Change Agents

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I’m teaching another class at the prison in Windham. Sort of. What I mean is that when you teach in a correctional setting you are as much student as instructor. Only minutes into a first meeting you are reminded, or realize if it’s your first time, that these men are hungry. They are hungry for ideas, for stimulation, for conversation. They are hungry to share what they have read, what they have learned, and what they know. They are hungry to share themselves. Sitting with them, in a circle, you become one of them, to the extent that’s possible as an outsider. There is no division between the learned and the learner. You are both. They are both.

My first class at Windham was this spring. A five week course on Restorative Justice. Our basic text was Howard Zehr’s “The Little Book of Restorative Justice”. It’s a perfect introduction. The men ate it up. Not a one of them had heard of Restorative Justice before the class and the book. But they got it. Immediately. It was like watching parched sojourners suddenly gifted with a bottomless water glass. We listened to TED talks on justice, Youtube recordings on Restorative Justice, and we picked Howard’s book apart which, by the way, is now available in a revised edition on Amazon. You can also get the 25th Anniversary edition of Howard’s “Changing Lens” there too. And if you have some spare change, you can get my new book there as well. I promise, that’s the extent of my self promotion.

The class I’m teaching now is a little different. We are building on the first one and we are building on the hunger. The administration has been kind enough to give us two hour and a half sessions a week. We have a rule that, because of the extra time, there is no talking in the morning session about their cases, prison life, or the system. The morning is for ideas. Yesterday we listened to the early chapters of the Tao Te Ching, read from Eric Fromm’s “Credo”, and listened to a lecture by Alan Watts on being your own guru. We talked about what it might take to develop credibility when attempting to air grievances. We discussed intellectual competence and the careful measuring of words. And we talked about the importance of listening. It helps that we use a talking piece. We also meditate. Ten minutes at the beginning of each class and five at the end. They are hungry for that too. Except for one of the men, a Yale graduate, the class is their first taste of a contemplative practice.

In the afternoon class we focus our attention on justice. We are reading from Marc Mauer’s “Race to Incarcerate”. And we are again listening to TED talks. Yesterday was Bryan Stevenson’s “We need to talk about an injustice.” It’s obvious that it’s a great comfort to these men that there are those on the outside who are advocating for a better system. As we move forward, we will begin to brainstorm on how Restorative Justice might spread to the larger prison population.

This small group of men at the Windham prison see themselves as pioneers. They want to be change agents.