Just Talking in Prison

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Looking out across the dance floor at the audience seated on aluminum bleachers and standing along the prison gymnasium walls, the incongruity was glaringly obvious. Me, with my Irish complexion, taking the microphone to make a statement to scores of Native Americans during their powwow. I could not even guess how many different tribal backgrounds were present. But here they were, with one thing in common: all federal prisoners, incarcerated at FCI Englewood (Federal Correctional Institution), all dressed in prison khaki or government-issued brown t-shirts and shorts.

As I took a deep breath to calm and center myself, I recalled the first time I had attended a prison powwow, some fifteen years earlier. At that time, a sense of sadness had overwhelmed me as I thought about the ways that holding this religious ritual in this setting epitomized our nation’s long history of suppression of native peoples. Today, after many more years of conversations with various Native American prisoners, I can better grasp the legacy of conquest and displacement that has economically benefited my forbears and me – at the expense of the members of my audience, whose lives continue to be circumscribed by our common history. How could I dare to speak of reconciliation to these men? What well-meaning, white-man’s hubris was this? So I said:

“It is a great privilege and honor for me to be here with you today. My name is David, and I am a volunteer with Prisoner Visitation and Support. I have been coming here to visit for fifteen years, and it has been my privilege to attend many of these annual powwows with you. Over the years I have visited with several Native American prisoners, and I have learned a lot from them. When I come to visit, I have no agenda. We just talk about whatever you want to talk about. Over time, a prisoner comes to trust me and shares something of himself with me, the story of where he comes from, his family, his dreams. And I care deeply for what he entrusts into my hands. I have come to view this simple act of talking together as the beginning of reconciliation. It is like a sacrament, a communion that we share, giving each other the gift of our own humanity. I thank you for this precious gift of friendship between us.”

The word “reconciliation” conveys the idea of coming together in agreement and harmony, beginning to become united after being apart. The word’s origins date back to the mid-fourteenth century, and I suspect it gained currency during the conciliar movement in the fifteenth century, in the days of schisms and great disunity in Western Christendom. Some argued then that church councils should be the definitive ruling bodies of the church, as opposed to a papal monarch or local lords. Thus, the word “reconciliation” has political connotations, and it also possesses some connotation of sacredness, in terms of trying to restore the harmony of communities that have been torn apart by crimes against humanity. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission led by Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa after decades of crimes of apartheid is perhaps the stellar modern example.

My idea that the simple act of talking together is the beginning of reconciliation stems from an oblique comment in Jacques Derrida’s essay, “On Forgiveness.” In that essay, Derrida holds out for a hyperbolic ideal of forgiving the unforgivable, and he places reconciliation on a lower plane, a place that falls short of his ideal of pure forgiveness. But any kind of forgiveness has to begin somehow concretely, in historical and political conditions. And it has to begin with the sharing of language.

I cannot ignore that I am part of the dominant society’s system of mass imprisonment. And while the ideal of pure forgiveness is beyond my scope, I can strive to be an instrument of peace. I can begin the process of reconciliation.

Looking out at that auditorium full of Native Americans, I also became conscious of a new ground for my vision of working towards reconciliation. My recent practice with the discipline of compassionate listening and several months of reading Holocaust literature had both made me much more aware of the enduring power of trauma. The effect of trauma in an individual never disappears completely. It may reappear at any time, even years later. Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of trauma is its “afterwardness.” Effects from large-scale historical traumas like genocides and slavery are passed on to survivors in the forms of cultural deprivations and social behaviors. The rampant alcoholism on reservations, for instance, can be viewed as a symptom of societal trauma. Healing from trauma is possible, however. And the practice of compassionate listening teaches us that by telling of our stories, we can find a way to heal our traumas, both individual and societal, and a way towards possible reconciliation.

Reconciliation cannot begin with amnesia. It is not a way of papering over the wounds of the past. The wounds are real and they persist. They are heritage. Victims are entitled to resentment. Forgiveness cannot be mandated. Suturing the wounds may bring some healing, but the wounds can re-manifest themselves at any time. And even when healed, scars remind memory. These wounds, this suffering, even when viewed across our differences, these wounds are ours to live with together, however best we can in truth.

No, I don’t want comfort of oblivion or hope.

I want the courage to remain,

to not betray what is ours: this day

and the light that lets us see it whole.

from “Livid Light” by Rosario Castellanos

Several members from our Mountain View Meeting in Denver accompanied me to the prison that day, to participate in the powwow with the residents there. The Native prisoners that I regularly visit had extended an open invitation; they were eager to have outsiders come in to celebrate with them; so I had invited Friends to join me. In part, we undertook this visit as a response to the Intermountain Yearly Meetings minute that charges us to reach out to Native communities. Our experience together at the powwow led us to start making plans – to meet with Native organizations in the city, to build relationships with members of the Native community in Denver, and to add those names to the guest list for next year’s powwow at FCI Englewood.

When I meditate on reconciliation these days, I often think of Will D. Campbell’s imperative, “Be reconciled.” More than fifty years ago, he challenged congregations to go into prisons and just visit – so that more prisoners could have “one human being with whom he could have community, to whom the prisoner could tell his story. And the visitor his. . . .  [I am] convinced that this elementary act of charity alone would provide all the prison reform that society could tolerate.” I too have become convinced by my experience of talking with prisoners, convinced that the Light from these encounters radiates everywhere, farther and in more ways than we will ever know.  ~~~

David Poundstone currently chairs the Board of Directors for Prisoner Visitation and Support (PVS). He has worked as a bookseller, a data systems project manager, and a volunteer recruiter for PVS.  A Roman Catholic seminary student in a former life, David is now a member of Mountain View Meeting in Denver (IMYM), where he is serving as clerk.