I went to Folsom State Prison this past weekend, bringing Council Practice to fourteen lifers.
The goal is to alter the culture of prison from the inside out. The dream is to create circles where CO’s and Inmates sit together and listen to one another.
The dream is big. I know.
My mentor told me this weekend would change my life. I gave a big sigh. Hadn’t ayahuasca already done that? Surely my life could stay somewhat the same?
We drove four hours from Los Angeles to Fresno and spent Friday night in a cheap motel. We woke up early Saturday morning and drove into Folsom.
Walking up to the prison, I was confused at first. Was this shit for real? It looked like the back lot of Universal Studios. The gothic structures and jutting rock made it look fake, but the barbed wire let you know it was very real.
We went through security. I was told no makeup, pull my hair back, and do not wear an underwire bra.
I tried to look as simple as possible. I felt anything but.
We walked through the prison, past the cafeteria where Johnny Cash played, through the yard, and into the Educational Center out back. Not many inmates were around at that time. I am not sure where they were, but it was soundless.
We settled into the room as quickly as possible, thinking we did not have much time before the 14 pre-picked lifers would show up. We only had two days to teach them everything we knew about holding Council so that they could practice without us for the next six months.
The State of California is funding this initiative, and it is happening in Prisons all over California, currently.
I am so honored to be a part of this work at this time and acutely aware of being the only female in the room as the prisoners filed in. Three hours late, I might add. But what can you do? Prison life.
The first day was powerful. The men dropped in and shared from the heart and listened from the heart and even though I had no idea why they were each in there, and I know it had to be something pretty horrible, these men were, without a doubt, rehabilitated.
It was hard to leave that first day. Especially because we walked out by a row of cells and I was astonished at how small they were. The inhumanity of their living conditions shocked me.
Once back in my motel room, sitting on a cheap comforter, I sobbed. Because I had made a connection with each of those men, as human beings, and I got to leave, choose what restaurant I was going to eat at, and they would never leave.
One of the gentlemen had been in there 43 years. That was one year older than me.
The second day was very different. First of all, it had been freezing the day before so I wore the only sweater I packed. A bright yellow and white striped knitted thing. I didn’t think twice about it until we started walking again, through the prison, except this time, it was full of inmates. I had to walk through the chow line and a full cafeteria to get to our building. I could not be more conspicuous in that damn sweater. I was like a bumble bee wading through a sea of brown and gray and dark blue. I felt all eyes upon me. There were no catcalls, not a peep. I think the men were shocked more than anything. The looks were more “What the fuck is she doing here?” then lecherous. Being so close to so many inmates was a trip, yet I always felt safe.
We weren’t allowed in the Education Center the second day. The Sheriff in sharge that day wanted to throw his weight around and didn’t feel the locks on the doors in the Education Center were sufficient so he sent us to the Hang Man’s Gallows. That is right. The Hang Man’s Gallows. The only space they had for us was the two story cell block where they used to hang the prisoners. No longer in use, they kept it intact for programming. I shit you not. We set up an oval circle of chairs in gothic dungeon of a room with four cells on the bottom, and four on top, and the remnants of gallows above us. 279 men died there. Their ghosts were palpable.
We held one of the most profound, deep, and powerful circles I have ever witnessed there. I felt honored to be among them and I lfet vowing to never forget the 14 men of Folsom State Prison.
And I have not.