Lara and I arrived at the prison around 8:15 AM expecting to go through a lengthy security check to enter. Fortunately, Lara’s colleague at Angola arranged for a visitor pass the day before and we sailed right through.
I understand the need for prisons, but I don’t like them. Three nights before we arrived, I had a nightmare of being stuck in Angola for life. Driving through the gates, however, the white wooden fences along the fields reminded me of horse farms in Massachusetts. I started to relax a bit.
Angola is a complicated place. It is one of the largest maximum-security prisons in the United States, covering more ground than Manhattan. The prison holds more than 5,000 incarcerated men, some of whom are on death row. It is named after a plantation that existed before the Civil War, and Angola is a country in Africa from which many of the slaves had come. Angola still carries a fearsome reputation for violence, despair, and human suffering, although conditions have improved markedly over the past decades. Still, it is a prison in which approximately 75% of the inmates are African-American and 70% are serving life sentences.
Lara and I waited about an hour for the 150 men who were scheduled to show up for my talk on self-compassion. Only 75 men eventually came due to transportation difficulties from the various “camps” that are scattered throughout the property. As we waited, I noticed clusters of men chatting amiably with one another, or just sitting quietly. No cell phones. Groups of men talking together seemed like a fond and distant memory to me and I felt strangely comforted by it. Lara went off to talk with friends in the room—all of the men in the room were graduates of the Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) program she has taught at Angola over the past 3 years. While I was sitting there taking it all in, one man came up to me and said, “I see you sitting here and don’t want you to feel all alone.” His kind gesture touched me, almost uncomfortably so, as my defenses relaxed still further.
When we finally started our program, an hour late, Lara read a beautiful poem that spoke about common humanity and then invited everyone to pair up and ask one another, “How is your heart today?” She and several of the men developed this practice, and they use it at the beginning of every gathering. My plan was to visit Angola, deliver a talk on self-compassion, chat with some people, and then get back to the French Quarter in New Orleans in time for dinner. Yet here I was, sitting opposite an incarcerated man with a ton of compassion in his eyes, answering his question, “How is your heart today?” I explained about my nightmare and he softly said, “I’m so sorry.”
It wasn’t the best talk of my life. Lara had told me that these men had already been introduced to some of the research on self-compassion, and have begun to develop both a learned and practiced sense of what self-compassion is and isn’t. Many of them had been practicing compassion for themselves and others for a couple of years after taking the CCT course, and some were even CCT teaching assistants. Others had attended the Angola Bible College and were pastors and had their own congregations consisting of other incarcerated men. A few of the men just had their dreams of parole eligibility dashed by a court ruling that week; another had just been granted parole that morning and would be leaving Angola after being convicted as a juvenile more than 25 years ago—he had never been out of Angola his entire adult life. What could I possibly say to these guys as a married, upper middle class, white, Ph.D. psychologist and author?
The men were genuinely interested, polite, and generously volunteered answers to my questions, such as “Is there a difference between how you treat yourself and how you treat others?” They definitely perked up when I mentioned the word “shame” and how self-compassion is an antidote to shame. Shame is a deep river that runs through their lives. There is the shame of committing a grievous crime, the shame that comes with systemic oppression of people of color, the shame of not being able to care for one’s family, the shame of being incarcerated—the list is long and deep.
The CCT teaching assistants had lunch with Lara and me after the talk. Lara paid for it from her grant sponsored by the Compassion Institute and it was catered by men in the Re-entry Club—a club associated with Angola’s Re-entry program, which is run by mentors with life sentences who help other incarcerated men prepare for life outside Angola. Lara always orders a couple of extra meals so she can invite additional people to join, or so men can take an extra back to their dorms and share it with their friends. At lunch and through the afternoon, the guys asked very personal questions, such as whether I think the mother of the person he killed could ever forgive him, or what to do about trauma flashbacks. I was blown away by the urgency of their questions, and their candor. A group of guys asked later on, “Do you ever swear?” I explained that I was from New Jersey and that we love to drop the F-bomb in every sentence, but I was controlling myself in public. We also had a lot of laughs together.
Lara said that she needs the 2 ½ hour drive home to New Orleans to digest what happens during the day at Angola. I realized what she meant when my new friends at Angola could not pass through the gates when we left, and maybe never in this lifetime. Lara has never gotten used to that. Lara also predicted that I would probably get more out of the day at Angola than I could give, which is also Lara’s experience even after 3 years. That was a comfort because I was blown away by the immense suffering I experienced, but even more so by the depth of caring and authentic brotherhood that I was invited to share in. Those interactions seemed strangely healthier than most interactions I have outside the gates. Still, I felt a little nauseous over the subsequent days when I reflected on the pain those men experienced in their lives, including the pain they caused to others and are likely to relive every day. It could hear Helen Keller’s words in my head, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the alleviation of it.”
What originally brought me to Angola was a dear friend, Jenny Phillips, who was making a documentary on the compassion work at Angola. She is the same person who directed the amazing film on teaching mindfulness meditation at an Alabama prison, The Dhamma Brothers. Her passion was criminal justice reform and, sadly, she passed away last year in a swimming accident. I had the privilege of meeting several of the remarkable men who are featured in Jenny’s film. Her colleagues are determined to complete the film, so please stay tuned for that.