Lunch with the Warden

Yesterday I drove to the maximum security prison to have lunch with the warden.

I was invited two weeks ago and finally, after much resistance and rationalizing, I decided to go. I did not regret the hour and half driving. The room was packed with people who were involved in the inmates' self-help program.  There were pastors from the Church of God, priests from The Mormon church, men in suits from the Jehovah Witnesses and a Buddhist group. These dedicated people had been doing their sacred work for over ten years. I was the rookie.

The occasion for the lunch was the warden’s retirement and introduction to the new warden.

The new warden gave a very sincere and practical speech. He compared the prison guards to sheep dogs and the bad guys amongst the prisoners to  wolves. ” The sheep,” he said, “do not like the sheep dog but they are very afraid of the wolf.” “It’s a barter,” he said, ”you can either have more security and less comfort for inmates or less security and more ease around the prison.” “Our job, he said, “is to provide maximum security to the inmates and protect them from those in prison that are really dangerous.” He finished his speech and sat down.

We then took turns standing up and introducing ourselves.

The lady from the Church of God talked a great deal. She kept on referring to God as the one who told her to come and help the prisoners find Jesus Christ. She radiated strong conviction and obviously preached to the choir. At times it felt as if she was trying to remind and convince herself. There was no sense of innocence or humility in her words. Next, a young woman stood up and told her story of how the life of her family turned upside down when her brother was convicted and sent to prison.  That was what motivated her to start volunteer work in prison. She broke down as she spoke and sat down wiping her tears.

The introductions went on and on. Each person stating their gratitude to the retiring warden for having them and helping establish the program. Apparently he was a visionary in this way. This highly notorious prison was one of the first to comprehend that the inmates have to be given tools so they can cope with life outside.

Each group was delivering a message. Their agenda was clear and known. The prison was an arena where they were received with open heart and gratitude. They could proselytize and not cause friction and animosity, since the inmates were very needy and responded to anyone who was not a guard and who was willing to listen and say a comforting word. The price for the generosity offered, was small potatoes. Accept Jesus Christ as the Savior.

It became my turn. I had no agenda, hidden or otherwise, and no missionary vision. ”I am here because many years ago I realized that the only thing that really makes me happy is doing and giving. Unconditionally. Everything else dwarfs.” Everyone raised their heads. The warden looked embarrassed. I continued. ”I never really was attracted to any religious teaching. Even as a child I found the gospel didactic. I believe that above religion there is God. And a human being can carve his way to divinity without going through a middleman. All he needs is a tool.”

The silence in the room was deafening. I swallowed and continued. ”I am so humbled by you all. You have been coming here for years trying to help people who did not help themselves. I am grateful to walk in your footsteps.” I sat down. The atmosphere got more relaxed and a soft murmur replaced the silence. I looked at the warden and we exchanged smiles. As we
were parting, he came over to me and said, ”I am very interested in meditation.” I looked at his eyes and saw depth and awareness that come from years of carrying heavy loads. Loads that very often lead to nowhere. I remembered in my own life how futile efforts made me grow and change as much as accomplished missions. Overcoming the frustration is a certain path to growth. “Please come to classes, warden,” I said, “I see it all inside you.” I heard myself talk with a sense of disbelief at my own words. The warden in one of the most guarded prisons in the U.S sitting in my meditation classes??? I found that very uplifting.

I made a mental note to talk to the warden and see if we can initiate a meditation class for the guards. I thought that it could be important both to the guards in their monumental task and to the inmates, knowing that they are dealing with people who are not just walking sticks and guns. What a great project it would be to initiate such a program on a national scale.

The lunch ended at around 1:00 and I started preparing to my evening class at the prison compound. The evening class was somewhat tense. There were two cases of stabbings
this morning and an helicopter had to be flown in to carry the (seriously) wounded inmate to the hospital. We started the class with the So Hum exercise, the inhale and exhale of breath to relax the inner system. I introduced this exercise after one of the inmates asked me whether the double breathing technique is all there is. I realized that the students in the class need to be intrigued and prompted until the time comes where their inner journey is exciting enough and no other techniques are necessary.

We sat quietly for few minutes inhaling on the So and exhaling on the Hum. The class was profound. I felt areas in myself waking up to life. Harold came to me after the class. “That was strong”, he said and averted his eyes. Benito looked better than I have ever seen him. I knew he was struggling with his uncle’s terminal cancer. His uncle is incarcerated in a cell next to him and Benito supports him through his last days. My heart suddenly filled with such enormous respect for this group of people. I see real changes in them. I see a certain gentility sipping in. The obtuse, veiled look is shuttered and one can see more of God in them. ”I am so honored and humbled to be here,” I said. ”You teach me so much.” I had to say that as my heart was pouring over with gratitude. I am always in awe of these people who sit motionless for forty minutes breathing and trying to open to the unknown.

“It is the only quiet time we have in the week,” said Alex, ”then we go the madness out there,” he pointed at the courts and cells. I am aware at the struggle they have keeping a certain openness in a place that looks upon it as a weakness. “Don’t be a victim,” I said, “stay away from those who would harm you. You don’t have to hug and love everyone. At least not outwardly.” They all laughed. It was incomprehensible to me that the inmate’s greatest danger was not from the guards but from other inmates. Apparently they kept their gang affiliations and loyalty also in prison. The two almost fatal incidents this morning stemmed from a ‘Northern’ crossing the path of one of the ‘Southern’ inmates. A matter of disrespect. North and South were determined by their geographical location in California.

This coming week is going to be my first class in M Yard. M stands for Minimum, for inmates that are short time away from release. I am looking forward to it.