“Oh the weather outside is frightful,” S. sung cheerfully as the snow drifting down beyond grated windows began to fall with more urgency. “But the fire is so delightful…” A few guys sprawled out in lightweight plastic chairs began to snap their fingers along with her. “And since we’ve no place to go—” A pause, as the truth of the words sat in the air, then laughter. “Nowhere to go,” agreed one participant, chuckling, as S. belted out the last “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!”
The moment’s awkwardness, humor, and poignancy resembled many others moments that weekend, as Fairleigh, Maire, Talia, and I made our way through the Quaker-influenced Alternatives to Violence Program. The workshop leverages participants’ own experiences and ideas to examine and transform the ways in which they respond to injustice, prejudice, frustration, and violence. AVP workshops are held in schools, community groups, and prisons. Our workshop took place in Patuxent prison in Maryland and included ten “inside” (currently incarcerated) guys, three inside facilitators, two outside facilitators, and the four of us QVSers.
I found it fascinating to watch the inside/outside dynamics play out in the workshop. Our group was significantly divided – most obviously by race and gender, but also by education and other markers of privilege – yet somehow, these differences were harnessed to enhance, rather than frustrate or confuse, our discussions of nonviolence. We developed a sort of symbiotic learning relationship over the course of the weekend, in which the differences between us multiplied power of the experience.
On the one hand, our outside presence helped make the workshop possible. In a pragmatic sense, the authority of outside leaders was needed to open the doors of the rec room and obtain permission for the inside guys to gather. But our participation also opened metaphorical doors: a few of the guys told us that when the listeners were outsiders, they could be more open with their feelings and could bring forth and affirm the best parts of themselves. We were neither the typical inside audience who they had to impress with their toughness, nor the typical, prejudiced audience outside the prison to whom they were forced to prove their human worth. We were, as much as possible, listeners and collaborators.
Conversely, doing the workshop in a prison and in the company of prisoners was for me (and I think the other QVSers as well) the kind of world-warping perspective-bending culture shock experience that allows for maximum learning and growth. I was floored by the clarity and thoughtfulness of some of the things the guys said, and by the ways they discussed using humor, empathy, and honesty to transform potentially violent situations. Perhaps because the stakes they had in conflict resolution were so much higher – they were thinking through relations with corrections officers, gangs, and gun violence while I was considering dirty dishes and friendships – there was a sort of intense buy-in to the discussions that made them very powerful.
Each evening after the workshop concluded, the six of us outsiders would leave the rec room, show our badges to a guard to pass through the gate to the elevator, and then move through four more gates and guard stations to exit the facility. As we made the drive from Patuxent to our hosts in Baltimore, I watched the highway stream by though the window and appreciated the comfort of seeing new landscapes and moving about the world freely. I began to understand at a gut level why many of my colleagues working in criminal justice reform are challenging long-held ideas about punishment and calling for the abolition of prisons.
AVP challenges the violence that stems from mismanaged interpersonal conflict, but my site placement at the Institute for Community Justice has given me insight into the many layers of violence that intersect in our criminal justice system. Over the last few months I have begun to trace how bad schools, blighted neighborhoods, mass unemployment, and social immobility tangle with personal choices to lead to involvement in crime. Crime itself is defined through other violences, including harsh sentencing policies, colorblind (but nonetheless racist) political rhetoric, and drug wars fought primarily in poor communities. When they are released from the court room or the prison, victims of these violences face another wave: the stigma of the “criminal” label, the possible loss of voting rights, the legalized discrimination in housing, employment, and public benefits. While it’s important to remember that people have agency and important to hold individuals accountable for their choices, the relatively privileged among us are frequently blind to the herculean strength it often takes to escape such cycles of violence.
The theme of last month’s QVS days was nonviolence, and our house had some interesting discussions around the idea that “violence” is actions and structures that inhibit human flourishing. As I participated in AVP, I saw glimpses of human flourishing in the inside guys, as I learned that among them were poets, entrepreneurs, teachers, cooks, spiritual leaders, and caretakers and as I admired their hard-earned skills in community building, democratic facilitation, de-escalation, and fellowship. When it came time for goodbyes on Sunday, the walls surrounding us seemed more impenetrable than ever. I wanted to share M.’s music with the world, so you could feel the same chills I have. I wanted R. on my team at work, doing outreach and advocacy with formerly incarcerated people. I wanted to take M.M. to a Quaker meeting, because I think he’d like what we’re about and because I know few people with such a gift for vocal ministry. But what flourishing that happened in Patuxent seemed to happen despite the prison system’s best efforts, and seemed to be a constant uphill battle. American prisons are frequently little more than warehouses for lawbreakers, predicated more on ideas of punishment than healing or growth.
Throughout the weekend, I often found myself glancing up at AVP’s list of ground rules and reflecting on one rule in particular: “We look for and affirm one another’s good points.” In a way, this seems like a secular version of the Quaker ideal of recognizing that of God in one another. And at the moment, that felt like the most important thing in the world. Witnessing the transformation that happened in one room in a prison outside of Baltimore as people listened to one another across differences, I had to wonder what would happen if such transformation was extended beyond the walls.