Monday, October 19, 2009

Meditating on the (In)Justice System

By Stacey Prince

On October 13 I attended an event that was organized by Therapeutic Justice Project member Cristien Storm and her colleague Kate Boyd, who together form the organization "If You Don’t They Will". This group trains individuals and organizations how to effectively identify and counter white nationalism and supports communities in reducing and responding to hate. The event, which was co-sponsored by TJP, was a screening of the film “The Dhamma Brothers: East meets west in the deep south” followed by a panel discussion. The film is a documentary first released in 2007 about the introduction of vipassana meditation practice into the rehabilitation program at a high security prison in Southern Alabama.

The film begins by introducing us to several men incarcerated in the prison, and giving us a little bit of background on each of them including descriptions of their crimes (all were incarcerated for murder). It then follows what happens as two outside meditation teachers come into the prison and do a 12-day silent retreat with the group of inmates who choose to participate. There are interviews with each of the men, some of their family members, as well as the warden, psychologist and other prison officials.

Without a critical analysis this film could be viewed in a very positive light. This would be especially true for those living from a dominant social awareness. The prison psychologist talks about two approaches to incarceration: lock individuals away and forget about them, or provide treatment and rehabilitation. Not only was this facility providing some treatment, but it was stepping pretty far outside of the box of traditional rehabilitation, by introducing an approach that is novel and progressive, especially in bible belt southern Alabama. Further, the film depicts the inmates as experiencing many benefits of the retreat and their continued meditation practice, including facing their crimes in a more honest way than they had before, and getting in touch with feelings of grief about losses they had experienced. The tone of the film suggested optimism that prison can be a healing place, and that meditation can be a valuable tool even in this unlikely setting.

However, there is a lot missing from this picture. In their invitation to the event Kate and Cristien highlighted the fact that so often trauma work is conceptualized on a very individual basis. Further, there is little analysis of the societal conditions that can lead to criminal behavior and incarceration and the ways that institutions such as prisons perpetuate abuse and violence. This analysis was starkly missing as we viewed the film: there was only passing reference to circumstances such as racism, lack of access to resources, family and community violence, and trauma that were likely antecedents to the mens’ behavior. Both their behavior and the treatment approach were conceptualized as intrapsychic: the problem, and the solution, lay within. Similarly, problems in the prison (gambling, substance use, prostitution, and violence) were passingly mentioned, but again seemed to be attributed to the mens' moral fiber rather than complex causality and existing in the context of systemic issues. Further, there was absolutely no mention of the prison system itself, and the financial and social agendas that might keep that system in place.

Also disturbing was the portrayal of meditation as almost an anesthetic, making the men more compliant and easier to get along with. There was a suggestion that meditation only got people in touch with the “softer” emotions such as sadness and self-compassion, and there was a lack of exploration of anger, at the injustice of their incarceration and/or the circumstances leading up to it.

After the film, a panel answered questions posed by both the event organizers and the audience. The panel consisted of four community activists with expertise in bringing a critical sociocultural analysis to healing work. It included: Sooja Kelsey, founder of the Race/Knowledge Project; Nathan Shara, social justice therapist and community educator (and TJP member); Shamira Shirdel, who works in anti-domestic violence advocacy for immigrant women; Elaine Waller-Rose, who does interreligious and intercultural work around overcoming racism. Much of the discussion centered on the prison industrial complex, including the need for a radical rethinking of how society deals with those who commit egregious crimes. The community accountability model was mentioned as one such alternative. We also discussed the need to link individual trauma work with radical social movement, in this case the prison abolition movement. Criticisms of the prison system include the fact that it has become a privatized, profit-driven industry more interested in making money and suppressing social problems such as racism, classism and poverty than in rehabilitation.

I had thought that the discussion would be focused primarily on the prison system and the lack of analysis in the film, but it actually ranged far beyond that. I very much appreciated the discussion of integrating individual healing with social movement work, and the idea of “self-care” as so much more than “going home and taking a bath with scented candles” so you can return to the movement. People shared ideas about how not to get frantic, stressed and overwhelmed in social movement work, including the importance of long-term visioning (Generation 5 being one great example of a group that is looking at what changes need to happen over 5 generations to end childhood sexual abuse), paying attention to our bodies and our emotional and physical needs, and bringing playfulness and joy into our work together.

We also talked about how trust building and the interpersonal work that goes on in groups is just as important as the work that gets done in the world. This last part was especially helpful to me, as I had very publically expressed some grief and frustration at our last retreat that we are spending so much time building our foundation, and not yet able to put our feet on the ground and do some work together. It is slowly sinking in that the work we are doing together —by building a trusting, cohesive group, one in which challenging discussions can take place around privilege and tokenizing and representation and leadership—is not separate from the work that we will do together out in the world, and this event’s discussion helped to solidify that.

The organizers of this event are "If You Don’t They Will," and I found myself musing about their name, what it might mean and how it relates to this film. If you don’t what, they will what? Some thoughts I had are that if people and systems who are marginalized don’t name and define yourselves, your self-worth, and your lived experience, they (society, authority figures, parents, schools, the justice system) will. And if you don’t focus on your own empowerment and work to change things for the better, they will work to maintain the status quo. And if you don’t work toward addressing systemic inequities, they will work toward maintaining privilege and control. Cristien and Kate, I don’t know if that’s what your name means (and I will ask you in person the next time I see you) but I want to thank you for bringing us together to share such a stimulating and supportive evening.

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