Ending Violent CrimeIntroduction | Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Epilogue
How It Began for Me
It was a damp, gray day on Puget Sound. The kind of a day that can make everything look and feel more grim. And grim indeed was the prospect before us. An island fortress rising from the waves like an apparition from Europe's medieval past. The nearer our boat came to that baleful destination, the more my apprehensions rose. Although I tried to remind myself that I was not entering as a prisoner but a guest, the idea of being behind those terrible walls for even a moment was making my spirits sink. MacNeill Island Federal Penitentiary, since closed, reminded me at the time not so much of Alcatraz as of the Chateau D'If, in whose dungeons the Count of Monte Cristo was confined for so many years. I had the depressing fantasy that like him I might only be able to emerge from there in a body-bag, only in my case no doubt without the fortuitous rescue.
My fellow passengers were several other elders and medicine people of various native nations who had, like myself, been invited to participate in a native spiritual unity gathering in Snoqualmie Falls, Washington, the previous week. We had learned that part of the sponsorship and funds for the gathering had been provided by a prison group at MacNeil Island calling themselves the Brotherhood of American Indians, and we were on our way to thank them in person and tell them about the event. Having debarked and gone through a number of clanging steel gates, we eventually entered a long corridor, our footsteps resounding and echoing on the concrete floor and walls, and my spirits sank even lower. How could any spark of humanity survive in such a place?
Then we heard it. At the far end of the corridor a door was open on the left, and a booming sound emerged that obliterated the hollow ring of our footsteps. A drum! A great powwow drum with many beaters striking in unison. And then the voices of many men singing an honoring song.
The voices were strong and clear and full of power in their unity, a familiar, age-old sound that could be heard anytime anywhere in Indian Country. The old expression "my heart soared like an eagle" was never truer. Tears of joy fought with tears of grief inside me, and I struggled for composure as we entered a large room with about fifty singing prisoners. This was the Alcoholics Anonymous group of all natives that had organized themselves as a "Brotherhood of American Indians".
After another honoring song for us visiting elders, we were asked to address the group. We told them we wanted to honor them too for making it possible for us to come together with so many Native people of different nations to share our spiritual knowledge and ways. We told them we had prayed for them and their families in the sweat lodges and sacred circles. And when we met and talked with these men, I found they were just ordinary Indian men, the kind you could meet in any Native community in North America.
Being a federal institution, there were native men from all over America, from many different tribes. Indians are tried by federal courts for offenses committed on reservations, and it is a sad fact that the government often moves Indian prisoners far from their communities where it is impossible for their families to visit them. I heard so many of their individual stories. They were good native men, caring men, but every one of them had fallen prey to the deadly white man's poison: alcohol, and under its influence had committed offenses for which they now languished far from home.
They were so happy we had come. And I was so glad that my fate had brought me there to learn about them. They were mainly simple, sincere, straightforward, down-to-earth men of compassion and humor who wanted to do the right thing for their families and their people, but who had been unprepared for the assaults upon their culture of stolen land and resources, of unemployment and the ravages of alcoholism. They were not seeking pity, or special consideration. They knew they had messed up their lives and weren't trying to blame others for that. They only wanted to figure out how to straighten themselves out and find the good red road. That's why they were now reaching out to traditional elders and medicine people.
This experience had a profound effect on me. I had been touched at the deepest level of my being. When it came time to leave I hated to abandon them all to this terrible place. As our boat crashed through the waves on the return trip I could not bear to look back at the receding prison, vile, repulsive monument to the failure of America's Great Society. With the free wind playing with my hair and my head and the flung spray dashing my face and my thoughts awake, I thought of those men and their condition. I realized there were thousands like them, buried in vaults of shame all over the continent. Like most people I was not unaware of that fact, but did not truly understand it until I actually met these men. They were not now statistics, but real persons, as real to me as my own relatives, and I had allowed them to be swept under the rug and out of my consciousness. Not my problem. That's why the public pays for law enforcement, a judiciary and correctional system, so that I can leave the responsibility to them and don't have to think about it.
Now I couldn't bury them any more, couldn't put them out of my mind. They were my brothers. They had made mistakes, had broken laws, but how different were they from me? Certainly I have made more than my share of mistakes in my lifetime, and I cannot claim never to have broken any laws. I couldn't forget the words of Phil Ochs' song:
Show me a prison, show me a jail,
Show me a prisoner with skin growing pale,
And I'll show you a young man
with so many reasons why
There but for fortune go you or go I.
But for fortune any one of those prisoners might stand where I stand and I might be doomed to oblivion in those dark and odious towers. I was also well aware that in that prison and in all the world's prisons there were few or no rich men. Even the highest profile cases, like that of O. J. Simpson, can be swayed and influenced by those who can afford a "dream team." Poverty and public defenders provide greased tracks straight to the slammer. Steal a few bucks from a store you'll do time, defraud people of millions on Wall Street you can live high in Monte Carlo. But I also knew there was a lot more than economic oppression at work here. A lot of poor people manage to live honorable lives, are decent, generous, caring folk, and many have managed to climb out of the ghetto and find a measure of material success. For most of these prisoners there were more reasons than lack of education and a good attorney that they found themselves behind bars. There were, after all, not a few decently schooled and reasonably solvent people there who had wrecked their lives and those of others with ruinous addictions.
I then considered that four hundred years ago in North America there were no prisons. There were also no police, there were no courts, no judges, no lawyers, no law books or statutes. There was in fact no need for any of these elaborate, expensive, and all too ineffective systems because there were no criminals. I don't mean that there were no wrong-doers, no offenders against the community welfare and the public peace. Human beings are imperfect in every culture. But crime was not an occupation on this continent as it was elsewhere. Here were not any whose way of life was built around hurting and depriving others through burglary, highway robbery, extortion, blackmail, fraud, confidence schemes, pick-pocketing, nor injury due to alcohol or drugs. Rape and sexual crimes were almost unknown in our old communities. It was not until the European invasion that crime and its appurtenances, police, lawyers, and prisons, were imported to this continent.
I could see that at some level, although they blamed themselves, these prisoners didn't really understand what had gone wrong in their lives and why they found themselves now in those terrible circumstances. And I understood even then that it was not really any person's fault. They were victims of society, of social institutions, as were all those who had mistreated them or betrayed them, the vicious enforcers and the incompetent attorneys. But society was compounding its sins against these men. It was delivering them up to institutions that were even worse than those of the "free" society. And then it turned its back on them. These good native men had been forsaken and forgotten by the world.
My dedication to prisoners began then, in 1974. The Brotherhood of American Indians was responsible, in sponsoring that spiritual conference and in giving me an insight into the true nature of justice and corrections in America, and I am forever grateful to them all. I was so deeply moved by their humanity and their devotion to their culture in this inhuman situation that I resolved to seek opportunities to come to prison whenever I could. Thus I was set upon the major journey of my life. For some years I visited prison groups randomly as I travelled throughout North America, whenever an opportunity presented itself.
In 1976, while working with Akwesasne Notes, the award-winning international journal for native and natural people published by the Mohawk Nation at Rooseveltown, NY, we received a letter from a man in prison in New York State. His name was Elmer, and he was Mohawk. He had been in prison for 37 of his 54 years. The first time, as a teenager, was for a bar-room brawl, which he had not started, but certainly finished. He had not committed a serious injury, but did minor time, having of course no funds for an attorney and accepting the public defender's easy disposition of the case with a plea bargain. Soon after his release, he went with a friend to a store for some beer. He waited in the car while his friend went into the store. He heard a gunshot, and his friend returned on the run with a sixpack and drove off. They were soon apprehended and brought to trial. The store owner had died, and Elmer and his friend were both convicted of murder, although Elmer had not even known that his friend intended to commit armed robbery or even had a weapon at all.
Now, 35 years later, Elmer might be eligible for parole, but he had no family, no work, no place to go. We communicated with the parole board and told them Elmer could have a job with us and live and work there at the mountain center of the newspaper at Owl's Head. Elmer turned out to be a complete delight. After spending two thirds of his life - all his adult life - behind prison walls, he relished his freedom in a way that was a pleasure to us all. He rose early and greeted the woods, the birds and other creatures, and threw himself into work with joyful abandon, cutting, splitting, stacking firewood, rebuilding and repairing machines and houses, hauling supplies in the mile-and-a-half uphill through the woods to our mountain retreat. He was so gentle, so jovial, so loyal, so caring, so good a friend, so sweet a human being, like everyone's favorite playful uncle - it was hard and painful to imagine his light buried for so many long years behind the walls of Dannemora. What a waste of a valuable, hard-working, dear and lovable man! And from the stories he told, I saw that his case was not unique. The picture I had glimpsed at MacNeill Island was corroborated again. In every prison were many good men, not essentially criminal (whatever that may be) but caring, generous, men, dedicated to their families and their people, who, in a haze of alcohol had done things or been swept along into things for which they were now paying with years of their productive life. In 1977, less than a year after he came to freedom, in the midst of splitting a pile of wood he had a heart attack and died. How grateful we were that he had at last found his freedom and was able to die in the arms of those he loved, a family who loved him. Again I made a promise to myself that I would seek out other Elmers that might be buried away in the prison system, and help them to a life.
In 1983 my colleague and friend, Slow Turtle John Peters, began a regular program in a maximum security state prison in Connecticut, and soon after asked me to join this project. At this time we have regular weekly programs in eight state prisons in New England. All of these have proved effective, and the amount of effectiveness is governed by the amount of time and support the program is afforded by the administration. I also maintain contact with a number of members of our prison circles after their release from prison, and we hold monthly circles and sweat lodges at our place in New Hampshire where they can maintain contact with a circle. Here it is my desire to present for your consideration the results of our work so far and to share what I have learned with you and the world.
I have learned much. The people who are running the correctional systems lack the resources to rehabilitate these prisoners, to help them change their lives - so that when the prisoners come out of prison they generally go right back to the same life, get arrested and sent back to jail again. It's just a revolving door, as they say. But I have learned that most, if not all, of these prisoners can be reached, can be helped to rebuild their lives and become beneficial members of their communities and society, and that is a process which requires not a lot of money, only a lot of dedication. It is something I have learned to do and to teach, and therefore can be expanded and exported anywhere.
(I must here also say that, although most of these prisoners admitted to their guilt, many still maintain their innocence and have not the funds with which to prove it, and I have seen far too many of these convictions that I am sure were erroneous.)
Because of all this I have seen a vision, which I want to share and to follow. A vision that the people who have been hurt and wounded by this violent and hurtful society are the very ones to engender a new transformation of that society into one of peace and caring. Out of civilization's sickness could come its cure. Ex-convicts who have lived in the belly of the beast, who have survived the most vicious abuse and humiliation, who have then healed their wounds and grown thereby in compassion and understanding, may have the clearest insight into both the problems and the solutions.It is witnessing the transformation of these prisoners that has given me that vision and that hope, and it is to all of them, and especially to that Brotherhood of American Indians that first inspired me, that I dedicate this writing.