Near the end of April, those in my chaplaincy class who were so inclined went on another field trip, this time to San Quentin State Prison, just north of San Francisco in Marin County. We’d had to submit our names and driver’s license numbers weeks in advance to get clearance, and Gil, our teacher who took us on this field trip, told us that even with clearance, we could arrive and be denied entry, if there had been violence and the prison was on lockdown, or if it proved to be foggy, which impedes the ability of guards to see inmates in the yard from their towers and shoot them if necessary. Gil also warned us that, in the event we were taken hostage, we would not be recognized as such for bargaining purposes.
There is a strict dress code for visitors, which prohibits the colors that make up 99% of my wardrobe: green, blue and yellow. No denim of any color is allowed. I zipped into a thrift store a few days before our visit to pick up a tan men’s shirt to wear with my black work pants.
Our group of about 12 met in the parking lot and walked to the first guard station, where our host, Jacques Verduin, advised us to stay together, to stay out of the guards’ way, and to follow any of his instructions immediately. We entered the campus, which is pretty, with handsome old buildings ringing open spaces with grass and flowers. Odd that from that pleasant spot, we could see the Adjustment Center.
We went into the chapel, where we sat in a big circle for the weekly mindfulness meditation group led by Jacques. Besides us, there were maybe 35 inmates in the room. As inmates entered the room, they shook hands with us and told us their names. Jacques had told us visitors to spread out, so almost all of us were sitting with an inmate on either side. Most wore jeans or navy sweatpants, most of which, but not all, had PRISONER running down one leg in big letters. Many wore blue shirts of a particularly lovely hue, a bright sky blue. I was interested to see that no two pairs of shoes were the same—I guess you get to keep your own—and hairstyles also varied.
Jacques led us in a brief meditation, and then those who wished to shared about how their meditation practice helps them. Jerome, sitting to my right, said that his practice helps him distinguish the stories he tells himself in his head from reality. I was impressed. I think it took me about 15 years to get that. Many of the prisoners had very clear, insightful things to say about their meditating, and many also said they love coming to the group each week, where it’s peaceful and quiet and where they can do something that is constructive and leaves them feeling calm. It sounded like everyone in the room has a daily sitting practice.
Jacques seems to be doing a remarkable job, somehow getting right to the heart of the matter in short order. A reading was handed around, and people took turns reading aloud a paragraph, and then they or others could comment on that paragraph. It is clear that one of Jacques’ priorities is to help his students understand how feelings and thoughts are experienced in their bodies. Part of the reading said, “It’s exactly in perceiving how I hold an experience in the body that I come to understand how I attach meaning to it and I become able to see it in a wider perspective.”
Then Jacques invited us chaplaincy students to ask any questions we had. He told us not to be polite, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask, “So, uh, what kinds of crimes did you commit?” One of us asked for a specific example of a moment when a prisoner’s meditation practice had been helpful and one inmate shared an anecdote about that. Another question was about racial tensions in the prison, but someone said it’s not really a problem there—it helps that 85% of the inmates are African American. Another questioner noted the feeling of camaraderie in the room—is it very different outside the meditation group? The answer, which was surprising, was that there is a feeling throughout the prison population that the inmates are brothers.
Toward the end, we meditated together again and then Jacques asked us visitors to stay seated and for the prisoners to walk around in a circle and bow to each of us, which they did. He said we were simply to receive this, but I saw some of my classmates bowing in return, so I did the same, but I didn’t need to, because next the inmates sat down and we visitors walked around the circle to bow to each inmate. I looked into the eyes of each person I bowed to and smiled and tried to see him as if I were the person who most loved him in all the world. Most inmates politely bowed back, but some followed instructions and just received our respect and good wishes, though nearly everyone whispered, “Thank you.”
A second post on our trip to San Quentin is forthcoming.