The World, Locked Down Behind Prison Bars

Everyone changes for the better

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The California governor, Gavin Newsome, encouraged us to stay home. Slow down the raging spread of the coronavirus. I’ve been writing letters to the prison inmates, long served by my prison ministry — a few each day. They are locked in their cells or kept in their dorms with no personal protective equipment. What is life for them now?

The shadow of coronavirus over all of us has changed life as we knew it just 90 days ago. Businesses have closed. Millions have lost jobs. What will happen “after this,” and what exactly “after this” means, no one knows.

Is there a “someone” blocking the ideals we hold dear? There’s no someone. There’s just us. We get to create a new, better culture, a new world.

Replies from inmates have come in. Here’s what I learned.

A woman on Death Row in Ohio

The first person I ever wrote was Carol. She is multi-racial — white, African and Native American. Someone who visited her had brought out a note that they posted on the internet. I saw it. She wrote that her last two relatives outside prison walls, who stayed in touch with her and visited, had died soon after each other. She had no one left. She did not want to die in prison alone, but instead, she wanted someone to write and visit.

Even back then, I lived in California. I didn’t think I’d be able to visit Carol. For Amma’s organization, now called Embracing the World, I directed a community letter-writing program with volunteers across the U.S. I thought one of the letter writers in that program could visit her. I could write her a letter, and I did.

Over the many years that. I wrote to Carol, since she had a death sentence, a federal lawyer reviewed her case. He said that she had ineffective representation. She was charged with murder. The public defender assigned to handle her case was a real estate lawyer. That attorney tried to have herself removed due to her inexperience and Carol’s possible execution should the case be lost. The federal attorney said that Carol needed to have a new trial at which he was confident, she would be found innocent. The State of Ohio, so far, has refused to grant her a new trial.

At the time of the crime, Carol was a young girl infatuated with a handsome man from her hospital job. They went on a joy ride together for several days. He fed Carol lots of drugs, so she was unaware of what was going on. Unbeknownst to her, the man was killing people and stealing their money. The first time she learned about his crimes was when she was charged as an accomplice to the murders.

By now, Carol has spent decades on Death Row. There were two other women at one time. Those women are now in general population and off Death Row, but not Carol.

From time to time, she has more freedom. She socialized puppies who were later trained to be Seeing Eye and service dogs. She loves animals.

Carol wrote:

Here we have been locked down since March 30, only allowed out of the cell 45 minutes a day. As that time, we shower, use the phone and kiosk. Needless to say, I am not a huge fan because I like to stay busy. I am using this time to choreograph, spoken word, and dance for the therapeutic community once we are able to function again. It’s important to stay creative.

I did get to visit Carol. In fact, I almost visited twice. The second time, Carol said she’d prefer that I did not come. I was hurt. Later I learned that the state was moving ahead with the execution of one of the women. They were all distraught. Additional legal representation triggered by the intended execution won reduced chanrges for the woman. She was moved off of Death Row.

Marcus from Illinois

Marcus is an African American from the Chicago area. He was all emotion when I first wrote to him. He was a devoted Christian who worried that he had offended Jesus. He also loved Amma as soon as he saw her photograph. Christians did not approve of his attachment to a South Indian Hindu woman called a saint by some people. That led Michael to pull back from the Christian group in prison.

He converted to Islam. Many inmates do. I think the men’s groups for prayer and study in Islam give an experience of brotherliness that these men crave. They learn a strict code of behavior and learn how to take care of themselves. Through his study of the Koran and its commentaries, I noticed that Marcus also learned how to think more logically.

Marcus also picked up anti-gay attitudes from Islam. Before this reply, I don’t remember his mentioning homosexuality at all in his letters.

His mother has converted to Islam which makes him very happy. He writes

My mother Helen asked about you. She has cancer and has to get a serious surgery on 5–13–20. Me and my mother have talked about life and death, so she knows the end of the body is not the end of the spirit. Like me, she has left her body before so she already know how that feels. I wish you could see all the inmates that Allah has transformed right before my eyes. If you give into God, God will give into you.

Michael S. from my state

Michael is a Hindu/Sikh of Fijian ancestry. When I visited him in prison, he told me that he wanted his own copy of the Bhagavad Gita. He saw that other inmates, especially those from Indonesia, had their petsonal copies. Challenges related to his. request. are:

  1. I am very fussy about what makes a decent translation with or without commentary. I studied Sanskrit, the language used for the Gita, and Adishankara’s commentary on it in an ashram under the direction of Swami Dayananda Saraswati.
  2. All books sent to inmates be ordered from an approved vendor.
  3. No approved vendor sold the Bhagavad Gita. They only sold Bibles.

I decided to buy a decent translation in paperback (another challenge). Then I’d have to find a way to get it to Michael.

I packaged the purchased paperback as though I planned to mail it directlhy to Michael. Prison rules forbid anyone from directly mailing a book to an inmates in all states that I know about. The book must come from a publisher or approved vendor. So, I knew that I was not going to mail it.

To God goes the credit for my bringing it with me the next time I visited the prison where Michael was living. I knew that prison rules forbade my bringing the book in with me on my visit. That’s not how I would get it to him, either. How it would happen, I did not know.

As I walked up to the visitor’s entrance with my forbidden package, the Catholic Chaplain was walking toward me on another sidewalk. He did not know me. He is a Catholic priest who looked like he was from South India, probably Kerala. People from the formerly “Untouchable” community in Kerala often become Catholic hoping that the church would lift them out of the caste system. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church in Kerala has its own caste structure.

Back to the Catholic Chaplain walking toward me. I approached him and introduced myself. I told him about the inmate who longed for his own copy of the Bhagavad Gita.

Handing him the package with the inmate’s name and number on it, I asked him if he could get the book to that inmate. He looked at the name and said, “Yes.” He also asked me not to tell anyone that he had done this. If it became known, he could no longer serve as the Catholic Chaplain. I agreed and expressed my gratitude for his kindness.

India is a spiritual country where people practice many religions and spiritual traditions. Deep respect from people for all of them is the default position. The exception, the conflict, sometimes bloody and violent, between Hindus and Moslems is well known. The willingness of a Catholic priest, to deliver Michael’s copy of Hindu scripture, derives from this mutual respect. Would an American Cathokic priest be so amenable?

In Michael’s reply to me he stressed that inmates are confined with no activities. There is no time outside in the yard for fresh air and exercise. There are no classes and no programs. The increased stress of lockdown brings out the worst in people. One inmate murdered his cellmate who was transgender. A member of an Asian minority was seriously injured in a beating. Michael says that the only break in the day is when the mail comes. He asked me to remind people to write letters now more than ever.

Prison ministry means meeting the world and watching it change

In my years of writing to and visiting prison inmates, I have met men and women from around the world. In fact, through my prison work, I saw firsthand how widespread Islam is in the world when I met its adherents behind prison gates. I have seen that everyone changes for the better.

In the history of the U.S. the Quakers established the first prison system. Each inmate had his own cell. The intention of this isolation in the early Pennsylvania Prison System was

to foster penitence as the prisoner had time to reflect on his or her misdeeds.

Today, whether or not isolation is involved, after five years, the inmate has nothing else to think about except himself, why he committed his crime, what sort of person he would like to be, and what kind of life he chooses to live. No matter what their nationality, race, religion, or ethnicity it is the same. The inmate changes for the better. This is not how most members of the public think of prison inmates but in my twenty years working with people in prison, it si what I have observed. Unless there is some kind of mental illness, the inmate changes for the better.

The present time within prison walls is very stressful because of lockdowns implemented because of coronavirus. Letters bring some relief. If you could write to a prison inmate, you are more than 25 years of age and not on probation or parole, please contact circle.of.love.inside@gmail.com.

To read more by Aikya, click here.

To write to people in prison, contact circle.of.love.inside@gmail.com.

Aikya Param is a licensed minister, a visual artist, and writer.

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