Amma's Prison Outreach Program
Circle of Love Inside: Our Amma’s Prison Outreach Book
by Savitri Bess
Don't be discouraged by your incapacity to dispel darkness from the world. Light your candle and step forward."--Amma
At the Boston program in 2015, Amma gave a joyous and enthusiastic “Yes,” when I asked if she would approve of a book based on the letter-writing experiences of Amma's Circle of Love Inside (COL-I) prison outreach volunteers. Over the last year I have worked with ten amazing and unique authors helping them edit their pieces. Our manuscript is now complete: Changing Lives Inside and Out: Stories from Amma’s Prison Outreach Project.
Our book offers a view into the experiences of each COL-I person and the inmates they write to, showing ways the volunteers serve as spiritual and personal-growth support, including the volunteers’ own life-changing experiences and personal stories. Excerpts from inmate letters substantiate the various narratives.
In the early days of forming Circle of Love Inside, Aikya Param visited a couple of prisoners not too far from the Bay Area where she lives. One of those inmates was Joel Williams. Joel’s father used to beat him daily, often with a two-by-four, from childhood into teen years. His father often locked him in his room with no food. Aikya sent out a group email message seeking a volunteer trained in PTSD therapy. Psychologist and Amma devotee Deborah Welborn volunteered.
There is no sin that repentance cannot wash away —Amma
For four years Deborah wrote letters to Joel weekly and did therapy in the prison with him monthly. Deborah kindly agreed to be interviewed and her experiences comprise a chapter in the book.
Deborah: “The letter writing was difficult because we were working with trauma, PTSD, and I didn’t know how to do therapy through letter-writing. Over the weeks he would write to me about some of his experiences and how difficult it was to live in the prison and how people thought he was strange and quiet and withdrawn. My letters were more supportive, lending a listening ear, letting him know that it is common for someone who has had trauma in their lives, to be very inward and not speak much.
“He talked at length about the difficulties of trying to blend in with prison life and not participate in the ‘politics’ of prison. Often our sessions included talking about what his life was like; and how is it to be in a system that was very rough when he was always hypervigilant anyway. He often fought tears back, not wanting the guards to see any expression of emotion. My weekly letters between monthly sessions in the prison left much to be desired from my point of view as a therapist.
“His gentle nature is not the usual behavior or mentality of those in prison life. When someone behind walls is very quiet and gentle they can be seen as a female partner. He was approached but he let them know he was not available as a partner. Much to Joel’s relief, his fear that he would be attacked did not happen. He had been abused all of his young and adolescent years, but he had no inclination to fight others. He was sentenced to prison when he was nineteen or twenty and had been in prison for twenty-three years when I met him.
“When reminded of his past, intrusive thoughts of past traumas, hyper-vigilance, and feelings of distress, clouded the clear seeing of his true nature. People with PTSD can develop a belief and personal identity with always being afraid—‘I can’t trust, no one likes me, or I am a bad person,’ and this identity creates a veil or wall around their true essence. Their thoughts and perceptions create their world. However, through letter-writing and therapy, there would be brief moments when Joel would soften and just really open up. He would open in a way that you could see his joy. But he was so frightened, he’d quickly close it up again, leaving only a glimpse of his love within. Our work together was a process of opening and closing, opening and closing.
“Joel developed a belief system from his inner personal story that he was a ‘bad person. I killed my father. I was abused but no one really recognized that, or how it affected me. Because of what I did, I’m no good and I have nothing to offer.’ This was his story and it became a belief system for Joel.
“I felt his deep agony while watching and listening to his inner feelings and thoughts pour out. The agony and the depth of his fear was not only heard, it was evidenced in his eyes. I could taste what life must be like behind the walls. This fear for life was not in my experience and I developed an appreciation for how it must feel to go to sleep not knowing if you would be beaten or harassed during the night. Joel’s introversion and quiet manner was somewhat protective—other inmates thought he was a ‘psycho’ and mostly did not bother him.
“Over the years of monthly visits, the edges softened and Joel was able to talk more freely about the poverty of his life and the constant humiliation and inhuman abuse handed him by his father. Joel began to listen to what was going on inside, watching the thoughts, as the thoughts would come up. I suggested that if he just watch them, he could see the thoughts, and he could ‘be’ the witness of those thoughts.
“Joel eventually could face his crime and speak of it with more acceptance of self. He began accepting his adolescent behavior, clouded by alcohol, and his decision to end his father’s life. He began to accept that the past could not be changed. At the parole board hearings, they wanted Joel to take responsibility for his crime. In the first or second hearing he acknowledged responsibility as well as his true regret.
“He spent much time exploring his actions and lack of consideration for others. He came to know his decision to take his father’s life was about how his life had been affected by his father’s sadistic abuse. The grief he felt for this ‘selfishness’ was deep and he regretted his decision, he regretted his crime. From this awareness he met a new part of himself. A softening emerged within and a true awakening to the severity of suffering his siblings experienced. Respect grew for the wrongness of his actions.
“Joel’s quest for a greater understanding of self and others led him to write short stories for which he received recognition. He’d always talked about writing and then he started writing. I was able to send a few books to him on writing styles and how to write, which helped him learn how to put a story together. He’d saved up money from prison jobs and asked someone to buy him a typewriter and send it to him.
“A contact of Joel’s informed him of writing contests. This contact agreed to submit his work. Some months later this same man contacted a university professor who read Joel’s writings. The professor liked his stories, calling them ‘alternative writings.’ The professor connected Joel with a publisher from Paris who came to visit Joel and told him, ‘I want to publish your book.’ Joel wrote a book of short stories, A House Burning, and now it’s available on Amazon.
“He became more hopeful, less depressed, less despondent. It seemed that his heart had opened to love and compassion. This happened when he began reaching out to others, teaching them the guitar. As he gave to others, there was more lightness in him, less distrust, less feeling on guard and more internal confidence. Joel gained an even greater sense of worth, realizing, ‘I can give something. I can teach something. People want to learn this.’ Right around this time the guards started being kinder and nicer to Joel. On one of my last visits, before he was paroled, one of the guards commented to me, ‘You know Joel’s got a hearing coming up and we’re really pulling for him.’
“Joel wanted to meet Amma and was grateful for her seva, that she must be amazing to have devotees in selfless service. I told him I took his picture up with me one time when I went for Amma’s hug, and showed it to Amma. Because of the contact he had had with Aikya and me, and one or two other Amma devotees who had been writing to him, he felt like there was so much love, that such a program could exist, that he got to be part of it. Seeing with ‘Amma’s eyes’ is seeing with compassion and love instead of through the pain and hurt that resulted from the beatings and poverty he lived as a youth. So it was a different way of knowing, to feel Amma’s love.
“Regarding my work with him, he asked me one time, ‘Why do you do this?’ I said, ‘It’s a service I do for Amma.’ It took him a while to really understand that and to accept that my coming was not for money. It was something I did for Amma. I told him I like doing service and that it was totally Amma’s doing. And I think that he began to really understand what that meant.
“While in prison Joel married a woman he’d met by mail and who’d visited him in prison. Joel writes: I was released [after 28 years in prison] on January 12, 2015. My wife Brenda picked me up on a cold and foggy winter morning. I got carsick two miles down the road. I had the uncanny feeling that my release was a mistake, that they were coming to get me at any moment. For a month afterward I felt like Fred Flintstone in the time of the Jetsons. But my wife and I eventually relocated to northern California. We now own and operate our own thrift store, called Needful Things. And I’m working toward a degree in agriculture at the local college. Life has settled into a routine.
Deborah: “I saw Joel recently and he was like a totally different man. He was smiling. He drove a car. He talked about his future. I said to him ‘This is like a new man.’”
I for one, cannot imagine, what it would be like to be incarcerated. I’m forever inspired by the inmates I write to. All of the prisoners we Circle of Love Inside volunteers write to, wish to better themselves spiritually and emotionally. They long to make up for the mistakes they’ve made. They seek inner peace and the courage to face their fears and their anger. They want to forgive and leave the past behind. It is a long journey for them. It is a long journey for any of us on a spiritual path. They long for encouragement and comfort from those who care.
The gift of exchanging letters with these men who have opened their hearts to share and receive, has been life-transforming for me, and for all us who write to our inmate friends. The honesty and raw emotion, the caring, the love, the anguish, the hopelessness, the optimism, the torment, the urgent desire for freedom—are not my usual everyday experiences in the world outside prison walls. Yet inside myself I know that out of the fire of devastation and destruction, the Phoenix bird rises.