Many of the men (it was an all men's prison) had committed violent crimes and several of them were serving life sentences. However, the men that I met with had changed since that time and now are some of the smartest, kindest, most sincere people that I have ever met! The weekend brought so many different emotions and taught me so many different lessons. I still have not processed the experience and think of the men often. My experience meant so much to me and I want to make sure that I remember the lessons I learned and change appropriately. So below is part of the letter I recently sent to my groups facilitator (an inmate himself) that describes part of my change.
"When the time came for my class’s field trip to Graterford, I honestly did not want to go. I was struggling with some depression and did not think that a prison would be a place to find happiness. However, I was wrong. I felt more love and acceptance during that weekend than I experienced all year. During those days at Graterford with you and the other men, I felt completely accepted in who I was. I come from a really great home life and count myself blessed with a loving family and the best of friends. But even so, I do not feel the level of acceptance in my daily life that I felt there in prison. And in those walls, I found that it was also easier to accept myself. I never expected to feel those kinds of feelings and to find deep bonds and connections with the men.
I also learned so much about the prejudices that I still hold in my own life. I do not believe that I am a hateful person, but I realized that I judge people upon sight and look for differences at first, instead of similarities. Since my time at Graterford, I have tried to judge a person by the quality of his or her heart, instead of outside appearances or past mistakes they made. You and the other men made me realize that we all have made mistakes, but that does not make us bad people. There is always hope that a person can change. And more than that, I now believe that people are a lot more similar than we first realize. When we begin to listen to each other and truly treat one another as human beings, we will realize that we have a lot in common.Lastly, the experience gave me hope; hope that love and goodness lives even in the darkest places. There is hope that the world can change and by working together and listening to one another the world will become a better place. I truly believe this now and am trying my best to live it out in my own life."
The prison system in the United States needs major reforms. The people who go to serve time end up going back into prisons not having learned anything. We need a system where people can pay for their crimes, but then learn how to make better choices and be good citizens. Hope does exist and new approaches are beginning to take place. I just finished reading the book Dreams From the Monster Factory by Sunny Schwartz that talks about Sunny's experience working in the prison system of San Francisco and the good and evil that exists and how restorative justice practices are beginning to take place. I would highly recommend this book to anyone that wants to learn more the current system and the challenges that lie ahead.
More than anything, I want people to know that there are some great people behind bars. Yes, there are also some true monsters. But we cannot forget all of them them and leave them to a system that degrades them as less than humans and takes away their inherent dignity. So as you say your nightly prayers, remember my friends in Graterford and always keep the hope that people can change and aren't nearly as different from you as you might think.