Lessons from Behind the Walls

The words of Jesus from Matthew 25:36-40: “I was in prison and you came to visit me. ... Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.”

I felt nervous entering Plainfield Correctional Facility in Plainfield, Indiana in October. I believed that prisons were not at all the safest places to be, though I had been told that visitors are usually safe. If there were to be an exception, I figured it would probably be me.

I was there to attend my third Alternatives to Violence (AVP) workshop training for facilitators, after which I would be an apprentice facilitator. AVP is a volunteer organization that promotes peace and non-violence. It had its beginnings with Quakers. Back in the 1970s, inmates at a prison in Pennsylvania petitioned some Quakers for help. They wanted to learn how to cope with the stress of life and how to resolve conflicts non-violently so that they would not end up in prison again.

In response to the request, the Quakers put together material and a workshop that became the founding material for AVP. As one might expect with Quakers, the workshop is experiential in nature. Beyond these origins, AVP no longer has ties with Quakers. It is a separate and independent volunteer organization.

In addition to conducting workshops in prisons, AVP also conducts them in community settings, including one hosted by Cincinnati Friends Meeting in 2018, planned by Meeting attender Joe Henry, an AVP apprentice facilitator at that time.

Having already attended two workshops in the community, I was eager to continue my training in a prison. In October, I was one of four outside participants at that prison in Indiana, one of which was the facilitator. The rest of the 20 or so taking part were inmates, which included three who were serving as facilitators.

I was careful to avoid wearing blue or red, as those colors are sometimes associated with gangs, and I know that prisons do have gang problems. I wore my tan khaki pants and my beige pullover. I learned later that although some prisons do have gang problems, Plainfield was not among them.

As the inmates began to file into the room, I made a more immediate and disconcerting discovery. The color of the inmates' jumpsuits was …. you guessed it …. beige.

We sat down in a circle and began, in typical AVP fashion, by giving our AVP adjective nickname and by naming all those who had introduced themselves before us. I was close to the end of the circle, worried about remembering all those names. In spite of a mental block when I started, I was able to recite all the names that had come before me except for the very last one, at which point one or two of the inmates encouragingly helped. Was it my imagination, or was there some level of appreciation, perhaps the sense that they were being seen as individuals?

AVP workshops are comprised of different sessions with different topics. The one session that stood out for me was “How has violence affected me?” It was held on the second day, by which time we had gotten to know each other and had laughed together. My feelings of anxiety long since vanished. I felt a sense of community, a sense of belonging. This time we went around the circle as each person shared their experiences of violence, so many from childhood. I started feeling awkward and different. I didn’t have anything remotely close to what most of the inmates shared. If some of these things had happened to me as a child, how would it have affected me? I had grown up in a non-violent neighborhood, with no overt violent experiences to share. Despite this, I did not sense even a bit of recrimination or disdain from the others around me during or after the session. Perhaps they already knew. Perhaps I was the one who was unaware.

One of my main takeaways is that people in prison are, first and foremost, people. If I had met them in a different place, most would have appeared to me to be not much different than anyone else. Some have done some bad things. Some appeared to me to be working hard, really wanting to turn their lives around. One man was especially humorous …. humor in prison.

I am changed from this experience, more prepared to be an AVP facilitator, and changed at a personal level perhaps even more. Though my Mom has passed away, I experienced a lifting of resentment that I have carried with me from my childhood. I am open and more understanding of the imperfect human being she was, as I accept myself as the imperfect human being I am.

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