by Dean Faiello
As I lined up with other prisoners in a brick passageway, six Attica guards huddled in a group, wearing blue latex gloves and gripping wooden clubs. They stared at us as we waIked in pairs through the sepulchral corridor without speaking, like Franciscan monks on their way to vespers. Heading to a Quaker meeting in the school building, I looked forward to talking with the Quaker volunteers, witnessing their compassion, learning more about Quaker tenets.
I had begun to question my beliefs. After fifty years as a Catholic, I was frustrated by its rigidity. The Catholic Church proscribed customs that had long been accepted by much of society — divorce, birth control, and equal rights for women. The Quakers I had met were more open minded, more empathetic.
However, I was uneasy about negotiating my way to a Quaker meeting through gates manned by Attica’s guards. They might stop me, telling me to “get on the wall,” and rough me up. Their actions were unpredictable. Four guards had recently been indicted for beating an inmate. They broke his ankles, both his legs, his shoulder, an arm, and an eye socket.
In the corridors, guards taunt, ridicule and humiliate prisoners for entertainment. Sometimes, a prisoner’s patience reaches its limit. Tempers flare. Confrontation escalates. An alarm bell sounds, and the clomping of running boots resounds through the corridors as guards converge. Within minutes, a prisoner is taken to segregation, battered and bloody.
As I pass the phalanx of guards glaring at us, I look at the back of the prisoner in front of me, hoping that I will not be singled out as we walk to the school building. Silently, I recite the ‘Hail Mary’ in Spanish. Reminiscent of Catholic Mass in Latin when I was a youth, prayers in Spanish comfort me.
Attending catechism in the town where I grew up, I learned prayers by rote. I could recite the Hail Mary and the Our Father without thinking. Yet though I repeated Psalm 23 many times, it always inspires contemplation. “The valley of the shadow of death” scares me a foreboding, a fear of what lay ahead. Every time I prepared to go to a class in the prison school building, I grew nervous. I worried whether I would be stopped and searched. I wondered which guards were working that night.
Many prisoners refuse to attend programs at night, saying it’s not worth the hassle from guards. When I arrive at Attica’s library at night, there are only a half dozen men there. The Quaker meeting, on Friday nights, often has only three men in attendance. The chapel at night requires courage. Guards wearing frisk gloves stand at the entrance. I often hear guards tell a prisoner, “grab a brick,” meaning, put your hands on the brick wall.
Impeding education keeps prisoners in the dark — unaware of opportunities, unable to transform themselves. Without goals, without motivation, inmates are easier to control and abuse. They accept injustice without complaint. Those who are uneducated — unable to write and express themselves clearly—are nonthreatening to the oppressive prison system.
Prison programs such as religious education and worship are avenues for liberation. Examination of spiritual texts encourages men to formulate ideas, to expand their visions. Such a process instills goals, a hope for the future. One begins to believe in self-worth and potential. Such confidence can bring about transformation in thinking, behavior and attitude. The one freedom that cannot be taken away is the freedom to choose one’s attitude, regardless of circumstance. Viktor Frankl realized this at Auschwitz. The exploration of scripture offers prisoners the freedom to change their manner of thinking. Some may achieve enlightenment.
While few people realize an epiphany, some prisoners gain a deeper capacity for knowledge and insight from religious studies. Prisoners are not known for compassion and empathy. Many crimes are the result of egotism and selfishness. My pursuit of luxuries and wealth caused me to take risks and ignore the safety of others. Sitting in a prison chapel, surrounded by fellow Christians and listening to an eloquent priest exhort me- to- show love and compassion to all those around me—prisoners, guards and administration—gave me pause. I weighed my actions, my attitude. I thought about my victim, my family.
I am reminded of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Prisoners, shackled to a cave wall, can see faint shadows on the wall in front of them. The shadows are projections from a faint source of light: the distant cave entrance. My view of life too was distorted. The murky shadows that surrounded me, that I saw on the walls of my home and on the streets, were deceptive. I chased a nefarious dream. It was not until it all came crashing down, when my precarious life imploded and I stood surrounded by smoldering carnage, that I recognized reality. As I sat in a concrete cell on Rikers Island, on a steel bunk welded to the wall, and looked out a narrow window at razor wire and boulders that lined the East River, the shadowy figures came into focus. The clarity, the reality, was horrifying.
In times of despair, when experiencing fear and uncertainty, men often turn to God, seeking guidance and succor. Cynics claim that criminals never attend church, never pursue a spiritual program, until incarcerated. For many, this is true. But past errors, past failures, are not the end of one’s path. In the Book of Genesis, Hagar and her son are banished to the desert. Hagar despairs, and weeps. As she cries, “God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water, and she went and filled her bottle, and gave the boy to drink” (Genesis 21:19). The well had been there all along, but it wasn’t until God opened her eyes that she saw It.
A realization or an awakening can be sudden like an epiphany, or it can gestate slowly for months. Many prisoners, by nature, are stubborn. We are resistant to doing things differently. I don’t like change. It is uncomfortable, stressful. I prefer a regular routine. Sudden changes or complications throw me off balance. I sometimes struggle with choices, not sure which is best. The debate that rages in my mind is frustrating. When confused, I look for guidance from others. But picking the right expert or sage is critical. Spiritual texts are authoritative advice. What other literatures have born relief from human suffering for hundreds of years?
I am often awed when I pass by cells on my gallery and I hear men quote Biblical scripture from memory. I have no such ability. I need to have Bible in hand, and be wearing my reading glasses, with plenty of light, in order to quote a single verse. But once reading, all of my focus, is present.
For seven years, I served as a Catholic lector, reading Holy Scripture to men congregated in Attica’s cavernous chapel. Though I did so every week, I was nervous before each reading. The import of the Bible’s words is central, key to each Mass. I read scripture aloud in both English and Spanish. I am fluent in Spanish, but I have to practice by reading in that language, and speaking it, every day. In front of the men gathered in the chapel, with my words, amplified by microphone and tall speakers, I want the intonation and the pronunciation to be as perfect as I can make it. I practice the reading in my cell before each Mass. Yet as I climb the steps onto the stage on which the altar stands, draped in white cloth with a priest presiding, I can feel my heart thump.
Every year I have the honor of reading Psalm 23 to the congregation. As my heart beats, my skin tingles. Not only is the Psalm inspiring, but it is mystical. When surrounded by concrete and steel bars, the image of green pastures and placid water offers hope for a better future. But to reach that future state, “dwell[ing] in the house of the Lord forever,” one must first “walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” That shadow inhabits the corridors of Attica. It is not death itself, though men do die here. It is fear that is present—the fear of missteps, of violence, of never leaving prison. I dream of dinner at home with my family, of green fields, surrounded by trees. At Attica, there live men who have not been near a tree for thirty years.
At the lector’s podium in Attica’s chapel, before I start the reading, I see the faces of men who yearn for freedom, who fear they will never experience it. They confront fear by attending Mass. They must pass by wooden batons tightly gripped. They must endure taunts and ridicule, must know rules and procedures that are never explained, and often unwritten. They must know instinctively where to stand, when to move, and when to stop. A single misstep incurs consequences.
Every week, as I climb the chapel stairs, I fear making a mistake while reading from the Catholic missal. I fear embarrassment, ridicule, should I stumble over a verse, or mispronounce a word in Spanish.
It would be easier, less stressful, if I stayed in my cell and watched television. I wouldn’t have to deal with guards who embarrass and ridicule prisoners who simply ask a question. When the opening of my cell gate for Mass was delayed by an hour from its normal time, I asked the officer if chapel call-outs had left yet. He exploded, yelling, “Don’t tell me how to do my job. I’ve been doing this for twenty years.” As other prisoners listened and watched, I felt humiliated. Logically, I know he suffers the same stress and frustrations that I do. He is serving a twenty year prison sentence, ten hours at a time. But emotionally, I am belittled and hurt. Prisoners and guards alike struggle with fragile egos.
Religion promotes empathy—putting myself in someone else’s shoes and trying to understand their perspective, their feelings. Guards sometimes are disrespected by prisoners. Sometimes they are conned—used by inmates to get something. Eventually, some guards develop a resentment—a hardened heart—toward all prisoners. At times, I feel the same way. When a man on my gallery asks me for a shot of coffee or a stamp, my initial instinct is to say no. Some men are always trying to get something for free. I struggle to balance generosity with the fear of getting used.
For guidance, I think of the examples set by religious figures who were imprisoned. I consider how they treated fellow prisoners, how they dealt with incarceration. George Fox, imprisoned by the British government for his Quaker beliefs, was kind and generous with all men. He shared what little he had. Yet, because of the horrendous conditions in British gaols in the 1600s, he left prison weak and emaciated. Should I follow the example he set? Fox’s writings from prison emphasized showing love and compassion to all. “Be examples in all… places… that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people” (Brinton, 36). When I feel irritable, or selfish, I think of what type of example I set for others.
A great many prisoners recognize their faults while incarcerated, and strive to overcome them. Despite the cynicism of many in society, some incarcerated men and women genuinely undergo transformation through a religious awakening—a change in thinking. No longer distracted by the drama and stress of living in society—no longer using alcohol, drugs, or both—clear, logical thinking results in the recognition of past failures, of weaknesses, of transgressions. Some are motivated to be better persons. The moral perfection of a Messiah, or Mary, mother-of God, can inspire prisoners to atone, to reform.
Jesus Christ exhorted us to show love to all our brothers and sisters. He argues that compassion is more important than adherence to rituals when at Matthew 9:13 he says, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” The Torah also charges us to show compassion. During the first century AD, the Hebrew sage Hillel said, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary” (A. Cohen, 65). Yet prisoners are wary, even fearful of showing love. It proves them to be ‘soft,’ easily used—targets for abuse.
My cell looks out onto a recreation yard infamous for violence. I have seen countless fights and stabbings there, often over a debt of three dollars for tobacco. Prisoners say it’s not the money that’s important, it’s the principle. I value generosity over a prison reputation. If a man is hungry, I will feed him. If a man is broke, with no support from his family, and needs help, I will offer it. Compassion and empathy are so invaluable that I am not afraid to show love. All religions compel me to battle such fear.
Some prisoners recognize that when they were enjoying freedom as part of society, they failed to show compassion, or even much concern for their family and friends. They missed holiday get-togethers because they were too busy hustling, partying, or otherwise being self-absorbed. They forgot birthdays. They neglected family and friends in need. Yet when they found themselves incarcerated, they remembered how they treated their families, and recognized the need to change. That process can be facilitated by religious worship.
Religion is a unifying force in a place that is often divisive, violent, and always filled with resentments. Fights are frequent in Attica’s yards. Yet in the chapel even though fifty or two hundred and fifty men sit together, fights are rare. Prisoners will put aside their differences, listen to each other, and pray. For those who have lost contact with their loved ones, the religious bond replaces family.
Prisoners depend on their religious community to offer solace. Men fear they will never again experience freedom. We all feel the shadow of death when a member of the congregation passes. Dying in prison is our greatest fear. Our struggles, our achievements, may be meaningless.
Even for those who may spend their lives in prison, Psalm 23 offers hope, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Eventually, regardless of the length of sentence, all men and women will leave prison. All prisoners may embrace a hope of ascension to the House of the Lord. Prison is not the end. It is only one leg of the journey. At night, when cell gates slam shut, prisoners can be comforted by the knowledge that the gate will once again open. When inmates endure humiliation and abuse at the hands of prison guards, they can be assured that the suffering is temporary. When violence erupts in the yard outside my window, and tear gas is fired, I am sick to my stomach, and scared. However, I know that eventually calm will be restored .
One day, I will leave prison. But until that day, I live with anxiety, and fear. When I’m in the mess hall, I worry about whether an argument will escalate into a fight. In my cell, when I hear the boots and jangling keys of an officer approach, I get anxious. It is a cell search? I worry about the poor medical care In prison, whether my AIDS will worsen and I will deteriorate in prison. At times, a foreboding, a fear of what lay ahead—the shadow of death—consumes me. To alleviate those worries, I turn to prayer. “Santa Maria, madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores. Ahora, y en la hora de nuestra muerte.”
I sat on a wooden bench, in silence, waiting for my turn at the commissary window. The guards forbid us to talk, or even change seats, while we wait. To pass the time, I always bring a book. I sometimes wait hours for my few minutes at the window—buying instant coffee, deodorant, and stamps so that I can write to friends. I had brought a book about Christianity written by David Platt, a pastor with a doctorate degree from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
In preparation to write this essay, I had to do a lot of research. Even though I’ve read passages from the Bible to the Catholic congregation at Attica for years, I am no theologian. I strive to learn and understand spiritual texts—whether they are the Bible, the Qur’an, or the Zohar. I’m a prisoner on a spiritual journey, but the path can be sinuous, and murky. As Dante Alighieri wrote, “In the middle of my life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood.” I’m trying to slowly find my way out of that darkness.
Sitting in the brick corridor outside the commissary, I came across David Platt’s explanation, based on Luke 9, of what is required to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Platt says, “Become homeless. Let someone else bury your Dad. Don’t even say goodbye to your family” (Platt, 8). I stopped reading, a bit stunned. I was homeless. My father had died while I was incarcerated, and I wasn’t allowed to attend his funeral. When I was arrested, I did not see my family again for eight years. There were no goodbyes.
David Platt’s interpretation of Luke 9 speaks to what is required to order to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus. But I am a criminal, convicted of a heinous crime that resulted in the death of a beautiful young woman. How could I consider being a disciple of Jesus? A relationship with Jesus Christ requires complete, unwavering devotion. My selfish behavior has destroyed countless relationships, angered friends, and estranged my family. I was incapable of devotion to anyone or anything. My ex-wife told me that I never loved anyone, except my mother. She was right.
I’d lost my mother to cancer while she was still a vibrant, active woman. After her death, I went into a depression that I treated with alcohol and drugs. I numbed myself to assuage the pain. But the pain intensified until I destroyed my life and that of a friend.
Incarcerated, and finally sober, I started attending Mass in an effort to communicate with my mother. My prison cell was too ugly a place to talk with her. But Attica’s cavernous chapel, with stained glass windows that rise to the ceiling of the apse, inspires me and allows me to sense her presence. I ask her forgiveness for my debauchery, and for my sins. Even though I fail everyday, I try to follow Jesus’s teachings and advice.
I attended Mass regularly, getting to know the priest, and Sister Roz, Attica’s vivacious Coordinating Chaplain. When the inmate lector was transferred to another prison, Sister Roz asked me if I would read scripture during the Mass. When the Hispanic lector left the prison, I started reading the scripture in Spanish, too. The responsibility and the rewards of being a lector gave me purpose in a prison that is oppressive and has few rehabilitative programs. My understanding of the Bible—and my Spanish pronunciation—improved.
I noticed differences, sometimes inconsistencies, in the translation. In my cell, when practicing the readings for Mass, I compared English and Spanish versions of Psalm 23, using the Catholic Bilingual Missal. The last line of the first verse, in English reads, “He refreshes my soul.” In Spanish, the line reads, “Repara mis fuerzas,” which translates as “He restores my strength.” The Spanish word for soul is alma. I agree that one’s soul can be a source of strength. Yet, strength does not necessarily mean soul. Resilience, determination, and grit can all be types of strength.
I noticed other inconsistencies, too. In the second verse of Psalm 23, it says, “I fear no evil.” However, the Spanish version of the missal reads, “Nada temo,” which means, “I fear nothing.” That is a big difference. I fear laziness, stagnation, ignorance and failure. I would never say that I fear nothing. Fear keeps me from doing stupid things, like leaping out highrise windows or punching an officer in the face.
Translation is a subjective process. The choice of a word often involves opinion, and sometimes bias. Yet a single word can change the meaning of a sentence, or a whole verse. Furthermore, different versions of the Bible were produced by kings and religious leaders over the course of more than one thousand years. How can one determine definitively the correct version, the right meaning? Biblical scholars vary in their opinions and views.
From the moment of putting ink to parchment, scribes wrestled with different views of the Bible. When Bible editors formed the canons of both Jewish and Christian testaments, they included differing concepts. Authors of the Bible freely revised the texts handed down to them, and at times, gave them new meaning. Conditions and problems at the time of writing influenced their views. The original meaning of a Biblical passage was not paramount. Authors included new ways of interpretation. Deuteronomists changed the wording of liturgical texts to conform with their views of monarchy and government. They also rewrote the history of Israel during the seventh century BC, putting more emphasis on the deeds of Moses. Deuteronomists rewrote the Books of Samuel and Kings to reflect their belief that Davidic monarchs were the only legitimate rulers of Israel (Armstrong, 2007).
The Bible thus demonstrates that one should not be afraid to hold a differing opinion, one’s own view. Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Laics should not be.afraid to think, to analyze, to form their own opinions. This advice from Romans serves as inspiration for the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), a prison rehabilitation program created by Quakers in 1975 for New York State prisons. AVP workshops encourage men to consider differing ideas and values of fellow prisoners. Respect for another man’s opinion is paramount. Further, AVP embraces Jesus’s advice to turn the other cheek, that malevolence should be met with kindness, and love. Due to the success of AVP in reducing prison violence, the program is embraced in prisons throughout the United States, and twenty-five other countries.
However, the Alternatives to Violence Project avoids discussion of religion. It is a sensible way to avoid conflict and division. I knew that Quakers were instrumental in the formation of AVP, but I learned almost nothing about Quakerism through AVP, even though I had participated in and facilitated AVP workshops for years. The AVP volunteers, many of whom are Quakers, inspired me to emulate their ideals and traits. They are powerfully motivated to conduct non-violence workshops. They leave their homes, and families, to spend upwards of twelve hours a day in maximum- security prisons. They often use vacation time and unpaid leaves from work, to spend days in prison, living by the same rules as inmates, eating the same bland food, sitting on uncomfortable chairs in overheated rooms. They drive for hours from their homes, wait in the rain to be processed and frisked by prison guards, and after twelve hours in a small room conducting workshops, get in their cars and drive home. In the morning, they do it all again. I admire them, but I sometimes wonder if they are insane.
Nevertheless, I sought to learn more about them. My first Society of Friends Meeting, which is what the Quakers call their service, was on a Friday night in the school building. In a small circle of chairs, two Quakers, a husband and wife,sat patiently waiting. They warmly greeted me and three Quaker prisoners. I didn’t know what to expect. But the volunteers quickly made me feel welcome, telling me they were very happy that I was interested in learning more about the Quakers.
Debbie explained that the Quaker Society of Friends was formed in England in the 1650s. During the Puritan revolution, a religious movement took shape which was different from previous Anglican religions. Small groups of men and women met in their homes and sat in silence “to wait upon the Lord.”At times, their silence was broken when one of the members felt divine inspiration, and revealed what was in his or her heart. This method of revelation, because it sometimes caused those who spoke to “tremble with fervor,” (Brinton, 2) resulted in the term ‘Quaker.’ The Society of Friends called themselves “children of the Light”(l Thess. 5:5).
This type of worship was new since Quakers did not rely on pastors or reverends to preach God’s word. However, this change was criticized and seen as an “evil capable of overthrowing all established order and belief” (Brinton, 1). Quakers supported their practice, their method of worship, with texts from the Book of Psalms that express the feelings of those waiting in the Lord’s presence at the temple in Jerusalem. “I waited patiently for the Lord; and he inclined unto me and heard my cry. He brought me up out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock” (Psalm 40:1,2).
Psalm 40 serves as inspiration for Quakers to sit in silence, patiently, waiting for God’s words and guidance. The Psalm is also representative of incarceration. Prison is a “horrible pit.” It is an ugly place of suffering and punishment inflicted on a daily basis. However, community volunteers offer a hand, a boost, “out of the miry clay.” Much of prison life is a dreary routine, a monotony for those who see no divergence from the rutted, muddy road. Many spend hours in front of rickety black and white televisions watching mundane programs. In the recreation yard, they huddle in small groups, wearing layers of state-issued clothing as protection from snow and wind, and swap tales of drama, drug use, and previous lives.
Yet, incarceration does offer choices—a way out of a feckless existence. Many prisoners turn to God, attend chapel services, and participate in Bible study groups. Saturday mornings, when I visit the prison library, the corridor contains men on their way to study the Bible, the Qur’an, or the Torah. In the chapel, I hear the voices of Protestants singing hymns. Yet on Friday nights, when I attend Quaker Friends Meetings, we are often the only group in the school. The library is closed. The classrooms are dark, the desks are vacant.
Men and women are often reluctant, even afraid, to engage in classroom education. They may have had bad experiences in the past with school, and perhaps with teachers. Many inmates have difficulty reading and writing. It pains me when I find books in the prison garbage room. I rescue them, read them, and pass them on to others. I also help men to write letters. For men in the community college program, I sometimes edit essays. As a prison writer, I too struggle whenever I put pen to paper. Fear holds me back—the fear of failure, of looking foolish by writing inane drivel, of rejection by literary editors. Doing things differently, trying new techniques, attempting a different style of writing, or a different genre—all cause me apprehension and anxiety.
A change in thinking is a challenge. As an alcoholic, and an addict, I kept doing things the same way, holding on to insane ideas. Sobriety, and doing things differently, scared me. Even though as human beings our DNA, our blueprint, changes and evolves continually, it is a slow process that can result in mistakes, mutations, aging and disease. That process may threaten our lives, our existence. It is not surprising that many of us fear change. But in order to improve our species, to adapt to changing circumstances, mankind must undergo transformation.
In addition to physical change, a spiritual conversion — a-metanoia — occurs for many men and women in prison. Much of society is skeptical, even dismissive, of such a transformation. Many think prisoners embrace Christianity and participate in religious programs simply to improve their chances of being released by parole boards. But once incarcerated, men and women are no longer drinking, drugging, or caught up in hedonistic lifestyles. They recognize the need for spiritual guidance, and are receptive to God’s influence. A clear, sane mind can distinguish the voice of Jesus from the surrounding din.
Prisons offer few rehabilitative programs. Many inmates have to wait ten to twenty years before being granted the opportunity to participate in anti-aggression classes or programs for sobriety. During that seemingly interminable wait, it is no surprise that many embrace spirituality. Many choose to attend chapel worship or Bible study groups. But trying something new requires overcoming fear—a fear of losing one’s former self—a fear of traversing the valley of the shadow of death.
Those who embark on a journey in which they confront and overcome the forces of darkness are sometimes recognized as heroes. Joseph Campbell, in The Hero With A Thousand Faces, details the struggles and exploits of mythical figures who were transformed by their journeys. Overcoming formidable obstacles, and their own fears, they ultimately achieved their goals. I claim no prisoners as heroes. However, many incarcerated men and women are on spiritual journeys and must overcome their fears, negotiate obstacles, and undergo transformation. They must let their old selves die. The Phoenix walks into a pyre, and is consumed by the flames. Yet, the Phoenix rises from the ashes, stronger and wiser. Overcoming the fear of death, it is transformed. Jesus speaks of this process: “Whoever loses his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:25).
Joseph Campbell details the “perilous journey into the darkness” (Campbell, 101) that can be intentional or unintentional. I recall wanting, praying to be cured of my drug addiction. I sometimes wonder if my incarceration was imposed by criminal justice, or by the saving grace of God. Mystics write about the “purification of the self” (Campbell, 101) through a spiritual transformation. I began that journey when I entered prison. I had not attended Catholic Mass for years.
Once incarcerated, not only did I attend Mass every week, but I fought to go. When 1 was denied the right to worship by officers who refused to open my cell, I wrote to the chaplain. When I made it to the chapel, but was denied entrance by guards who limited chapel attendance to less than forty inmates, I . wrote to the Superintendent. I feared I would get beat up by angry officers. But that never happened. Sensing my determination to transform myself, the prison’s Catholic priest asked me to be a lector during night services. With a newfound sense of responsibility and purpose, I practiced the readings in my cell. Although nervous, I ascended the steps to the chapel podium, and read scripture with forcefulness and inspiration.
After Mass, I often talked-with Sister Roz. She told me about the meditation program. It involved Buddhist philosophy, but not Buddhist religion. Prisoners of all faith groups were permitted to attend. Housed in an oppressive, often violent block of Attica, I was eager to get out of my cell, go to the school building, and try meditation. The following week, I was on the call-out.
When I arrived at the meditation room, the instructor, a wiry man with short white hair, greeted me. He asked me to remove my shoes and sit on one of eight thin black mats on the floor. As I sat cross-legged, waiting for other men to arrive, I glanced around the room. The walls were painted dentist office green. Chunks of plaster were missing, exposing rusted metal lath. Ceiling tiles dangled precariously, revealing a garden hose and drip pan used to carry water away from a leaking roof. Through the windows, I could see over Attica’s massive concrete wall. For the first time in three years, I saw a lush, green tree — a tall oak.
I knew very little about meditation but was quickly in a relaxed state due to the quiet in the room. As more inmates arrived, they each shed their shoes and found a mat. Some men sat in chairs. I remained on a mat, even though my ankles began to hurt, and one foot started to fall asleep. I was determined to get the full meditative experience.
I listened to the instructor’s explanation of the proper meditation posture and the counting of breaths in order to still the mind. My shoulders tended to sag; my back refused to stay erect. But I kept correcting my posture, and concentrated on my breaths, slowly counting. I was relieved to do something with my mind other than worry—to let go of my negativity, to stop obsessing about what the prison guards were going to say, or do next; to stop anticipating problems that I thought would arise tomorrow, or next week. My fears began to subside. The frustration and anger that ruled my mind and my attitude began to dissolve. The sun was descending behind the trees, slipping below Attica’s concrete wall. Gradually, it disappeared from view, leaving behind an orange sunset reflected on fat, puffy clouds. My anger and hostility escaped—through the open steel casement windows and dissipated. I too left the room, and the prison. Acceptance and contentment replaced my frustrations. A glimmer of serenity scintillated behind the tangerine sunset.
Enlightenment is possible in a place of suffering, but often at great cost. Loss of freedom, loss of home and family, loss of a previous life are often the costs exacted in order to transform oneself, to change one’s thinking and recognize faults and failures. It is painful for me to recall the mistakes I made, to recognize my stupidity and selfishness. I think about my mother, my sister, the garden at my home where I barbecued dinner for friends and watched the sun set. My mother is gone. My sister has retired and now travels, mountain climbing in South America and Africa. Someone else now lives in the house that was my home for twenty years.
Some cultures embrace fear as a normal part of daily life. In Out of Africa, the author Isak Dineson portrays her life on a coffee plantation in Kenya. Dineson, whose real name is Karen Blixen, was a Danish baroness. After inheriting a seven hundred acre African plantation, she moved to Kenya. In her book, she relates how the Tutsi dealt with the daily threat of danger—lions, hyenas, and warring African tribes. For the Tutsi, fear was a normal part of everyday life. They embraced it. They told Dineson that fear made them feel alive.
I’ve learned to tolerate fear as part of prison life. I don’t like fear, and I don’t like prison. However, both are now a part of my existence, my journey. When I attended Mass in Attica’s chapel, I knew there were risks—aggressive pat frisks by guards, fights erupting in the corridor on the way to the chapel. When I participated in three-day Catholic seminars in the visiting room, I had to overcome the apprehension of spending twelve hours a day in the same room at the same table, in the same chair. After each day, I was strip-searched. I was uncomfortable standing naked before a prison guard who examined, thoroughly, my entire body. Each time I ascended the chapel stairs to read Holy Scripture before the congregation, and flicked the on switch of the microphone, I was nervous. But I did it every week for years.
After fifty-five years of being a Catholic, I felt it was time for a change. The Quakers that I met in prison had a purpose, a serenity, that I sensed and admired. The first time I attended a Quaker Friends Meeting, I was nervous. I struggled my for months with my decision to change my religion. Prison rules forbid me from going back to Catholicism for at least a year. I was afraid of making the change, of making a mistake. Each time I attend Quaker services, I have to safely negotiate my way past a dozen prison guards, and five steel gates. When I see a group of guards, wearing blue latex frisk gloves, standing at the entrance to the school building, I feel sick to my stomach. I start to silently recite the Hail Mary in Spanish.
I’ve learned how to deal with fear in prison. I’m still scared, but faith helps me to put one foot in front of another as I let my former self die. I am comforted by Matthew 4:16. “For those who live in the land where death casts its shadow, a light shines.”
Dean A. Faiello
Attica Correctional Facility
Armstrong, Karen. The Bible: A Biography. New York: Grove Press, 2007.
Brinton, Howard. Friends For 350 Years. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Publications, 2002.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Catholic Bilingual Missal. World Library Publications. Vol. 18, No. 2, 2015.
Cohen, A. Everyman’s Talmud. New York, 1975.
Kushner, Harold. Who Needs God. New York: Summit Books, 1989.
Lumen, Samuel. The World of the Mystic. New York: Philosophical Library, 1987.
Mendenhall, George. The Tenth Generation: The Origins of Biblical Tradition. London, 1973.
Platt, David. Radical: Taking Back Your Faith. Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2010.