July 19, 2009

Going to Prison

Last Monday I spent at McNeil Island Corrections Center, a prison on an island in the southern part of Puget Sound. A ferry, operated by the Dept. of Corrections, leaves Steilacoom for the 15 minute ride to the facility. You must go through clearance at portside before you can board. The island is fairly large and is also inhabited by people not connected to the Corrections Center.

I travelled with Steve who is a regular volunteer at McNeil and has been going for years. He practices Buddhism in the Tibetan tradition and brings a Tibetan style liturgy to the religious service that he leads. As part of the service, everyone in attendance has an opportunity to remember someone they know, care about, are related to, or have in mind someway. The person's name is read out and everyone at the service sends goodwill on behalf of that person's welfare.

After the service, another volunteer mentioned how strong the room felt during that part of the liturgy. I commented that in my experience going into prisons, that incarcerated men seem to offer stronger prayer on behalf of others than I have felt anywhere else. An inmate smiled and said that all the men in prison were there because they were extremists. Some kind of extreme but negative action had brought them to prison in the first place. He added that when that negative attitude is turned to something positive, the power becomes remarkable.

It's wonderful to see some pretty tough guys open their hearts in these moments so wholeheartedly for the benefit of others and that they can direct pure love in powerful ways, praying for only good in the world. It's a side of prison life we don't often see or think about. As the inmate who spoke also said, prison can be a beautiful place sometimes.