I find myself rooting against the USA in the Olympics.
Escape from Freedom
If you keep doing the same thing you keep getting the same results.
A week after I began facilitating workshops at New York’s notorious penal colony, Rikers Island, I was confronted with the scene of four men screaming in uncontrollable anger as they violently shook the bars that confined them in their “housing area.” My job was to lock into this housing area in order to deliver programs. That day’s group topic? Anger management. I stood there and I wondered how the hell I was going to do this. It was oppressively hot and there were no fans, not even a breeze. Part of the anger was due to the heat and the fact that many of the men felt they were being brutalized — and in a very real way, they were.
Being me, I smiled and asked my men at the gate (one was a cage fighter out in the street) what was the matter. I asked the correctional officer to open the gate and I took in a deep breath as I walked in and heard the gate close shut behind me. Don’t get me wrong, I never felt I was in danger from the men in my two different groups. On the contrary, they were very protective and loyal to me. Part of the reason I am not allowed to run groups at Rikers any longer is because I was able to forge a bond with the men detained there that the Department of Corrections (DOC) staff either didn’t like or understand. I often felt less comfortable around the guards and civilians than I did with the men detained at Rikers.
In any case, I wondered how in the fuck I could run a group in which the room temperature was over 100 degrees and my participants were rightfully protesting treatment that would be considered inhuman by most international watchdog groups. In fact, my guys were saying, “We don’t want to hear no bullshit anger management shit today, Mr. Eddie!” LOL
So I struck a deal with them. I said that what I brought to the group that particular day, they could kick me out of the group. That brought some laughter, as many felt my quest was Quixotic at best. In any case, I bet the farm that I could teach the group something they could use that very moment. To do this, I had to throw away the book.
One big revelation for me was the realization that we subconsciously train others how to treat us. We do this through the messages we send through our body language, our tone of voice, and other subtle cues and behaviors. Unfortunately, mostly because our attention is often distracted, obscured, or lost in a past that has gone by or a future that doesn’t exist.
So my first lesson was the important lesson that the ability to pay attention to what is happening in any given moment — to our actions and their results — is one of the basic principles of freedom. And yes, I was talking about freedom to a group that (rightfully) felt they had none.
Failures and unwanted situations should serve to create new behaviors and different approaches. As the group talked about their grievances of not being listened to, we explored how these things happened. In the context of a jail or prison, conflict resolution takes shape within a bubble of apathy and violence. Feelings of powerlessness and the perception that you are not being listened to or valued may make you scream or talk louder. It might compel you to curse and make threats because the feeling is that you will not be heard otherwise. And while this may seem strange to you, consider how you would react if you felt your basic human rights were being trampled every day. My goal was to do what seemed like the impossible: to teach the practice of freedom where the very concept is held in contempt.
Part of the group entailed role-playing exercises that encouraged awareness of body movement, and the tone and timbre of the voice in various situations — especially in stressful ones where we all tend to go unconscious and habitual, often mindless, strategies take over. For example, we noted one participant raised his hands and used his index finger in a menacing way though he was basically unaware of the gesture. Others noted that they screamed, but justified it by observing if they didn’t, the guards wouldn’t listen to them. I challenged on this, but that was hard because the hard reality is that in some ways they were correct. What I asked was that they looked at how they added or took away from the dysfunction.
I called in a guard and asked that he participant in some role play. Unfortunately, the guard refused, so I stood in and played the role of authority. Then I asked some of the participants to role play as a guard. That resulted in a lot of laughter, but I think some were able to see past the surface and see that they were humans (if fucked up in their views) just like they were humans. And in this way we all tried to explore how we could train others to treat as we felt we deserved to be treated.
I can’t say if I was successful that day. I know we got to laugh at some of the things we do without being aware of them and how our actions have real-time consequences in our lives. Most importantly, my desire was to communicate that even those who are confined have one basic freedom: we can choose how to respond.
More on this tomorrow.
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…