Three letters and an op-ed

I get three letters in today’s mail with return addresses from prison. One, an invitation to a volunteer appreciation dinner at the institution where I present Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops; another from my pal Sax and the other from my friend Jason, both of whom reside in a federal prison in West Virginia.

Sax apologizes for being out of touch. “We have been locked down for a bit as a result of some folks settling a dispute the old fashioned way on the yard. Crazy thing is the debacle stemmed from some seats in the chow hall.” The lockdown resulting from the fight annoys Sax but he is not afraid. A two-time former national collegiate wrestling champ in the 285 lb. class, Sax has little to fear.

Jason writes: “Yesterday at lunch time some black people from NC and SC sat down at a white table to eat. I’m not sure why they did it other than to start a fight. They were told by some white boys to move; they refused and everyone jumped up. The COs (correctional officers) responded, broke it up but only delayed the inevitable.

“…About 1:15 I heard the call over the radio. Body alarms were going off. COs were yelling for help. All medical staff were running. It was chaos. The windows in my class face the yard entrance so I’m watching all the staff respond to the call. I knew a race war had just broke out.…One by one here came people I know all bloody and beat. They just kept coming.…So here I sit in my cell all alone with no way of knowing what is going to happen. Is it over? Is it just getting started? Will I have to fight? Will I get stabbed? I’m scared. Pray hard for me, please.”

At the last Alternatives to Violence workshop I co-facilitated, the group vigorously discussed the dynamics of chow hall seating: the tacit understanding that certain groups occupy certain tables and the order is not to be disrupted. Some of the men explain it is a sign of disrespect to take someone’s seat while others object to being told to move instead of being politely asked. It’s about territory a man tells me. I wonder aloud if it is also about power or control or a sense of agency. In the dining hall, the inmates set the rules of seating. A man who has spent 28 years in prison explains that people want to sit with friends so it matters who sits where.

My friend Sax has written before about the strict delineations of race in prison: self-imposed segregation. AVP workshops are one of the few places in prison when men of different cultural backgrounds mingle—and get along. There is no AVP in West Virginia.

I do not pretend to be a sociologist or expert in prison behavior though I have taught and volunteered in prisons for a long time. I am a fifty-four-year-old white woman, a child of the Civil Rights era South acutely aware of the work of Michelle Alexander whose book title summarizes a bitter truth: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. From her book: “More African Americans are under correctional control today … than were enslaved in 1850.”

How does that inform the choice of the men who sat down at the “white table” and would not get up? Does it suggest a desire to disrupt the status quo? Incite violence? Exert power? If Jason posits correctly, was the ensuing fight in the yard a visceral and localized form of payback or an expression of frustration that Jim Crow still kicks it whether or not there’s an African American president?

Now that the whole prison is in lockdown is it a Pyrrhic victory or does lockdown create a greater sense of satisfaction if disruption was the primary intention? What meaning arises from redlining in a prison cafeteria instead of a neighborhood? Is prison inevitably a stewpot destined to roil?

The score of inmate participants in the last AVP workshop bespoke their desire to embrace such alternatives while acknowledging chow hall is a mine-field. Only one man in our group lamented the folly of adults losing their cool over a seat. But for his cohorts, a seat in the prison cafeteria represents far more than chair. For some it signifies turf; for those who’ve been there a while, it represents the pecking order. Perhaps to everyone a seat at the table means nothing less than a longing for connection with those who make us feel a part of something larger: be it a racial, religious or geographic identity.

I consider the invitation to the prison volunteer dinner where I suspect the guests will be treated to a meal and a setting considerably nicer—or at least less stressful—than the chow hall. Not quite dinner at Downton Abbey but I wonder nonetheless: in a society striated by caste will a seat at the table ever be just that?

If self-segregation purports to strengthen, assert, and preserve identity then it necessarily serves to highlight distinctions. Perhaps that’s what led Sax to emblazon his thigh with a Honky Pride tattoo even if he inked it in Runic hieroglyphs. Prison hews the lines of us and them with the relentless ferocity of a band-saw. Which is what makes Alternatives to Violence Project programs so vital. The root of non-violence: be it on a battlefield, city streets, or a prison chow hall—is awareness of connection. The dissolution of us and them. Kinship.

Last Sunday I preached a sermon where I said sometimes bondage binds. To be locked together physically or contained collectively by the fetters of fear, rage, loss, injustice, misunderstanding, disappointment can heighten a sense of connection—or it can isolate us so that the bondage we share divides and ultimately conquers.

I cannot help but think of the single garment of destiny Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of: the fabric of Creation that inextricably binds us to each other getting torn into strips used to tether us apart.

Three letters sent from prison arrive together. An appreciation dinner for volunteers. A man annoyed by lockdown. Another terrified by an enormous fight.

And on the same day an op-ed in the New York Times byAlexander N. Songorwa, director of wildlife for the Tanzanian Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, imploring the United States not to list lions as endangered because the revenue from trophy hunting largely supports “26 game reserves and a growing number of wildlife management areas owned and operated by local communities as well as the building of roads, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure — all of which are important as Tanzania continues to develop as a peaceful and thriving democracy.”

I want to live in a world where those who can afford to trophy hunt and buy ivory trinkets find joy in the lives not the deaths of great animals and send money directly to the governments of nations seeking to preserve them. But that is not the world I inhabit.

I want to live in a nation that does not incarcerate or judicially intimidate more African American males than it enslaved a century and a half ago. I want to live in a nation that acknowledges the New Jim Crow and dismantles it, willingly. But that is not the nation I inhabit.

I want everyone to have a place at the table with no need to save seats. That is not the chow hall currently available but it is the one I am called to work toward creating.

In the same sermon, I wrote, “Hope emerges not from some miraculous occurrence but seeps upward from aquifers of connection.” Connection is the prelude to kinship: in chow halls, court rooms, savannahs, any- and everywhere creatures draw breath.


A Dayenu Day


Welcome to another episode of my podcast. Before recording this I watched Dr. Brené Brown on Oprah’s SuperSoul Sunday. I am a big fan of Brown’s work. If you aren’t familiar with her, she researches vulnerability, which she has found  is the gateway to intimacy, creativity and wholeheartedness. Perhaps hearing her inspired me to present a podcast less polished and more personal than some others: one that celebrates vulnerability by inhabiting it.

A little vegan levity is a good thing

Check out this link to Justin Timberlake on SNL promoting veganville (fun even for non-vegans)

And if you haven’t read Father Greg Boyle’s book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, I heartfully recommend it. You’ll hear a few snippets in my upcoming podcast.

And here’s a link to his recent talk at Boston College.