A closer look at spiritual transformation in prison
Sometimes we find our teachers in the most unlikely places.
A few years ago, I visited San Quentin State Prison for the first time, entering what can only be described as an intimidating, medieval-looking castle with guard towers. I vividly recall the clang of those iron gates as they slammed shut behind me—a sound that still reverberates viscerally.
It turned out that day was the beginning of my volunteer work cofacilitating a weekly men’s group within the walls of this maximum-security facility. But I had no idea my life would change when I agreed to make the first visit.
One of my congregants runs this group and had asked if I would go with her to San Quentin. In my mind, I was doing her a favor. I thought it would be novel, but once would be enough. I expected to meet angry men with no desire for real change. Did I really have time for this? After all, I was already juggling so much. I went feeling tired and anxious, with a long to-do list in my mind for the coming day at church.
I discovered this group of men serving life sentences had a monk-like desire and dedication for self-knowledge, self-mastery, and transformation.
Most unexpectedly, by the time I left that evening I was brimming with energy and feeling uplifted in ways I’d not experienced for quite a long time. Sometimes we find motivation and truth as well as catalysts for change in the most unlikely places and with people we might not think of as our teachers.
No Distraction from the Self
Unlike the outside world, there are no real distractions in prison. You aren’t checking your cell phone. There isn’t any escaping your situation and circumstances.
Those of us who move about freely can avoid anyone we might find we dislike. That’s not an option in prison. One has to come up with other ways of coping that do not result in breaking rules, getting in fights, or incurring any reason to be sent to “the hole,” also known as the Adjustment Center.
Each day one is faced with himself or herself. Over the years and decades, a cold, stark self-analysis can bring about transformation in prison that, here on the outside, we might never take time to explore.
To my surprise, I discovered this group of men serving life sentences had a monk-like desire and dedication for self-knowledge, self-mastery, and transformation. I had never been exposed to any group with this degree of perseverance.
What had brought these men to prison so many years (or even decades) ago was not only the crimes they committed. The bigger truths of their lives included not understanding themselves or their motivations, wounding, and a lack of healthy coping strategies.
I had never been exposed to any group with this degree of perseverance.
These men now wanted to share, learn, and grow in order to understand themselves in deeper and more profound ways. They were hungry for spiritual tools and practices, yes, but at the core for many of them was a need to be reconciled with the God of their understanding. (The group comprises several faith traditions and ethnicities. For all of them to be willing to learn and grow together is a minor miracle in itself.)
An Inmate’s Commitment to Spiritual Transformation
Within those first few hours in the presence of these men, I experienced their authenticity and willingness to share from the depths of their being. I remembered the counsel Jesus gave his followers:
“I was in prison and you visited me. Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:36, 40).
Now I understand the profundity of that direction. Every minister, rabbi, imam, or other spiritual leader wants to be with people who are serious about change and transformation. At San Quentin, in this particular group, I find myself surrounded by men who fit that description exactly.
In retrospect, my volunteering has not only been welcomed by the men but has also been a catalyst for inner transformation for myself. Sometimes we find our teachers in the most unlikely places. Turns out nothing was what I expected.