downtown San Quentin can tell that story to the greater culture, how the monsters can begin to teach our children, right?

Speaker: Can I jump in for a minute? I was wondering Jacques, I was so fortunate to actually be in one of your programs and it was really transforming. I was just wondering if you could give our callers who may not have experienced that how group works. It was just an amazing experience being there in that role. If you just could give us briefly what happens during the group and how you transform rage into power.

Jacques: It's a yearlong program, and like I said, a big part of it is for us to reestablish bonds that have been hurt or that have never been made with each other. We make sure we have the greatest variety of gang affiliations, races, religious background, ethnic backgrounds in the room. Which in any other situation would be the stupidest idea you could come up with, but not for us. For us, that's of the essence. We just went through that. We just had a graduation, and now we're putting new classes together. We have over 300 people on the waiting list unfortunately and about 75 spots.

We put the room together that way, and 75 spots with 3 classes. Then we count the years of the men that are in the room that they have served, and last year we had 3 classes. One tribe was called 936 because of the 32 some guys had served over 936 years together. Last year was primarily maximum security and violet offenders. The other tribe was 928, and the ones in the tribe that were younger group was 552. You have almost two and a half thousand years of incarceration in those rooms.

Then we count what we call the moment of imminent danger. The moment of imminent danger is the moment between anger and violence. Also the moment between craving and using. It's a small moment and it's over very quickly usually. If you cannot ID it, which is the acronym, Imminent Danger, ID, if you can't identify it, it can have huge consequences. One word of anger can be incredibly destructive. One act of anger can be incredibly destructive. We take this very seriously because what we do is we ask everybody there, "How long were you in your moment of imminent danger when you crossed the line, when you committed your crime?" Guys will say 10 seconds, 2 minutes, 5 minutes. For the 926 guys is was 1 hour, 12 minutes and 40 seconds. In two hands you have 1 hour, 12 minutes and 40 seconds and 936 years. Then it gets quiet in the room.

They we go, "Okay, we're going to spend the rest of the year to undo that moment of imminent danger so that you never have to lose a moment like that again." We start to come together over that. In an odd way, it dignifies the men to become worthy of their own suffering, the suffering they have received and the suffering they've doled out. It's a lot of in your face work, but kindly. In your face maybe not the right way to say it. It's confrontational in a sense that the curriculum says 4 strategies in life, you can fight, you can run, you can hide or you can face. This group is about facing and learning how to face.

We have a meditation that's called sitting in the fire where you learn how to burn clean and leave ashes. It's done bit by bit. It's done as a means to find your strength in the midst of your fear and how to deal with overwhelming emotions. We go into a process of investigation where we have something called original pain and secondary pain, and guys make an inventory of their original pain. What's the hand of cards you were dealt? Some good cards, some not so good cards, but what happens when you begin to show up for them?

They make an inventory of that, and then they study "How did I respond to these traumas? How did I respond to these crucial moments? Where I didn't process them, I created a secondary pain." Secondary pain is caused by avoiding the original pain. Avoiding, a lot of the times this stuff happens when you were young and you just simply didn't have the support system or the means on how to deal with this. In a very tender, rarely beautiful way, these big guys come together to struggle out loud to learn how to become responsible for their pain and the pain they have caused, and that process turns them from offenders into servants and the stigma becomes a badge for them to give back to the places they took from. Because one thing we hear is "Shit man, I wish I'd known this when I was 15." Finally I said, "Okay, let's go tell them."

We've taken some of the men that have been released to work with them issues, and those are really powerful interactions. Not just because these OG's have been there and done that, but because they are trained to guide somebody through a process that could lead through a lifetime of secondary pain.

That's some of what happens in the classes, and it's the whole year. It's a lengthy curriculum. Other than the curriculum, the bonding that begins to happen is such an incredible process to be a witness of and to be a part of. Guys meet each other in the yard and they hit fists and go "Hey man, 928." It's their tribe. Even when the program ends, those connections remain. That prison, San Quentin, infamous in many ways all over the world, in the last 20 years has been the most under-reported social experiment that I can think of because that prison has radically changed. It's not just because of what we do, it's because of what everybody does. It's because of it's location, a lot of volunteers that are coming in.

The unfortunate thing is that there are a lot of prisons in the boonies where nothing is happening other than pinochle and dominoes. Part of me setting up this organization called Insight-Out is to take it out, is to find the ways and raise the funds that can allow us to bring this to other prisons. It's complicated by we're serious about undertaking it.

Speaker: From you program, one story stays with me, I remember for [inaudible 00:47:52], because I remembered it was one guy. They had one guy got angry because of they're playing a game and somebody pushed him or said something, and he said, "My first thought was I was going to beat him up," but then his friend or someone who was in the program reminded him and stopped him while he was angry, and then he said, "I realized and I stopped." It's just amazing. I'm sure you hear many such stories, but that just stuck with me. He said, "If I had actually beat him up, I would have to suffer some more serous consequences, where instead this other person stopped me when I was getting angry."

Jacques: Yeah. Yeah. Accountability, which is the buzz word here, emerges when you experience meaningful relationship. Again, part of that too is the men sign a pledge. You can find it online on our website, a pledge of learning how to be a peacemaker. Then the curriculum serves to build the skills to keep those pledges.

It holds them because that's what you're looking for because after all, you're held in prison. That's the verb, is holding cages. Can you let that in first, is your container didn't work, your anger spilled out and now you're being held in prison. Can you build a container that works? Can you learn how to hold, like hold your horses, learn some impulse control? Can you also learn how to hold yourself dear enough to care enough? That's another thing a lot of us are doing time on. Can you learn how to hold yourself dear enough to care enough? We're designed as organisms to be in connection. We share a nervous system. We don't just have separate nervous systems. We share a nervous system, and so it figures in building that container, you have to learn how to hold each other as well.

Speaker: Thank you. I was also wondering about one more thing. I remember there was one person, unfortunately I forgot his name, he came with you at the Santa Clara Awakin Circle. What is he doing now? Maybe you can tell people about his story too if that is maybe inspiring?

Jacques: That was Rusty. 32 years. Beautiful guy. He moved to Florida and has a job there and bought a house. He had to go to Florida to be able to buy one, and is praising every moment of his waking life. He's happy and doing well.

Speaker: That's wonderful. He was helping you teach the programs as well, right?

Jacques: Yes, we were doing, as you were witness of, we were doing presentations and we were also working with different communities, including youth. We call them change agents. Guys that have done enough training and enough transformation that the only the only way to keep it is to give it away.

Speaker: Yeah. I can imagine the impact that must have because if somebody has gone through a test or something, you connect more rather than somebody who actually you might think he's just giving you philosophy and has not actually gone through those experiences.

Jacques: Exactly. There's a lot of opinion when you start talking about crime. A lot of it pretty harsh actually. We're saying, "Okay, we're in the trenches. We're doing the work. Our sleeves are rolled up. We're teaching your children. We're preventing a victimization. Try to get down on it. Try to kick back." We think that that's the best story out there.

Anne: Thank you so much, Jacques. I'm Anne and I'm just so touched by all the stories that you shared and the work that you're doing. What's beautiful is that it comes from such an intuitive knowing, and what you share seems so simple on one hand, but also so deeply profound. When you talk about the tribes or the gathering circles and the work that you do in the prisons, to me you're creating a sanctuary, like you said, a safe container for this healing to emerge. I've had the good fortune to be visiting a wildlife sanctuary where at risk middle school children come in and they're struggling in their school environment for whatever reason, come from broken homes and at the sanctuary they are held within a safe container, and with the wild animals as teachers, they hear the back stories of the animals. They start to identify with those stories, and can find their way to heal the pain that they feel inside. I just feel all these ah-ha moments come together in a sense of we all have this desire, this need to have meaningful relationships that we can share and connect with each other to heal.

I guess the question, I have a dear friend who just started a project with veterans, it's called Heal, and she's a photographer. She's photographing Vietnam veterans who have service dogs and the relationship between the dogs and the men, the healing relationships, and its taken her into this world of the veterans with PTSD. I guess the question for me too is have you ever explored the relationship of bringing animals into your program or the relationship or I think being in a prison yard, not being close to nature. Is that something that you think about too at some point or maybe at some point when they are released is I guess my question? I don't know if that's clear enough.

Jacques: Yeah. A lot of these guys come from urban environments, but not exclusively. A lot of soldiers actually come from rural backgrounds. I'm aware of certain programs, like you just described. Also there's an organization that helps soldiers to be farmers. There's definitely a lot that it can come from various ways, but what it has in common is that the experience of structural violence, of being part of a violence machine, is a very disassociating experience. In other words, you disconnect from your embodied awareness in order to do that kind of harm.

We all talk about PTSD, but there's also something that is called moral injury of men and women finding themselves in situations where they do things that their conscience doesn't support and there's no help for these people. Coming back to natural environments, coming back to your own body and the bodies of others and learning how to tend to that, is no doubt very much at the heart of what allows, what gives people resources to come out of these disassociative states that lead to addiction and suicide and alienation. Yeah, I think it's very beautiful to engage all the connections that can be made there whether it's farming or wildlife or Yoga. That which brings you back in touch with honoring the embodied.

Anne: Right, and are deeper connections. Yes. I was at a workshop yesterday with a woman who teachers storytelling as a healing art and she talked about just our right brain and our left brain and how the left brain is analyzing the categories you want to make sense of it, but how the right brain is our oldest ancient brain and there really are no boundaries. When we're in the right brain and the kind of stories that come, they come from the heart and they're so healing and I think it's surprised all of us when we were given a task of just a few minutes to create a story and she just gave us a simple little plot. It was really magical because everything came up, a deep pain or how to address it, and part of the solution was usually from nature.

Jacques: Yeah.

Anne: Thank you so much Jacques. Thank you very much.

Jacques: You're so welcome. You're so welcome. Thank you for what you're doing.

Speaker: Jacques, I was wondering if you want to tell us one thing about your book?

Jacques: I want to crawl under my desk now you bring that up. Really what I'm focusing most on with writing is on a new edition of the workbook. What we're doing is we're creating an instructional video series of one of the classes this year, and I'm rewriting the curriculum into a workbook so that with the series and the workbook, every prison has a close circuit TV channel, so this material could be broadcast, and then with the workbook people can start doing the work and that also no doubt sets up the best polarity to draw in an actual group with trained people.

That's my first affinity is to finish that book to share. Then the other book that has been called Leaving Prison Before You Get Out, the process of learning how to sit in the fire, burn clean and leave ashes, is more about some of the connections I spoke about today around how we're all doing time and what we could learn from the process of people that have been put behind the walls to break through some of our own, the prison between our ears maybe. That's secondary. The reason I said I want to crawl under my desk is it's hard to find the time for me to do all these things, and so I'm wrestling that one down right now.

Speaker: Thank you.

Matt: Hello everyone, and thank you for being here today. Thank you for your service and all people who go into prisons and institutions to help and do service. I worked with the Walden House population, they're very involved. We live in a society that's created 20 prisons or more in California since '73. It's big money. Prison guards have gotten 3 raises. No other state workers have gotten raises. They got a big lobby in Washington, and we keep pulling the babies out of the water, but I'm wondering how you think we can go upstream and find out who's throwing all these babies in the water, these 50 year old babies who are serving time? As a society, these guys are the last step of the last thing that happens in a society, like taking drugs or violence or crime. This is the last thing that happens. It's not a preventative cure for us, and I'm wondering what your thoughts are on how as a society are we throwing the babies in the water here?

Jacques: Right. Thank you. I think that's a very appropriate question. Prison in many ways represents the shadow of the culture, it represents everything we don't want to look at that we're in denial of. To just pathologize all those crimes into cases, the official word for it, and individualize them as people that have errant behavior, robs us from the information that is given by how these crimes are symptoms of a greater social breakdown. What if a crime wasn't inarticulately for help? What if we looked at it that way? [Inaudible 01:01:56] and articulate, let's not under-do that. How would we begin to set up a system that reteaches the values that have been broken by a crime?

How to do that is a complicated piece, and there's different ways to do it. The way we've chose is to say, "Let's go in." Let's do engaged citizenship, roll up our sleeves and go in the trenches, and let's not get lost in the us and them. There's a lot of place for outrage here because it's abysmal to spend money and not have results and set up a process that re-victimizes instead of serves public safety. It's complicated, but we've said, "Let's try to not fall into the trap of the us and them because that's only going to be a different version of the same problem."

We believe that in empowering and amplifying the voices of the men themselves, that that's a very solid basis to do the greater work of prison reform, which has to do with a lot of culture change. Because it's not that they're all bad people; they're brought into a way of securing, in their vernacular, people in prisons that is really ready for a big review. That's not a half an answer, but begins to say a little bit about how we approach it.

Matt: Thank you. Thank you so much. I'm so heartened by your work and I'm humbled. Thank you for all the service you do.

Jacques: Thank you.

Speaker: Thank you Matt. Jacques, you briefly mentioned something about I remembered this, San Quentin is in a very good location because of the proximity to San Francisco and Berkeley and so many people who are trying to do good work, but are there any such programs, like you said, in the prisons which are not maybe that close?

Jacques: No, we have 34 prisons, and about 140,000 people in them. Most, I should say, of these other state prisons have to do without rehabilitation. It's become popular also because we could afford to look away. We could run this system and now we're in an economy where we can't, that's the good news. I feel really tasked with wanting to reach out to these other places. We started a campaign to build capacity to do that. We get phone calls a lot from wardens and other prisons and there is a beginning of support at the department too to swing the pendulum back and begin to look at, hey, is there a different way to do this where everybody can win. There's more public safety. We spend less money, and there's less re-victimization.

It's actually a very middle of the road goal. There's nothing extreme or liberal or out there about it. It's public safety. We're on a fundraising campaign to enable us to bring the program to other places, and that could mean as well abroad. Actually interesting thing is that the Bosnian prison system has translated the curriculum and I'm being flown over there to train them because they want to run the program in their prisons. There's a lot of hope and there's a lot of possibility. It's just really important to do it in a way that we can handle it and it keeps the quality going. I'm calling in all the forces I can think of to help us manifest that part of the vision because it's time. It's time. Time for us to stand up and say there's a different way here.

It's almost like where did civil rights go? Well look at your prisons. It's the next expression of where we need to pick up civil rights, and it will be a battle that will dignify anybody who takes part of it, whether it is in financially supporting it or volunteering for it or starting to talk to the legislators about it and yourselves, because as long as one of us is incarcerated, to some extent we're all incarcerated. That mutuality is also there when one of us is victimized. We're all victimized. To see that our own salvation comes directly through understanding the predicament of others in reaching out to it is much bigger than redoing prisons. I feel it's that whole us and them thing, we're either as a species going to evolve into breaking through that or it could be our downfall.

Environmentally people are starting to wake up with that, but you can't just say, "Well I'm an environmentalist and I'm not interested or I can't afford time to look at social justice issues." It's a perspective across the board. Who is them, if not my own insanity, and who's us if not but all humanity.

Speaker: Wow. Thank you. Thank you. What is it that we as a community can do to support this work?

Jacques: I think one thing is to allow yourself to be troubled by this. If you feel something that touches some truth in you out of this session, you have a choice. You can say, "Okay, that was great. I'll tell a friend," and then forget about it, or you can say, "Let me offer up my willingness to be troubled by this, even though I may not know exactly what to do yet." The easy answer for me would be to give you a list of things to do and a phone number and where you can donate some money. Really what I want to do is to say, "Let's not be so easy about it and move onto the next thing." There is fertile ground in allowing yourself to be plowed over this way and be troubled. It isn't just all horrible. It's a way in and it's a way into finding the other and realizing it's you.

I want to say that first because that's what's going to sustain a movement is peoples willingness to be engaged and to be troubled by something. Then more practically yes, we are starting this month with a video instructional series, which is a whole new bag of tricks for me. I'm not a filmmaker. That means we have to hire some people to help us do that. We've set it up so that the inmates are going to do the filming, but we still need to find them support and equipment and all of that. Humbly I would put that forth as that's where we have real needs, very practically speaking for equipment and resources so that we can share some of this news, these men can go in and teach their brothers and sisters that are still incarcerated.

We have a website called Insight-Out, insight as in having an insight, dot org. There's more information there and there's ways to support it financially there. Then once we have the train the trainer piece, which is a video series, we can start training people to do this work. There's a secondary level there.

Speaker: Wow, thank you.

Janis: Jacques, this has been an extraordinary conversation and speaking personally, it really does cause me to shift my perspective, and that's always a good thing. On behalf of all of us, thank you so much and we appreciate your presence with us today.

Jacques: Thank you for busting me out of prison, breaking down the walls here.

This article is a transcript of an Awakin Call conversation. It is community of listeners, who start with the idea that by changing ourselves, we change the world. 

1 Past Reflections