Folsom 5/22-26, 2000

From: The Mankind Project Reader, Letters From The Front: journal, first MKP Training in Folsom Prison, May 2000.

Last Monday morning, thirty of us — all but one a New Warrior, at the time — entered the educational section of Folsom State Prison and formed a circle.  We stood respectfully by, as fourteen convicts, almost all of them “Lifers,” were brought in.  These men had been meeting together with brothers Rob Allbee, Don Morrison, and Bob Petersen, of the Northern California region, for six months in a group format.  The men who walked through the door that morning were of different races and ranged from hulking to smaller than me, but every one of them, to me, carried the hardened exterior of someone who might be unreachable.  The purpose of that first morning — “merely” — was to break the ice.  We did check-ins — feelings/”why are you here?,” and then broke up into the triads we would return to for much of the week.  From what I could see, the convicts (they insisted on being called this) were polite and very guarded as we discussed the concept of armoring.  There was also fear, hovering on the staff side, that these men stood in danger of life-threatening reprisal from fellow inmates just for attempting to reach out to do this work.

This last part, at least, didn’t prove to be the case.  We toured the prison later that morning very much protected by our men.  We were shown the bathroom-sized cells, then led out onto “the yard.”  It was over 100 degrees that day.  Well over a thousand prisoners — lifting weights, jogging around the track, playing handball or hoops, or just hanging out — came into view as we made our way out onto the dusty grounds, about the size of two football fields, side by side.  Eyes were on us.  Many of them had heard we were coming.  Our men, surrounding us, not only had the “yard clout” to keep us safe, but to put out word as to who we were and why we were there.  The energy hovering about the huge, packed yard was thick, very intense, raw.  To me, it was not unlike the energy of Friday night at a New Warrior training, only multiplied exponentially.

When we got back to the educational building, things were looser, more joking around.  When we did “I see in you…” and “What don’t you trust in this man…?”, and it became clear that this was truly going to be a mutual growth process, the men seemed to gain trust and eagerness — they even gave staff a few stretches to be completed that night!

The next day, we worked on armor again, hearing their stories of betrayal.  Stories started to drip out of their own childhood abuse.  Many of them had been abandoned early on — or far worse.  Almost all of them had been taken advantage of and been left “holding the bag” by their partners, even by their families.  A tremendous amount of deep, deep pain began getting bucketed.

Back at the nearby houses we were staying at, staff met late each afternoon for staff meeting.  There were a lot of tears shed at what was beginning to develop as a true miracle — beyond the expectations even of the organizers who knew and trusted these men.  We set up for “Carpet Work” in two teams, led by Bill Wich and James McLeary.

Wednesday morning with “Little Boy’s Deepest Needs.”  The terms we spoke in were of “medicine” and “poison” instead of gold and shadow, and the concept that was held out to the men was that their little boy’s longing, when turned around, could also be their medicine.  Carpet work ran for the entire day.  The first man to go was the staffer amongst us who himself had never been initiated.  The convicts responded deeply to this man’s work.  However different the circumstances, the apprehensive body language of the convicts as they waited to do their work at the edge of the carpet, was very familiar.  “Swimmin’ in the Hot Sauce” one convict-brother dubbed it.  We barely got the last man in by ending time that day — 3:30 precisely — and farewells were brief.

When the men walked in the following morning, there was deep energy in the room.  The hugs were more prolonged.  On their own, each convict wanted to move through our entire circle to hug.  I can’t describe it except to say that the men seemed to be cutting deep furrows where they walked.  Spirit seemed to be very heavily at work — having been cut off in midstream the previous afternoon, the men were all diving back in as if only ten minutes had elapsed.  Without a word from staff, they proceeded to circle themselves up in the middle of the room to let us bear witness to some of their own internal business.  They hadn’t known how to deal with some problems, but now they sensed they did.  I can only say that not only the future of their group, but life and death hung in the balance of the issue at stake.

As we all looked on, what I later heard repeatedly described as “the hand of God at work” occurred.  It may have been the hand of God, but it was also THEM.  They took turns dealing with the issue, using facilitation skills far beyond anything they had been taught.  Most of all, they were tearing their own hearts out, trying to deal with an age-old prison issue in a drastically new way.  One convict-brother, in tears and desperately trying to steer himself in the direction of forgiveness, presented the man he saw as having deeply betrayed him with a pebble he’d been carrying in his pocket for nine years, polished smooth with his own struggles.

The circle of staff, from what I could see, stood awestruck.  We couldn’t move.  I don’t think any of us had a category or body area to hold  what we were witnessing.  In stead of the usual 120 volts, 240 was streaming through my body, and finally, out my eyes in tears.  When they were finally done, we staff stood dumbfounded; I don’t think we had any idea if we had anything left to offer these men.  We said as much.  Much of the itinerary was simply tossed out.  For the balance of that day, we simply divided into three groups and attempted to break down some practical facilitation skills.

The morning of the final day was spent unloading grief — grief that we would soon be separated (our future together so very much up in the air), grief at the ancient proportions of the work we had undergone together, grief to be unloaded so we could try to return to a place of celebration.  We found out that the previous evening the men had gathered together in public — on the yard — for the first time.  A cop, seeing them encircled so blatantly across racial lines, had sensed trouble and tried to break them up by coming up and demanding who they thought they were.  They turned to him and told him, “The Mankind Project.”  The reason for their getting together was to think up spiritual names for each one of us staff.

Like I said — I don’t have the words.  I’ve never been prouder of this organization or more sure of what we can do together… never more sure that I’m being drawn into a movement guided by the ancients.  What I witnessed — that Thursday morning, particularly — from convict-brother and staff alike, will take a lifetime for me to unpack and is infinite enough to encompass everything I am going to get to this lifetime.  I say this joyfully: There is nothing that I need to get to, this lifetime, that wasn’t going on in that room, that morning.

I initially believed these men to be hardened; now I see them as tempered.  The intensity of the container in there is at a level that is hard to imagine.  This has also prepared them for this work in a way I couldn’t have forseen.  They are daily faced with the potential collapse of their lives, their broken dreams, their own lies and the penalty for them, the potential for brotherhood — usually lacking.  They are aware that they walk the razor’s edge welcoming this energizing work into their lives — but at the same time, given their surroundings, being absolutely unable to mess up.  Many people in fact are waiting for them to mess up.  Despite this, I have seen with my own eyes that they are truly willing to dive into the heart of this work… men forced to face themselves and their own mortality so fully, that they are renewed.  After seeing these men work, it is no longer a stretch for me at all to envision our prisons as crucibles of tranformation of all of society — not “Us” going in to save them, but They getting out to save us.

By the time we left Friday, word had spread even further amongst the convicts at large as to what kind of work we were doing.  There are eyes everywhere.  Word had gone out about how intensely joyous the men leaving the building looked.  Word was given to us that many other convicts were vowing to do the same work — they wanted to know when we were coming back.

My intent is to do whatever I can to, in time, bring such trainings into the prisons in our area — Salem, for one.  For now, Rob’s organization, “Inside Circle Foundation,” is certainly out front, the pilot.  It is in the process of applying for tax deductable status.  Any contributions (to 455 Capital Mall, Suite 303; Sacramento, CA  95814) would be greatly appreciated.  My expectation is that all this information, for now, will be kept within the brotherhood.

Michael Welch

“Maker of Words”

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