Visiting San Quentin

“Dress like you’re going to a funeral,” my friend George advised. The long list of rules for visitors to San Quentin California State Prison includes no blue or orange clothes, no clothes that resemble guard uniforms, no sandals, no food, no chewing gum, no purses, no cameras, no cell phones, no writing materials or books, unless approved prior to entering, no, no, no.

The purpose of my visit was to introduce some of the ‚Äúmen in blue,‚Äù inmates in for the long haul, to the Welcoming Prayer. For ten years, George has been leading a Centering Prayer ministry begun at San Quentin by two Mercy sisters 25 years ago. George felt that the men with an established prayer practice were ready for Welcoming Prayer, an active practice that complements the other 23 hours of the day. 

The week before my visit I was on vacation, supposed to be relaxing, but under the surface I was a little keyed up about my impending visit. George had asked the chaplain to make copies of my booklet on Welcoming Prayer inside the prison so that we would not have to bring them in. That was taken care of, but “no writing materials or books”! I never leave home without them. I have given many Welcoming Prayer workshops and retreats, but never one without my props at hand. I would be letting go of my security blanket. As I made note of my interior workings, I kept thinking of all the men inside had let go of, by choice or by force.

But what really made me nervous was the thought of running the gauntlet of the guards. I knew that if any little thing seemed slightly off they could change my prior approval to no admittance. I picked up on George’s almost apologetic attitude, as if I would hold him responsible for whatever happened on that particular Saturday. “That’s prison,” he kept saying about the vagaries of life on the inside. An alarm, a lockdown, one never knows.

As it happened we were allowed in without incident only to find that some of the 20-25 men George had expected had come down early and been turned back to their cells. Not clear what was happening, we waited for them to return but they never did. We were disappointed but the blessing of this turn of events was that I got to spend the day in an intense exchange with five prisoners and with six volunteers who take turns assisting George with the Centering Prayer ministry.

We skipped the small talk and got right to the heart of the matter—how do we change our negative and destructive patterns of behavior that grow out of the wounds we have suffered and instead live out our deepest intention to consent to God’s presence and action in our lives and to be channels of God’s peace and love in the world around us, even if that world is the inside of a penitentiary?

One man, Mike, a committed Centering Prayer practitioner, had found information about Welcoming Prayer in a Centering Prayer booklet designed for the inmate population. He had been practicing it consistently for a month and believes that it has effected a deep transformation within him. Every day inmates face innumerable incidents that can rankle and rile. Mike’s reactivity has disappeared. Is this permanent? Perhaps not but he is grateful for the relief and intends to continue to cooperate with the work of the Spirit within him in changing his attitude and perspective. He is hoping for parole in the near future, for reconciliation with his family, and restoration to socially constructive work.

Another prisoner I met, Troy, has just undergone an eight-hour exit interview. He is awaiting word on whether he will be granted parole. “I’m ready,” he said. “I’ve done my work, but if they don’t recognize it now, I’ll be up again in two years.” Two years! I’m astounded at the length of time he might have to wait when he is so apparently “rehabilitated.” Yet he reports this reality without rancor. He has availed himself of every program he possibly could at San Quentin. When he gets out he wants to work with kids who have been in gangs or are at risk of joining gangs. He understands—out of a desire for belonging he himself joined a gang at 13.

“A spark of the divine resides in you,” I reminded these men in blue. “At your core, you are fundamentally good, made in God’s image. No matter what you have done, God loves you, meets you exactly where you are, and forgives you.”

“This is the message the men don’t hear enough,” Troy told me. “They need to hear it over and over again.”

At what point do we lock the door and throw away the key? In the face of some horrendous crimes, it’s hard not to want to. It’s hard to believe that anything good can reside in some convicts, if it ever did. And it’s simply good sense to want to protect society from some evil perpetrators. Yet, the men I met were a blessing to me and broke my heart open. I don’t want to give up on them. I would love to see them again and to be able to continue our heart-to-heart conversations. “I hope to come back,” I told them, “and I hope if I do, you aren’t here!” They laughed as they thanked me and hugged me goodbye with tears in their eyes. I hold them in my heart and continue to pray for their redemption-salvation-resurrection.

Cherry Haisten
Seattle, WA