posted by Sam Richards
A number of people have asked about our experiences with “lifers” at the prison–what it’s like? can you visit? who are these people? With that in mind Laurie asked one of them to write something that we could put on the blog and have you step inside the mind of someone in prison, take a peek inside the walls.
That said, as you read this you need to recognize that this particular man is quite evolved in his understanding of himself, his past, and his crime. He feels deep regret for the murder he committed and has sought victim-offender reconciliation. There are plenty of men inside of those walls “who should never get out,” is what this man would say. And he would also say that there are others who are not the same people that they were when they first entered through the prison gates.
Read his words. He wrote them for you…for this class. And remember that the world is infinitely more complex than any of us can imagine. This guy never graduated from high school, by the way.
A few years ago, when I was much younger, I saw something that changed my understanding of the world in which I now live. It wasn’t something that I didn’t already know; I just didn’t realize that I knew it. Nor was it something that I didn’t already do; I just didn’t realize how natural it was for me to do it. But seeing it, naked and out in the open in the way it happened, made me realize how amazing this act really was in this environment.
I was sitting on some bleachers with a friend of mine shooting the breeze when I glanced around and noticed two men huddled together. I knew both of these men and it was strange to see that one of them had his arm around the shoulders of the other, who in turn had his head hanging low and appeared to be crying. What made this so unusual was that from what I knew of these men, they hated each other.
I turned to my friend and motioned with my head and asked, “What’s up with those two?” He looked over and replied, “Oh, his son died in a car crash and he can’t get in touch with anyone on the phone.” Without words we both understood why the one man would put aside his hate and provide comfort. It seemed perfectly natural to us.
As we stood up to leave, both of us deliberately chose to walk over to these two men. In passing them, each of us in turn put a hand on the crying man’s shoulder and with a slight squeeze we told him how sorry we were. This, too, was natural for us and didn’t take any thinking in order to make that gesture.
My friend and I are “lifers,” convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to spend the rest of our lives behind bars with no possibility of parole. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that this entire event took place in a prison yard. But to us, it is simply the world in which we live. To us, those two men weren’t strange; the situation wasn’t even that rare. Perhaps unusual to see it so openly, but that just made it more meaningful to us.
Later that night as I lay in my bunk, I couldn’t sleep. I kept seeing those two men and that simple act of compassion made me review my world. How many times have I seen or done similar acts and never really thought about it? You would think that in a place filled with convicted criminals, compassion would be so rare that the sight of it would cause suspicion. But here in this place that most people think is full of “beasts” and “uncaring violent predators,” it is actually rather common.
Here there were two convicts who didn’t like one another sharing this very human moment. One was in pain and the other wasn’t’ going to get anything in return for helping to alleviate his suffering. He was doing something that any thinking, feeling, caring man does for another.
Everyday behind these razor wire topped fences there are little acts of compassion. Sometimes it is stopping to listen to another man complain about his day, even though your day has been just as rotten. Another time it may be letting a man use your phone time so he can speak with his daughter on her birthday. But no matter what the act, it is often done without hesitation and with no expectation of anything in return.
You might not believe men in here are capable of compassion—beneath the surface knowledge of another’s plight…not simple sympathy…but a deep soulful understanding. I’m talking about truly feeling another’s pain and wanting to help. This compassion isn’t reserved for fellow prisoners; it is felt for all who suffer any kind of misfortune anywhere in the world.
I have stood beside men as we discussed with a hitch in our voices, blinking back tears, some horrible disaster in the world. I know how upset and frustrated we all feel that we cannot chip in and help. I’ve stood in line with others to give blood, or helped fill out forms to donate money, even written letters to try and help those in need. It seems that whenever a tragedy occurs there is a rallying of men here to provide whatever we can do.
Even in this dark place of hate and misery, you find compassion. You see human beings helping one another simply because seeing another suffer touches their soul. Such compassion is not a commodity held only for the innocent; it is the heart’s recognition of pain in another and the soul’s demand to provide succor—and to any human being no matter their circumstance.
You may believe prison is filled with the worst of men, and there is some truth to that. But look beyond preconceived ideas and you will find some of the tenets of humanity performed in the most incredibly simply ways and by the most unlikely of individuals for the greatest of reasons – to relieve suffering. And why? Because we all suffer and any relief, no matter how small, is of great relief to us all.