Prison as intersection

The Florida prison strike, dubbed #operationPUSH by its organizers, is bringing a level of national attention to conditions in our prisons that I haven’t seen in a long time.

People who generally don’t give a thought to the issue are becoming aware that people in jails and prisons live under truly inhumane conditions. The practice of using prison labor to do work both public and private is being recognized for what it is: slavery.

Some people are even beginning to be willing to consider that we as a society should discuss ways to better solve the issues of poverty, crime and violence. As it becomes clear that most of our jails and prisons actually increase all those things, we are beginning to see that incarceration is not a positive element in society or even a “necessary evil” — the position most people tend to retreat to when faced with the facts about how horrible prison really is.


The prison strike itself is bringing some clarity to my mind about a lot of these issues — issues I’ve been concerned about for a long time — because it’s helping me see the intersectionality of the issues. The question of using incarcerated people to do public work, from cleaning up roadsides to building facilities, is one thing (though I’d argue even that is a form of slave labor), but when it comes to leasing prisoners out to private interests, the moral ground is clear. We are enslaving them.

So I begin to see that when you step into a prison, you step into a place where many — perhaps most? — of the crucial issues of American society intersect. As with the original feminist idea of intersectionality, which describes how “people are often disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression: their race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and other identity markers,” as a discussion on YW Boston  frames it, the incarcerated are often at the crossing of many vectors that keep them pinned down, locked up, and caught in a cycle of poverty and crime that they can’t break out of.

This “convergence of oppression” can be acute for an incarcerated  individual.

Toxic Prisons

Prison, and the system that creates, supports, staffs and fills it with inmates, is likewise a point where we can observe many of the toxic factors in our society coming together to create an environment that is soul-destroying and life-wrecking for its individual victims and ultimately corrupting for the society at large.

In brief form, this is what we do: we take people who the economy — which is itself racist, classist, sexist, ableist, etc. — has forced into criminality in order to survive, run them through a legal system that is biased in every way against them and dooms them with its confrontational model, lock them up for being poor, of color, and under-educated, and them put them to work for either the state that did this to them or private interests that are the reason the state and its enforcement apparatus exist.

So in this system, this process, we can see all the racist, sexist, ableist, classist elements of society come together to make it nearly impossible for an individual with several strikes against them to avoid getting caught up in this web. Those individuals who do avoid it usually have some unusual element, some person, some stroke of luck, some quirk of character, that sets them apart and provides the impetus that propels them beyond entanglement in its sticky strands.

Almost all of the current social and political issues are involved in one way or another in the operation of this system. By looking deeply into how it works in general and how it may impact any particular person, we begin to illuminate all of the issues that our society must deal with in some reasonable time frame, else it will descend into some kind of dark, near-feudal social order that gradually abandons all the ideals of an egalitarian, humane society.

Slavery By Another Name

I’m beginning to read a book I’ve had for some years that is helping me see and understand the origins of this system.

Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name is a detailed historical account of how the system of laws, law enforcement and incarceration we now take as normal arose in the South after the Civil War to deal with two things: the economic chaos that white folk found themselves in after the freeing of the slaves deprived them of cheap labor, and the fear of these freed slaves taking over the government and economy of the South.

As I read this book and think about what’s going on around me, I plan to write further on the subject. It helps me to grasp it all, to make sense of it. I hope it may help others to understand what we have done, what we are doing, and most importantly, what we must now do to rectify the sins of the fathers.

The backward step…

Maia Duerr, who does the online sangha — Waking Up to Your Life — I’m associated with, sends out a message each full moon, sharing Zen insights and life advice. This month’s message is particularly helpful and wonderful to me, so am sharing here. Hope others find it helpful also.

This is her message for the Full Pink Moon (which isn’t pink, by the way — its name comes from the herb “moss pink” which is coming out this time of year):

Full moon / April 2017

Stop searching for phrases and chasing after words. Take the backward step and turn the light inward. Your body-mind of itself will drop away and your original face will appear. If you want to attain just this, immediately practice just this.
– Eihei Dogen (Fukanzazengi)
In the Zen tradition I practice in, the phrase “taking the backward step” is often invoked as a way to affirm the importance of zazen (sitting meditation) in a fully engaged life. That may sound contradictory – isn’t meditation about withdrawing from life?
Not at all, at least not how I understand it. To me, “taking the backward step” is a revolutionary act, one we must do if we are to have a deep understanding of how the world works, and how we work within it. It’s only through that kind of understanding that we can then take skillful action that does not create further harm, and may perhaps even contribute some good.
When I started writing this letter last week, the U.S. had just bombed Syria, in response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons on its own people. Both of these acts set off a wave of reactions across the globe, and within my own heart. I imagine you, too, may have felt an urgency about responding. When the intensity of world events is that amplified, the notion of “taking a backward step” may seem impossible, and out of step. We have to do something, don’t we? Or at least that’s how it feels.
And then I think of Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh’s stories of being in Vietnam during the war. Even as bombs dropped on nearby villages, he and his sangha continued to practice meditation, but they also went out to help those who were suffering. In his classic book Peace is Every Step, he writes about this decision:
When I was in Vietnam, so many of our villages were being bombed. Along with my monastic brothers and sisters, I had to decide what to do. Should we continue to practice in our monasteries, or should we leave the meditation halls in order to help people who were suffering under the bombs? After careful reflection we decided to do both – to go out and help people and to do so in mindfulness. We called it engaged Buddhism. Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?
We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help. If we maintain awareness of our breathing and continue to practice smiling, even in difficult situations, many people, animals, and plants will benefit from our way of doing things.
So as you hear the local and global news each day and perhaps struggle with how to respond, I encourage you to find ways to take your own backward step: a moment to re-connect with your breathing; a morning to take a long, quiet walk; a long weekend to go deeply into your practice. There is no better way to spend your time, for the benefit of all beings.
(Maia offers lots of ways to expand and deepen one’s practice, so drop in on her website and check out all the wonderful stuff there! She’s also doing a beautiful retreat in New Hampshire in July which looks wonderful! — John)

Cedrus libani

A poem of sorts from August 16, 2016:


Here. Take this lash.

Whip it across my face. Draw blood.

I prefer that to these words which cut

deep into my heart

and bury themselves in my mind,

waking me in the night with their pain,

manifesting as a dream of the cedar

I found long ago at the corner of Orange and Wayne,

now gone,

mourned in my dreams alone.

Or in the quiet sleepless hours

I roam about in the house, in the cosmos,

once again feeling the loss of the old forests

as if it were my own.

My life and the cedar’s are not so far apart.


Will fascism destroy us?

Just saw “The Mockingjay Pt. 2” last night!

Powerful movie, very intense and moving on many levels, and – finally! – makes the message of the Hunger Games trilogy+ clear.

Much of the impact of the first three movies seemed to be glorifying militarism and heroism and all that typical Hollywood bullshit, but in Pt. 2, it’s clear that all that heroism, all that rebellion and fighting against evil, is in vain.

For in the end, it’s just “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” One fascist is overthrown by another fascist, who is succeeded by a general, and we never see what the social results of all this are…

As someone wise once said, your means become your ends. Violence, even against ultimate evil, begets violence. The story uses a clever deus ex machina to resolve the whole thing into a happy ending, but a harder-edged, more realistic ending would have made for a stronger message.

The true message – and of course this story is an allegory of our own society, tho many seem oblivious to that – is that authoritarianism is at the heart of what is destroying the earth and its people. That impulse within some to seize power and within others to worship it as salvation is what has brought us to this sorry state in the societies of the world.

Only if we humans begin to understand and look honestly at those impulses to control and be controlled will we be able to begin to design a world that is compatible with the rest of life. The path to that understanding is not clear to me, but I feel the ideas of a “new story” as presented in the work of a number of current thinkers – such as Eisenstein’s ‘The More Beautiful World’ – point the way to next steps.

My cynical, realist side says that all that now stands may need to be destroyed for a new story to take hold. My love of the next generation makes me hope that isn’t necessary.

Looking at the rhetoric from those who posture as leaders now makes me fear that the next year may be critical in which way that goes. Trump’s parallels to Hitler are not as frightening to me as the parallels in our people to those of early 20th Century Germany. I struggle to find ways of expressing this that communicate well to people with little sense of history and understanding of human social psychology.

If we don’t come together in ways that help all our citizens see these things, I fear the results of our next elections may seal things off in ways that will make it hard to come back…