Chi Heals You
T'ai Chi Chih at Folsom
In 1997 an instructor by the name of Tara Stiles began offering T'ai Chi Chih (a hybride T'ai Chi/Qigong form) inside of Folsom State Prison. Justin Stone, the originator of T'ai Chi Chih, was so supportive of this kind of work that in 1998 he personally paid a visit to the prison and gave a lecture to the men there.
In 1998 Judy Tretheway took over the Folsom class and taught it for the next 13 years. I met Judy in 2009, and became her assistant. In 2011 Judy retired and I have been teaching the weekly class there ever since. (Please see my blog entries.) It has changed me in ways I never anticipated, and I am so grateful for the opportunity and the experience.
BELOW ARE MATERIALS TO SUPPORT STARTING A CLASS AT A CORRECTIONAL FACILITY.
WHAT WE WISH WE HAD BEEN TOLD WHEN FIRST GOING INTO PRISONS
(Advice from some Quaker women volunteers who are old prison hands, to new women volunteers,
Quakers and others)
1. Prison is, to you, a foreign country. As in any foreign country, it is wise to be quiet, observe,
listen, learn the language and identify the values of the prison culture before advancing too
many strong opinions or taking any drastic action.
2. Don’t be afraid to define yourself clearly. You are not required to be all things to all people
at all times, nor to live up (or down) to any stereotype (including the one about the sainted
Quaker lady). You are entitled, more over, to define for yourself and for others what you
choose to be or not to be, do or not to do. This will take some time, but you should be aware
of the need to do it, from the beginning of your prison visiting. Even after you have clearly
defined yourself, expect to be tested, again and again, in many ways, including sexually,
morally, and religiously. Eventually, however, if you are firm in sticking to your definition of
yourself, others will adjust to it.
3. Expect to meet many tremendous and valuable people in prison. Expect also to meet some
champion manipulators. Do not be surprised if these sometimes turn out to be one and the
same person. Manipulation is a form of survival for the powerless (a fact that women,
historically, have had ample cause to know).
4. Especially at first, you will find it helpful, as soon as possible after your prison visits, to
share with a trusted woman friend the feelings generated by the prison experience. It is a rare
woman who does not experience anger, fear, pain, outrage, wonder, and other strong
emotions upon contact with the prison environment. These feelings, shared, can lead to much
that is constructive and rewarding. Unshared, they can lead to emotional burnout and illconsidered
actions. The need to share them, therefore, never ceases.
5. Expect to feel an unfamiliar, very heady and very addictive “super star” feeling, especially at
first. It may arise from sexuality in a deprived environment, from the unfamiliar real power
to help the helpless, or other sources. Do not let it go to your head. Remember that you will
be constantly tested and probed by prisoners and staff alike, and that no leading lady’s image
can survive the footlights forever. If your mascara runs in the heat, remember to be real.
6. It is possible that you will feel alienated, after prison visiting, from other people who have
not shared and do not understand this experience, and from the society that produced and
maintains the prisons. It is a difficult ministry, but a ministry nonetheless, to share the
experience and the light that you have in this area of darkness.
7. Expect to find in prisons all the corruption and evils of society, as well as all the goodness of
human nature—both magnified larger than life. Therefore, resist the temptation to:
a) Romanticize the prisoner. If his being caged does not necessarily make him a
monster, neither does it necessarily make him a saint. To assume otherwise is always
inaccurate, usually patronizing, and sometimes dangerous.
b) Condemn the prison staff as brutes. Many of them are good people trying to do a hard
and thankless job well. Perhaps almost all of them entered the prison system initially
with the intention to do good as they saw it. And they are as vulnerable to being hurt
by the system as anyone else.
8. Keep your eyes, ears, and gut feelings open to the possibility of allies on the prison staff. At
the same time, do not be too trusting. The objective of a prison, after all, is total control of all
people crossing its threshold. The nature of a prison is to make it easy for its staff to be
hurtful but difficult to be helpful.
9. Expect to be lied to by everybody—prisoners, staff, administrators, other volunteers, and
even colleagues working with you in volunteer programs or prison ministries. Some of the
untruth is unconscious; it is never the less untrue. On the other hand, do not go overboard and
expect, everybody to lie to you all of the time. There is also honor among both the “thieves”
and the “virtuous.” Therefore:
10. Learn to “trust your gut” and heed it. Develop your awareness. Go cautiously at first;
awareness comes with experience. The initial prison experience might be frightening of
itself. If you have stuck with it long enough for this to wear off, and you find yourself afraid
of a given person, chances are that he or she may be dangerous to you. If you feel resentful at
demands being made on you, you may well be being hustled. Trust these feelings, act on
them, and don’t feel guilty about them. If after initial exposure you find yourself fearful of
the prison environment, you should not continue to go into prisons. This work is not for
everyone, and there is also a ministry in serving as a support, for other friends who are active
11. Do not under ANY circumstances bring, ANY contraband into the prison, no matter how
innocent the contraband may seem or how stupid the rule against it. For instance, a bandana
or any piece of cloth that is non-prison issue may be used to make a handle for a home-made
“shiv;”’ herb tea may be used to hide drugs’ and the introduction of any prohibited article by
a volunteer is a misdemeanor at least, and may subject that volunteer both to criminal
prosecution, if caught, and to subsequent blackmail.
12. As for rules in general, expect to find some that seem unnecessarily silly, unjust, or
oppressive. Do not be afraid to protest them, to higher authority if necessary, and to try to get
them changed; but never try to simply disobey them. Disobedience may have effects that you
cannot anticipate, and will certainly put you in a position from which it will be that much
more difficult for you to bring about change.
13. Expect that continued exposure to prisons may bring on negative feelings such as emotional
numbness, helplessness, a feeling of inadequacy or of being overwhelmed. Prisons are
destructive environments, and if you do not have a supportive community, dealing with them
will burn you out.
14. It is essential, therefore, that you find a community that will offer you a safe place to vent
your real feelings and to discuss your real problems, without fear of judgment or
condemnation. At the same time, that community must love you enough to reach out to bring
you back when you stray onto dangerous or unproductive by-paths. A Quaker Meeting at its
best is such a community. The Oversight Committee of a prison Meeting exists, among other
things, to provide such a community for the friends inside and outside, worshipping in the
prison. If you do not have such a community (and a Quaker Meeting at its less-than-best may
not offer it), then you must seek out such a community or build one for yourself.
15. Expect to be sexually turned on some time early in your prison work. Almost nobody escapes
this experience, from beautiful and innocent young girls to happily married (or widowed)
matrons of a certain age; not to mention single women, divorcees, engaged women, gay men,
and those who have foresworn all such relationships and feelings. When this happens to you,
it may possibly be the beginning of something that may mature into a viable relationship in
time. But it is also possible that other and less romantic but more powerful elements enter
into it. When it happens to you, don’t panic and don’t go overboard. Examine yourself to see
whether the feeling does not contain one or more of the following elements:
a) The sexual deprivation of prison life creates an electrical charge in the very air when
a woman enters into his environment—a charge that no woman can fail to respond to
or at least to feel.
b) The balance of power between free women and imprisoned men. One of the few
milieus in our society where a woman is more powerful than a man is in the prison
situation, where the woman is free and the man is a prisoner. As men have long
known, but women frequently do not realize, the possession of power is a sexual turnon.
Indeed, women have had so little experience of the phenomenon, that they may
not recognize the sexual overtones of power and may mistake it for love.
c) The inaccessibility of the man of a normal everyday relationship. This allows both
parties to fantasize but commits neither to live with the results of a relationship in the
real world. As long as one of them is locked up, the parties are, in a sense, safe from
each other. The dark side of this is that you may be exploiting another person without
being aware you are doing so by projecting your fantasies and your needs on him or
her as a promise that in the real world you cannot or will not keep. Experience shows
that neither sex is guiltless of this kind of exploitation. When you are seized by this
strong emotion, whatever it turns out to be—give yourself plenty of time and room to
find out what it actually is before you act on it. Hang in there, and you may get over
it. Or hang in there, and you may find that the fantasy does not fit the reality. Or hang
in there, and let the relationship mature into something worth having, if it will.
16. Do not be surprised if you become overly preoccupied with an individual prisoner. Romantic
attraction is only one of the roots of such preoccupation. Others are compassion, admiration
for a strong personality or a valuable talent, or a sense of perceived injustice. Try to keep a
balance and not invest all of your valuable energy in one person where there is so much need
in others also.
17. Prisons have proved that people do not learn very much from punishment. Quaker (and
human) experience proves that they frequently do learn from example. What you do in
prison, therefore, is more important than what you say there. Quakers acting religiously as
ministers in prison meetings should always be mindful that our being true to the manner of
Friends is far more eloquent than our preaching about it. It is especially important in prison
work not to make promises that can’t or won’t be kept. A broken promise to a caged and
powerless person is even more painful than in normal life, and it is an act of cruelty. Even
worse, it will further disable the person from learning to trust, and since trust is essential for
integration into a community, a broken promise may further alienate and destroy the victim.
18. It is important always to remember that we stand for Quaker values and Quaker process
based on consensus, non-violence, truth, and a reverence for God in the individual. These
values are not likely to be found in prison guidelines for volunteers. They nevertheless are
the most valuable thing we have to offer to the prison and the world, and we should never
allow them to be compromised, no matter how strong the pressure is to do so.
TO SEE OURSELVES AS OTHERS SEE US
Brainstorming of Perceptions of Women Friends in the Prison Environment
As Seen by Prison Admin’s and Staff
Naïve and over-emotional
An unwelcome responsibility and nuisance to security staff
Security risk because of sexuality and naiveté, capable of provoking violence
Potential careers of contraband
Guilty of causing discontent by promising more than we can give
A threat to existing power arrangements; destabilizing
Deliberately disruptive; amateur lawyers’ political information carriers; legal and political activists.
Arrogant, know-it-alls; believe ourselves to be superior and better educated
Some see us as radicals/traitors/revolutionaries/gays/Communist and other “bogey women”
Some even question whether we are a religious group or a plot to overthrow the Government
Some see us as a public relations asset
Some see us as a calming influence, and therefore an asset
Some see our attempts to control
Some are resentful because we’re seen as the “good guys” and they as the “bad guys.” This is made worse when we align our selves with prisoners and manifesthostility to guards and other prison personnel.
Some see us as looking for a husband, a lover, or sexual excitement; losers with men on the outside
Willing to throw away our lives on prisoners; traitors to our class/race/ whatever
As seen by Prisoners
Rich, well connected; powerful (more than we are)
Post-women and writers of letters to the Governor
Support system for their families
Competition that can be used to spur their girlfriends or families to greater efforts on their behalf
Obligatory martyrs to their needs (or, if we decline to be this “bad Quakers” and hypocrites)
“Commie weirdoes,” Radicals, revolutionaries, lesbians
Neurotics; bored women with endless time
Sexual targets or objects
Man-hungry; hung up on caged men
Over-romanticized “good women”
Link to different realities
Sole link to outside
Some want religion from us
Some values us as people they need not be tough with
Some try hard to understand what we bring
Some see us as people to protect
Some feel we are people with whom they can feel some power
Others see us as acting as Lady Bountiful and resent our rubbing their noses in their own powerlessness
In sum we are seen as sluts or saints, no middle ground.
TO DONATE TO SUPPORT THE PRISON CLASS, PLEASE SEND YOUR CONTRIBUTIONS
TO: Julie Heryet,
P.O. Box 1573, El Dorado, CA 95623
Research has shown that inmates who participate in meditation programs reduce their chances of recidivism by 40%, which is HUGE, considering the national average is 65%. My experience while teaching inside of two prisons has been transformative, as the inmates have not only been among my most dedicated students, they have also been the most inspiring of teachers. They demonstrate a dedication to healing and growth that has helped them to benefit from T'ai Chi Chih/Qigong in a deep and meaningful way. Through their practice they have found not only relief from their stressful environment, but also how to live mindfully: How to stop, take a breath, get centered and make conscious choices. They have found freedom on the inside, through a shared practice that embodies trust, acceptance and compassion. They have deepened their spiritual connection to the practice, their classmates, and all beings.