Prison and Prayer
by Raymond Larsen ©
A tool where I work -- a potato peeler, if you
can imagine it -- was discovered missing. No one knows if it was
lost or stolen, and at first everyone thought saying it was gone
was a drill or a test by the authorities. However, after thoroughly
searching the premises and not finding it, it was decided to temporarily
confine all fourteen of the convicts who work in the cooking class,
pending the outcome of a thirty-day investigation. So I have been
in segregation status the past three weeks and will likely remain
until next Friday. At that time, we will all either be released
without charges (and without work assignments); disciplinary charges
can be made against any or all of us, or the investigation can be
continued for an additional thirty days. It is difficult to guess
what will happen. This is a fairly serious incident that has resulted
in the prison being locked down for four days and entirely searched.
Honestly, I do not believe the tool was stolen.
No one in the program is foolish enough to do something like that.
Everyone realizes the consequences would be extreme. The tool hadn't
been signed out by anyone for two weeks before it was found missing,
so I believe it accidentally got thrown away with the trash and
went unnoticed for two weeks. This has occurred before.
If, however, it can be proven that someone
actually stole it, I'm sure that person will be in serious trouble.
I am not too much worried about it, because I didn't have anything
to do with it being missing; I do not steal. Of course, not doing
something isn't always a guarantee of not being punished. By next
Friday we should all have a better idea of what is happening.
The investigation has concluded and I have been
released from segregation without any charges. Actually, all fourteen
of us were released -- twelve were released Aug 5, and another
person and I were held until Aug 11, a day before the expiration
of the thirty-day period. So everything has returned to "normal"
pretty much, and I am thankful to be out of the miserable situation.
I am attributing the positive outcome of this
terribly serious situation to the power of prayer. I believe this
is yet another confirmation of prayers being answered, and not simply
something as mundane as mere coincidence. You may be wondering why
I believe this; you may simply think that my individual ordeal came
to a positive end for other reasons. But you see, until I began
my study and practice of Buddhism, I never prayed and very little
in the way of anything positive ever occurred in my life, even by
chance. More than that, my prayers are seldom general. They are
very specific. Also, in prison an individual doesn't necessarily
have to be guilty of any wrongdoing to be punished. An employee's
allegation, often without evidence or other substantiation, is sufficient
to warrant an inmate being punished. This particular situation was
viewed as an extremely serious matter. Besides I flat out believe
that the manner in which everything was resolved was in answer to
my humble prayers to Shakyamuni Buddha, White Tara, and Chenrezig,
along with tens of thousands of mantra recitations.
I'm sure you are aware, without me providing
all the sordid details, that prison is a super-harsh environment
where horribly disgusting things occur. Prisons contain some of
the worst human beings in society, individuals capable of the most
hideous acts. And, like anywhere else, there are those that are
"weak" and those that are "strong." Predators
prey on the weak, the young, and the naïve, always with devastating
consequences. Some prisoners extort and pressure weaker prisoners,
taking their money, food, personal belongings, anything they want.
Men rape men, force them into submission, force them to prostitute
themselves, force them to commit all manner of unnatural acts. Some
inmates scheme, plot, and plan every kind of crime you can imagine.
Prisoners are threatened, pressured, extorted, beaten, brutalized,
molested, and occasionally killed. They are tortured physically
and psychologically, degraded, and dehumanized -- all by other prisoners.
The reasons these things happen are myriad and because that's the
way prisons have always been. A lot of terrible people have been
thrown together in close confinement, in circumstances far worse
than they had in the outside world, so they adapt and become even
more dangerous, predatory, and inhuman. This state's prison system
has become considerably better in recent years, the past six to
eight years, because a serious effort was launched and is on-going,
to eliminate street gang activities and control many other troublesome
areas of prison life. But prison is prison, and there will always
be terrible things happening inside. Prisons are a reflection of
society. They are the microcosm of the world-at-large.
I mentioned all this because I want you to
understand and appreciate how, even more than anywhere else, it
is virtually impossible to have a genuine friendship with anyone
in prison. Prisoners often remind themselves that it is okay to
have acquaintances and associates, but never friends. Having friends
in prison requires you to trust; it makes you vulnerable, and to
other prisoners it can indicate softness -- it is a weakness that
can be exploited. Aside from everything else going on in prison,
there is obviously a great deal of testosterone and macho posturing
flying around. So basically, it's a matter of being constantly vigilant,
guarding against giving the wrong impression. It's necessary to
wear a mask at all times.
Approximately three years ago, I encountered
a troubled young man. He is of fairly small stature, somewhat naïve,
someone that could be easily intimidated and manipulated, and who
had already experienced a horrible ordeal at the hands of a predatory
prisoner. He was twenty-eight years old at the time and would probably
experience additional problems with predators. In spite of the nature
of his offense, and having already served a number of years in prison,
he remained a relatively innocent, good-natured, kind, and thoughtful
person. He is an atypical prisoner. I liked him enough at the time
that I took a genuine interest in him, and we would regularly talk
about all sorts of things. Since then, and without any intention
of it happening, a bond of friendship has grown between us. Quite
to my surprise, I might add, because I've been careful to avoid
things like that over the years, for all the reasons I've explained
above. Things like friendships in prison complicate life. They make
doing time much harder -- friends die, they leave, they disappoint,
their problems become yours, etc.
But this person was different, and in retrospect
I suppose I had become different too. We do not have many things
in common -- he is without any spiritual life, but does not criticize
mine. He reads sci-fi and fantasy books, while I read only religious
texts. He plays soccer and I lift weights. However, we both enjoy
football, and our personal beliefs in many areas coincide. His company,
wit, and innocence are a welcome relief from an otherwise terribly
oppressive atmosphere. Initially I thought to be a buffer between
him and anyone that would attempt to prey on him. I've seen far
too much of that garbage during my years inside and I'm sick of
it. Thankfully he's been alright since. Perhaps nothing would ever
have happened to him again anyway, but in an environment like this,
the odds aren't in his favor. He has become like a son to me, and
most everyone knows it.
This rather lengthy and convoluted explanation
is related to my belief in the power of prayer. He was one of the
fourteen inmates held under investigation and one of the twelve
released earlier than I. so I was concerned about his placement
and especially who he would be housed with. Although I didn't specifically
pray for it, I believe my prayers asking that he be protected from
any harm are what prevented him from being housed with anyone else
for five days, and is the reason that once I was released I was
once again housed with him. This series of events is not mere coincidence,
and is virtually unheard of here. So I can only attribute this to
the power of prayer. It is the only way all of this could have occurred
as it did. I am just happy that everything has worked out satisfactorily.
It was extraordinarily difficult, much more
so than anywhere else, for me to keep my bodhisattva vows while
in segregation for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I was there
for something I didn't do and had no knowledge about. I wanted to
be angry, but was not. I was concerned, but not worried. But the
thing that made it most difficult to keep my vows was the way other
prisoners in segregation treat each other.
Segregation is a place
filed with rage, with amazing anger and hatred. Prisoners yell and
scream constantly, 24-7, nonstop. There is no respect or consideration
for the next person. I have never encountered -- even at my age
and after all these years inside -- the kind of vile, filthy language,
racial slurs, and utter contempt for other human beings as I did
during my twenty-nine days in there. It was very sad. There is no
contact between segregation prisoners that would allow physical
fighting, so instead, they spit at each other, or throw feces or
urine on each other. Some of the prisoners are obviously mentally
unstable, which either contributed to their placement in segregation
or developed as a result of serving many years in segregation. It
was difficult to listen to the screaming, the whining, and the arguing
of unstable people kept in cages. There are, I believe, a great
many atrocities being committed -- there is an abundance of inhumanity.
It is difficult to be aware of all this, to
be in the midst of it all, and not be overcome with rage. But my
practice never faltered. I never allowed anger to raise its ugly
head. I never allowed myself to have an ill thought or word for
anyone, and generated compassion for all sentient beings. I held
fast to the Buddhadharma -- it was my life-preserver in a sea of
hatred and misery -- and applied all your teachings and advice.
The mind is an incredibly wonderful thing once you begin to understand
and learn how to control it. So I have to conclude that I am beginning
to make progress, and my faith in the Buddha's teachings has become
There is a certain satisfaction (without pride
or ego) in knowing that I have altered my life significantly, and
that it will have a profound impact on any future rebirths I may
experience -- lives that will allow me to continue studying and
practicing the Dharma and eventually attain enlightenment. Much
of what I have been able to accomplish, and what I have become as
a person, I owe to you. I am eternally grateful. Thank you from
the bottom of my heart!