The degree of civilization of a society is measured by the treatment of its prisoners.
Every time I can, I join the Freedom to Choose Project group. It's about spending the weekend in the state prison, in Fresno County, California. On this occasion, everything is different because we are going with recording and photography equipment. We are in the process of filming a documentary of the work and impact of the foundation, the population at risk, inside the prison, and already in the process of reintegrating when leaving. Freedom to Choose has been working in California prisons for twelve years to offer the internal population workshops on addiction, emotional freedom, personal relationships and above all deep forgiveness, letting go of shame, guilt that is crueler than prison itself. Freedom to Choose is responsible for giving seminars and material for reflection to integrate back into our authentic human nature, one of love and balance.
The goal of the documentary's creation, in the last analysis, is to see as many people as possible to raise awareness; Of course, raising funds is also very important, because that way you can make more materials, share with more people at risk (I always say we are all).
Taking a step inside a prison, whatever it may be, means crossing the threshold between reality as you know it and the other alternate reality as real as yours. At this point, far from being an expert, I have had the luck to enter and leave several prisons, some in Mexico, such as Santa Marta Acatitla. A generalized vibration of division and separation is what is clear to me, as if entering into the air is gridded and circulated divided into hierarchies and priority levels, skin colors, clothing, and danger, etc. It is a sharp, magnified version of just the origin of what has these people in this condition, the separation of themselves, their human nature, from that of others around them. In short, step by step, so much to love and to integrate into our experience.
These prisons house men and women who committed crimes, that is an undeniable fact. Many of the prisoners serve life sentences.
During the filming, the lieutenant in charge of the prison was in charge of escorting us and supervising that we keep the respect and follow the rules to the letter, during our visit. He was a man in whom every movement was thought to become a reaction in case something unexpected happened. At no time did he stop being aware of his surroundings. In spite of that, he seemed to be an affable guy, devoted to the conversation and reflection of his office as a custodian and previously as a probation officer. He was alert and simultaneously attended us with all his presence, answered everything we asked him and most impressively, it seemed that he was acting and that he would take off the human costume and be an angel with great wings working and accompanying all these characters in his pain.
"In all these years I have seen the thread that is offered to these men, all the alternatives they have had in their lives, they are criminals, in some way, generation after generation," commented the lieutenant. "They're used to this, it's not a tragedy for them, it's almost a habit"
I asked him to develop his idea. Basically, he argued that the prisoners had been put behind bars long before they were in prison. They were destined, sooner or later, to end here, according to the lieutenant. Lack of access to opportunities, family violence, addictions, etc. Many of them came from completely dysfunctional families that had violated them when they were children. Others had grown criminalized because of their appearance, religion or economic condition. Society had relegated them, long before they committed their first violent crime. Most, the lieutenant pointed out, had given warning signals in his adolescence and youth. The problem is that nobody realizes or goes so fast that we simply do not care, in the world we live in today, without a doubt, we cross roads more than once a day and touch the life of someone who suffers deeply, someone at risk of dying or killing of pain.
"Throughout his life, these men have only known the language of violence," said the lieutenant and told me about the case of a prisoner with whom he sometimes spoke, a young man who was thirty-five years old at the time of my visit and who entered the penal system at fifteen. When he was just a boy his father set him on fire; he burned it. Since he was able to remember, he was related to an environment plagued by drugs, alcohol, and violence in his family nucleus. He was condemned for stabbing his brother as a teenager. I felt all the answers at all levels, from the visceral contraction to the deepest compassion.
The destruction of the social, juridical, physical, emotional and spiritual body of the men and women who were now imprisoned seemed an immovable fact within our society. Something natural, even. I do not understand how people calm down when they think in a binary way that prisons separate bad from good ones.
"The prison is a microcosm of the world," the lieutenant said. "The only difference is that here we have reduced the colors to only two, green or blue.
"Outside there are yellows, reds, greens, blacks, oranges, whites ..." I answered.
The lieutenant smiled and said he understood it perfectly. There was silence immediately.
"Do you know why they walk alone?"
I wonder. Because they are forbidden to walk in a group.
Then he told me that he had the opportunity to be a probation officer in California. During that time he realized that the reality of the prison, the way in which life is determined, divided into classes, projected by an irrevocable order, extends to daily life. To that life to which the prisoners wanted to return and do not know how to do it.
"What alternatives do we give to these people in society when they leave?"
I did not have an answer and I still do not have it. Indeed, what can be different in the world when they leave prison twenty, thirty, forty years after they have entered? What world do they come back to? Is there something better for them?
The truth is that the world before and after his imprisonment remains the same, even worse, because now he has lost that mask that hid his true face. They know. Those who ignore it are us, who believe in the logic of the good and the bad, the innocent and the guilty. The prison is only a storage, a sterile pause, a confinement without education, without rehabilitation, without work, without opportunities.
The work of expanding the awareness that freedom and liberation are very different issues seems powerful to me. One can be free in the street imprisoned by pain and dysfunctional attachments and imprisoned without being able to access anything or anyone and achieve internal liberation. I work in prison because I believe in humanity, in all humanity, because I believe we have to return humanity to all humans, not just those who behave well. In no way underestimate the impact of crime, in no way justify the crimes, nor those who exercised them; I believe that the consequence of the choices we make are part of human responsibility and sustainability, what I mean is to find the space of equanimity that brings us back to our humanity and see others as humans too.
In my own flesh, I have to live the repercussions of this painful circumstance. My grandmother was kidnapped and murdered and the ramifications of the deep pain and tragedy of this are incomprehensible. I know, and yet I am sure that these humans are not monsters, or subhumans, or whatever, it is clear to me that they had to separate themselves from their humanity to be able to act like this, it is clear to me that they were not present in their own lives, in its human essence, that had to see my grandmother as separated from them, as of another nature, from another team, to be able to attack her. I believe that if we see each other heart to heart, human to human, we have better possibilities to remember who we really are and to take care of each other, to literally return the soul to the body.
In this context, it is in which the organization Freedom to Choose tries to generate a change. And it is also the reason why we are interested in making the documentary. I shared some ideas with the lieutenant before we finished our tour. When we said goodbye, he added that there was someone who would like to introduce me.
"His name is Tony," he said.
Tony had been in jail for thirty years when I met him. He entered the twenties, at the end of the eighties, when there were no tablets or wireless internet. He was only twenty-six days after his release. Prisoner between two centuries that have changed at an intimidating speed, he did not have the certainty of what awaited him out there in the world.
As a gift from the universe, you end up witnessing an intimate conversation between the lieutenant and Tony. I got the impression that two friends were talking. It was clear that on the lieutenant's part there was an honest and fraternal desire to do Tony well, and Tony knew it.
After all this imprisoned time he was distressed by his departure. One would think the opposite. But the truth is that, for Tony, going back to his home, to his neighborhood, to his people, meant returning to the reality that led him to prison, to the gang he had been the boss of. Tony was fifty years old, and despite that, when he saw him, listening to him, he could almost swear he was a frightened child.
"Look," said the lieutenant, "all those people who worry about finding you again and whom you met thirty years ago, listen to me well, thirty years, probably dead already, or in another prison serving life imprisonment. You are one in a thousand, you were very lucky, you behaved well, you are healthy, you are going to have a second chance.
"So be it," Tony answered and calmed down. He crossed his arms, brooding. His time in prison was used to learn how to train help dogs. The lieutenant told me that Tony was a strong, unshakeable man, that he had tried to rehabilitate himself and that he had become very good at his job.
I was moved by the innocence with which Tony expressed his fears, his doubts. I was glad to know that this life without options in prison, for thirty long years, had not managed to upset something inside him, something that neither confinement, nor lack of education, nor prejudice, nor violence had harmed, a kind of innocence, a faith in which existence could be considered in other terms.
This experience made me reflect on my behaviors. In what way do I participate as a human being to alleviate the pain experienced by other beings? While it is true that I can not resolve Tony's life, I kept wondering how I could participate in the world to honor and honor the humanity of which I am a member. On the other hand, I felt blessed to be there.
Our participation in the world is dysfunctional, personally and collectively. We do not assume that we are part, that we must be part of a larger history of love for humanity. We need a grid to understand, to see the world in terms of separation, of segregation, under frames of reference that we inherit and that clearly does not work. Life is not black and white, judging in terms of good and evil, we just fell short.