(Human Kindness Foundation
Durham NC 27715)Americans do have a strange way with their prisons, and prisoners. At any one time, almost 3% of U. S. citizens are in the pokey, and over 6% of the inhabitants of this country have Done Time. Almost 50% of the jail population are those who have run afoul of our country's Puritan stance on those who buy, sell, or use drugs. For Black males, the figures of those in jail or on parole is almost five times as for the rest of the population.
Some critics think it is the ultimate example of those who have lording over those who have not. Perhaps it's a sign of a failing political system --- for having so many of the constituents behind bars does say something about abandonment of what the political scientists used to refer to as "the concurrent minority."
Maybe it's television: always ragging on us about what we don't have, what we should have --- building frustration in those who are poor and unemployed. Maybe it is the daily news telling us about all the hot-shots who make themselves so very very rich with such apparent ease, those nattering articles in the newspapers about the former geek, Bill Gates, turning billionaire before our very eyes. In any event, some sociologists claim that the prison population is a metaphor for the society's inability to match desperate needs with a desperate need to survive. A fifteen-
year- old in the ghetto has little chance to participate in the American Dream unless he becomes part of the most dangerous game going --- being drugs --- with its concurrent violence and opportunity for formidable prosperity, not to say a chance to become oblivious to the ghastliness of ghetto life. § § §
Prisons are the only institution in the country where the "victims" run the whole show. The aged and the poor have almost no say about the Social Security system. Children have little or no input into the public school system. You and I and Joe Blow have almost no influence on the local zoning laws that can destroy whole neighborhoods willy-nilly. But prisoners run the federal, state, and county prison systems, and no guard in his right mind would dare interfere with "prison justice." The administrators ride uneasily atop the angry mass that make up the 2,500,000 inhabitants of our prisons.
Prisoners are failures: they got caught at their chosen profession (crime). Their power when incarcerated is just that: naked, brutal power. The weak get eaten up, destroyed --- either emotionally or physically. Recent articles in the Los Angeles Times have proved what we suspected all along --- that civil wars between the races in jail are often fomented by the authorities in imitation of the style of the English in India during the times of the Raj --- a power system that kept the multitudes off-balance, at each other's throats, so the real locus (the state) is free of threat.
One of the least discussed aspects of The Joint is sexuality. Since the prisoners run the prisons, they determine its passion, and they have no choice. There are no women, so it has to be male love. (Celibates don't exist in prison. Virginity is rare except for the very old, the very ugly, or the very strong.)
Prison passion isn't what you and I think of as passion. Recent studies indicate that 75-80% of prisoners have some sort of sexual encounter --- usually violent --- between themselves and their fellow prisoners. Much of it is enforced pleasure, eg, assault. The irony is that it is considered by many street kids to be "manly" to serve time --- yet once behind bars, they either get raped by their fellow inmates, or become rapists. And not long ago, a series of articles in salon.com showed that violent sex becomes a means whereby the guards can punish the incorrigible. By putting intransigent prisoners in cells with acknowledged brutes --- violent and bloody rape becomes the punishment of choice.
In prison, sex becomes a commodity --- the same as cigarettes or dope. The young and the weak have to "marry" a stronger prisoner in order to survive. Men who are violent heterosexuals on the outside become violent homosexuals on the inside, and will fight (and die) to own the most desirable partners. In a strange twist, openly gay cons are scorned by the prison population: they are not considered to be manly enough for the violent prison love. They are often segregated with the child-molesters and the weak. The explanation: "They'd be murdered by the other cons."
Sexual activity in jail involves the physically impotent being dominated by the physically potent. Our prisons thus make for a strange philosophy of justice. This virulently anti-homosexual society has decided that the appropriate punishment for thieves, pimps, murderers, rapists, con men, forgers, check-kiters, and bank robbers is to make queers out of them. Passion is turned into punishment, and it is passion without tenderness --- which may be the worst punishment of them all. Coupled now with the new threat of AIDS, a night in a cell with a violent rapist might well turn into a death sentence for the young and the weak.
One of the few writers to write of the sexuality of prisoners with grace was the late Jean Genet. Because of his predilection for "rough trade," he once spoke of his return to a French prison in terms of one who was ennobled and anointed; saw himself as marching past the golden bars of the entryway with a chorus of angelic cons playing silver trumpets in harmony at his glorious return. The prisoners gathered on high to honor the return of their "bride" from the outside world.
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The American prison system works poorly, if at all. The rate of recidivism runs between 60 and 80% --- not because the cons are so enamored of prison life, but because their experiences outside the walls are so futile: employment is non-existent, and the prison schooling of technique becomes the only discipline that they can depend on. As one of the correspondents says in We're All Doing Time,
You can be in a year or ten years, it don't matter. You get out and you don't really know anybody, you don't know where to go, so you just start getting as many things as you can. And you start drinking and you get on the phone and call Joe Blow who's in the same predicament, and pretty soon you're sitting together somewhere half-drunk, and deciding that the only way to get ahead is if you just burglarize this place or rob that place, and neither one of you really wants to do it. Most people in prison just wanted to pull that one big score and then live like everyone else.
Most cons on the outside manage to break back into prison:
Hell, the worst that could happen is when you succeed. You don't know what to do with the money anyway. The easiest thing is you'll be back in the joint, listening for the door to crack, hanging out on the handball court. It's a slow suffocation, that's what it amounts to; you suffocate. The great majority of people who get out of prison, break back in.
Bo Lozoff has written a book for prisoners, and it is a good one indeed. The writing is simple, wise, direct; it overflows with honesty. The book came out of the Prison-Ashram Project started by Ram Dass --- and it is subtitled (correctly) "A Guide for Getting Free," and the freedom described can be within or without. It is in no way preachy, or arrogant, or "we're-
up- here- and- we're- gonna- help- you- down- there." It is an honest recounting of the methods that one can use to get free while one is in the most unfree place in American society. It makes no excuses for the specific methodology it offers to those who are, after all, in a violent war zone:
Going to prison is one more opportunity to come closer to Truth, God, Self, Freedom --- whatever we want to call it. Prison life is so negative and intense, prisoners sometimes get the chance to work out karma and build strength in a period of months that might have taken fifty years on the streets, if they could have done it at all. What a blessing!
This is the tone of the whole book. Grace, godliness, and the topsy-turvy concept that being in prison can contrarily be considered "good fortune." After all, says Lozoff --- where else can we get all our bodily needs taken care of, and have a regular schedule each day to work on our spirituality. The assumption --- the key assumption --- of this book is the very existence of the holiness that each of us holds within ourselves. Such Grace is hidden from us by our ignorance, but it can be accessed by meditation, by touching "the blue pearl" within. As part of the process, one has to leave behind violence, hate, anger, superiority, cruelty. Once one has the courage to embark on such a course --- either inside or outside the joint --- freedom is one, but not the only, dividend.
We're All Doing Time is divided in three parts. The first is an overview of prison and spirituality. Number Two --- "Getting Free" --- introduces the reader to Yoga and diet and breathing and the chakras. Book Three consists of letters sent to Bo by prisoners all over the country. Lozoff has been working on this project for many years now --- and he publishes here material, including letters of praise, of questioning, of triumph, of hope, of hopelessness, of terror --- gathered from his correspondents.
And there are, too, the chilling letters:
In April of l974, eleven men entered my home in Portland, Oregon, raped my 17-year-old wife, who was three months pregnant at the time, then threw her four stories out our apartment window. You see, I had been running drugs and guns for some people out of Nevada. My wife had asked me to stop so I tried to get out but they said no. On my next run I kept the goods I was to deliver and told them I'd turn it over to the feds if they tried causing me any trouble.
They went to our house, after beating her and realizing she really didn't know where I put the stuff, they gang-raped her and threw her out the window. By some freak accident she lived for several months after that, long enough to tell me who most of the eleven were. She committed suicide while in a state mental institution, as her body was so crippled up from the fall, she had lost all hope and just wanted to die. In August of 1974, I went after the eleven guys who did it and caught nine of them in several different states. I was unable to complete my death mission and get the last two because I got caught here in Idaho...
Now, how would any human --- not to mention Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, you, me, Lozoff --- handle a letter like that, much less try to show such an angry man how to free himself from what had happened? That is the impossible task that the writer of this book has set for himself.
In reading We're All Doing Time, one comes up with not only a how-to-survive course, but a picture of a man named Lozoff who is trying to get prisoners free of the chains within their own heads. For instance, the key is not in atoning for "sins" (atonement being a self-destructive, blaming concept) --- but to grow through experience, to accept the nature of "karma," recognize it as an inevitable step in the human progression towards personal freedom. Lozoff says, in response to the letter above:
I don't mean to imply that you should look back and feel good about it [the murders], but just to try to understand that no accidents happen in this universe. Even the most horrible experiences are still steps along the way. And the pain which may still lie before you from the karma of killing nine people [is] just more of the same: Difficult, necessary steps on your path.
This is the work of a loving man --- a man who has chosen to work with prisoners because of his innate humanity, his willingness to serve. The Lozoffs of the world may well be the saints of our society, for they go to those who are trapped, and offer a message of freedom. It's a simple message: that all freedom lies within.
In prison, the daily dramas can get very heavy. Somebody comes up to start a fight, for example. If your own mind is centered and quiet, you see that they're just creating more karma for themselves, and that you're experiencing karma from your own balance sheet. If you can handle the whole thing without so much anger or fear...then you've begun to break the cycle, and have come one step closer to freedom --- internal, if not external.
Lozoff frankly admits there are some questions without answers. Should one fight if one is going to be raped? The answer --- there is no answer. He points out that the Chief of the Nez Perce would never permit rape because his body was sacred, and he had to protect it. On the other hand, Gandhi would have submitted because he considered his body to be dross, saying, as a good Hindu would, "I don't own this body; it belongs to God."
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This is a practical, how-to-survive book. It gives specific exercises to open the heart and quiet the babbling mind. The main message is: "You'll survive if you lay hate and vengeance aside. You'll contribute to your own spiritual growth --- and your survival --- if you let yourself grow into love." The Bureau of Prisons, if it had any sense, would be ordering these books by the gross, handing them out to their wards. For, after all, the message is one of peace, and acceptance --- or at least tolerance --- and non-violence.
Some people have claimed that the American prison system must perpetuate itself. There's a huge business in the processing, feeding, and keeping the cons off the market. As with most moral systems, it must ultimately pay for itself --- in fact, must yield a handsome dividend. (It isn't just chance that now some private contractors are anticipating fortunes with the privatization of prisons). The 2,500,000 Americans who are spending time in jail are a necessary function of the American economic and social system. The Christian idea of Sin gets raised to an operational level: we all sin; it is the devil in us; we must be punished for those sins; jail is the best way to punish the devil within. And we all get to "pay" for it.
A huge, overcrowded and arbitrary apparatus of prisons is not peculiar to America. There was another prison system in the world as large and as ugly as our own. You guessed it: it was in Stalinist Russia. Which all says a great deal, perhaps too much, about the similarity of governmental processes, our standards of justice, our mutual concepts of "wrong." It demonstrates a similar willingness to purge the body politic by putting away so many anti-social elements. Punishment in both countries was and is built on intolerance and dehumanization.
All we can do is marvel at the hope represented by the people out there, like Lozoff, who are willing to dedicate time and energy to the most dispossessed of minorities --- the poor and the forgotten behind bars who, ultimately, make prisoners out of all of us.--- Ignacio Schwartz