PS: If you’re still hungry, here’s another reflection on the day:
On the rainy afternoon of Friday, November 16, 2012, something happened in a little chapel behind the walls of a major prison. The result of what happened expands far beyond the moments that were shared behind those walls.
A community came together and expressed itself. It took the initiative to validate the hard work that true transformation demands to welcome 34 life-sentenced men back into their midst. That community included all stakeholders: prison officials, family members of the prisoners, challenged youth, victims, a paroled lifer, a Mayor, a District Attorney, citizens, volunteers, chaplains and the prisoners themselves.
Believe me, heaven and earth had to move for this ceremony to happen. Every obstacle in the book was thrown at it. I had already reluctantly accepted that apparently for me to be calling for this ritual I was to be tested on practicing everything I had preached to others all year. But the call early Friday morning to cancel the event had me fall to my knees. I felt awfully small and helpless. I wept. I prayed. I called on everything I knew that had power. (O, yes; you learn to pray in prison…) And then the phone rang and I heard that last minute, heaven and earth had moved and that we were on! Everyone feverishly jumped into gear to claim our moment together. Meals for 200 people were cooked in 2 hours, caps and gowns were hauled across the prison, the chapel was transformed for our ritual, programs were folded, sound and cameras were wired, prison officials ran back and forth, etc.
The men and accompanying speakers gracefully illustrated what it meant to guide rage into power. The speakers showed their strengths in being transparent, vulnerable and authentic. They displayed how their freedom was earned in their stories of sitting in the fire, burning clean and leaving ashes, instead of adding their drama to ‘The Drama.’
Many who attended the event shared glowing, eloquent points of view via email. I will share them with the graduates. For now, I’d like to share the words of one attendee who reflects on the impact of our time together, beyond the walls It felt like a graduation, village fete, church, wedding, inspiring speaker event, therapy, and concert all at once.
There were lots of emotional moments, of course, but when the men stood up and held their certificates above their heads, I had this profound sense of gratitude to them for committing to make the world a safer place for all of us, but perhaps most especially for the baby girl I look forward to bringing into the world early next year. ~Sara Tollefson
I believe that people who go through a truly transformative ritual remain connected in some way. I am asking that we stay in touch and grow as a movement. Please go our website http://www.insight-out.org and find the red box that says, “Join Us” to receive news, updates, and invitations related to rehabilitation, social justice and prison reform. Your comments and suggestions on an existing section called “Prison Reform” would be most welcomed too.
If you believe in furthering this work in the world, please consider supporting it financially. It is a small miracle how Insight-Out functions and your generosity goes a long way. We have grand aspirations for trained prisoners to teach the GRIP Program to their brothers and sisters who are still incarcerated.
1. At San Quentin there is a waiting list for the GRIP Program of over 150 men right now.
2. There is a pilot project for 4-5 other prisons that is awaiting support.
3. Challenged youth groups waiting on the other side of the same pipeline seek support. No youth should have to shout-out the names of his five gunned-down and dead friends at any ceremony, as happened last Friday.
Thank you all: Veronica, Warden Chappell, Chief Deputy Warden Rodrigues (big time!), CDCR Under-Secretary Elizabeth Siggins, Steve Emrick, Cory, Susan, Brent, Jun, Earl Christine, Kris, Phillip, Mayor of Richmond, Marin District Attorney Ed Berberian. Please imagine all the men, all their victims and the families standing behind me in thanking you.
PS: When I was an eleven year old boy living in the Netherlands, the spiritual, ‘Oh, Happy Day,’ became a surprise hit and was # 1 on the hit parade. I remember how, when hearing it the first time, I felt transported by a new sense of joy which I could not explain, but took over my being until it spilled over. A good forty years later, after asking the San Quentin Choir to sing the song and feeling it break down the prison’s walls during the rite of passage ritual, the meaning of that joy was revealed to me. When we formed a human arch for the men to pass through, the true name for this joy manifested; its name is REDEMPTION. ‘To deem’ means ‘to judge’. To re-deem therefore means to be judged again, after your first judgment – and to be found worthy. It was a massive victory that we as a community gathered to lay witness to a movement of redemption.