Tag Archives: prison

A Moment With Nelson Mandela, Rest in Peace

Screen shot 2013-12-06 at 8.04.33 AMIn 1999, I had the honor to meet Nelson Mandela.  He was attending a state banquet (in South Africa) and a friend scuttled me in for a quick meet and greet.  I was completely in awe, of course, and don’t think I said anything other than put my hands together in respect when we met.

When I heard the news of his passing yesterday, I relived that moment once again.  And while meeting someone as historical and mythical as he was is undoubtedly a moment in my life I will never forget, so was a poignant  visit to Robben Island, the remote prison that held Nelson Mandela for twenty-six years.

I was in South Africa with my classmates from Kellogg Business School – our intent was to learn more about the country, its people, traditions, and, of course, current and future business opportunities.  We were fortunate to be taken to Robben Island by Ahmed Kathrada, a freedom fighter who was sentenced for treason on the same day as President Mandela.  Mr. Kathrada, who at that time of our visit was a gentleman in his late seventies, was 36 years old when he went to prison, the youngest member convicted in the famous Rivonia trial, and the only person of South Asian descent from the group.

Our tour of the prison was somewhat surreal as Kathrada told us firsthand stories about almost three decades in prison, and the shaping of a revolution.  We had all read A Long Walk To Freedom, Nelson Mandela’s prison memoir, which to this day is one of the most powerful books I have ever read.  It was truly remarkable to stroll the grounds of the prison as Mr. Kathrada showed us how they would use scraps of rice paper to write notes for the book in tiny handwriting, and bury the paper in marked holes in rocks, before sneaking them out with release prisoners.  He showed us the cells they shared, and laughed at the habits each of them came to know of their fellow prisoners.

On that sunny day, it was difficult for me to feel the scope of the sacrifice these men made at Robben Island, until Mr. Kathrada talked emotionally about how they missed being around children while in prison.  Can you imagine a world without the cries or playful laughter of children?  He described the wonderful sensation of holding a child after 23 years of being deprived of seeing or hearing them.

The most dramatic moments in our time together came as Mr. Kathrada spoke with conviction and passion about the cause for which he had fought. I got chills down my spine as he talked about the camaraderie between strangers who had united for a cause for which they were willing to sacrifice their entire lives or even to die.  Mr. Kathrada described the evening when his guards announced that they had been released.

“They came and said, “We have received a fax that you are to be released tomorrow.”  Our first question was, “What is a fax? We had only seen a television for the first time in 1986.”

What followed their release was historic and bold and hard.  In one of the quotes being shared today, Mandela says:

“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”

Some of the most powerful words and scenes in the book, A Long Walk To Freedom, were the ones where Mandela talks about forgiveness.  The NY Times has a beautiful piece written by John Dramani Mahama, the President of Ghana, about how Mandela’s legacy of forgiveness shaped Africa.

As I read quotes and recaps of Nelson Mandela, I decided to see if Ahmed Kathrada had written something today and was moved to find his emotional words posted on  a South African portal.  Mr. Kathrada writes:

Your smile, which lingers still, was always from the heart, never forced, and the great joy you took in the world around you, especially in children, was unmistakeable…

I had the enviable privilege of being alive and walking the earth with you through the bad times and the good. It has been a long walk, with many challenges that at times seemed insurmountable. And yet we never faltered, and the strength of leaders like you and Walter always shone a light on the path and kept our destination and our people’s future in view.

I feel bereft and lonely. To whom do I turn for solace, comfort, and advice?

Farewell my elder brother, my mentor, my leader.

You can read the full text here.

Yesterday the world lost a hero and a true leader. While we mourn the loss of such a great man, we will strive to keep his memory and spirit alive in all the days to come. Thank you Nelson Mandela, may you rest in peace.

(Photos: NelsonMandela.org)

Yoga Behind Bars: Teaching Mindfulness in a Juvenile Detention Center

This week’s episode of URBAN YOGIS gives us a rare look at the inside of a youth detention facility, where one dedicated yoga instructor is busy changing the lives of teenagers within its walls. Leslie Booker began her career in the fashion industry and would have never guessed she’d one day exchange the runway for a juvenile detention center in the Bronx. But then again, Leslie certainly wouldn’t be the first to see her life transformed by the practice of yoga.

Leslie teaches yoga and meditation practices to youth in detention facilities in New York City through Lineage Project. Lineage places yoga instructors in prisons, public schools and other community sites where young people can most benefit from the calming and therapeutic techniques of the practice. In their own words, Lineage’s mission is to “use mindfulness practices to break the cycle of poverty, violence and incarceration in New York City.” Their students range from ages ten to 24 and come from some of the economically poorest neighborhoods in New York City. Many are at risk of incarceration, and many, like those at Horizon, are already behind bars.

The young adults at Horizon Juvenile Detention Center have been convicted for a range of offenses, some quite serious and violent. As Leslie points out, though, they are fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old – little more than children – and many of them have grown up in extremely trying circumstances. Before Leslie introduced the teens to the practice of meditation, aggression and withdrawal seemed to be among their only options for managing the insurmountable stress of life both at home and in the detention facility. After all, if no one ever taught you to take a deep breath and practice some self love, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with the techniques on your own.

The identities of the teenagers included in the video are concealed for their protection. But their voices and sentiments paint a remarkable portrait of the work Leslie and her students are doing through the practice of yoga. Yoga alone can’t erase the past, but it can forever impact the future. And Leslie hopes that, equipped with mindfulness techniques, these young adults can return to their homes and communities with the vision of a very different life than they might have imagined for themselves.

For more on Lineage Project, click here.

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Freedom in Prison: Grace Is Here, Too

For more than 20 years, I have been speaking with people from all walks of life: good people, bad people, enlightened people, unenlightened people. I speak to people who have the privilege of freedom and relative control over their lives, and I speak to people in prison. One life is a kind of heaven and the other a kind of hell. And yet both in heaven and hell — the extremes of our experience — there are the same questions: Who am I? What are we here for? Where is grace?

I recall one particular visit to Folsom Prison several years ago. The men I spoke with had not lived privileged lives. Most often they had lived hard early lives and perpetuated that hardness into adulthood. In prison they had come to a place of disillusionment, where they were willing to look at something they had not understood before. Essentially, they were willing to stop living their lives the way they had lived them.

Prison is a very hard place to live. You might think it absurd to go into a place like Folsom Prison and talk to the men about vulnerability and opening, but that is what they hungered to hear. There were 45 men present that day. In a prison population of about 3,000 that is a small percentage. But this small percentage really wanted the truth, and they were absolutely capable of hearing the truth regardless of what they had done or how they had lived. Because of their willingness to deeply inquire, they could find the freedom and peace that had never left them. They could hear the call of their innocent hearts. They, like you, were not only capable of hearing the call of the heart, but of surrendering to it.

How has it affected their lives? I don’t know. I know for sure there were several who heard and experienced the living truth of conscious peace, at least for a moment. They saw themselves and were seen as who they truly are, not by what they had done or how they had identified themselves. That is profound relief. That is the taste of freedom. It is an experience of love.

We all experience certain kinds of prisons. Our prison may not be as materially rough as that of the men living in Folsom Prison, but given the nature of the human mind, there can be wrenching suffering even if you aren’t in a physical prison. Without demeaning or glorifying your own particular prison, you can inquire directly into the experience of suffering and discover freshly what lives in the core.

Maybe it is easier for those in prison than it is for many of us. It is so obvious to them that their lives have failed. However they thought they would succeed, they failed. However much you think you have failed, in significant ways your life has been a success. The very fact that you are free in this moment means that you have succeeded, and success itself can give rise to bondage. The trap of success is in identifying with privilege and entitlement.

In success, you can go to sleep and dream yourself to be special, or you can take advantage of your time and privilege and really inquire into the deepest part of yourself. You can open your mind to see what is here inside you, just as the men in Folsom Prison did.

The prisoners in Folsom hadn’t been taught what they would find in inquiry. They weren’t prejudiced. They didn’t know that they would find peace and love and oneness. They were innocently surprised and amazed. Several of them cried.

My dilemma in speaking to those who are not in prison is that often they already know too much. It is the trap of the spiritual adept — the successful seeker. So let us suspend what we know. Let us not know the correct answer. With a willingness to investigate in an open way, for the first time, we can freshly discover that grace is here.

We can each discover what lives freely, both inside and outside. We can recognize what is at peace, regardless of particular circumstances. We can find ourselves in all.

Gangaji recently recorded a CD, Questions from the Inside, which is being distributed freely to prisoners throughout the US. In conversation with interviewer Chris Mohr, Gangaji answers heartfelt questions from prisoners in county jails, state prisons, federal facilities and even those on death row. All proceeds from the CD support the Gangaji Foundation’s Prison Program.

Gangaji is currently offering retreats and weekends in Europe. Visit www.gangaji.org for more information about Gangaji and her upcoming events, including the monthly Webcast, With Gangaji.

photo by: Jason Clapp

Unlocking the Door to Your Personal Prison

 Depression, anxiety, helplessness, hopelessness, anger, frustration, dependence, rejection, loneliness, and more.

Everyone feels one or more of these feelings at one time or another.

You can’t wish them away. These feelings can make you feel like you’re in a prison or hell, and the door is locked tight. You can’t even think of a way out. There are no windows and the door has been shut for so long, you don’t even know if there’s a key to it anymore. If there is, you sure don’t remember where it is.

It is important to realize that the door to your personal prison locks from the inside. You walked right in, and you can walk right out anytime you want. No one put you there but you. Sure circumstances happened, but it is how you believe those circumstances affect you that will determine whether or not you cross the threshold of that doorway into darkness.

Further, there are 3 components to walking in or out through the prison door.




We are free to choose to start looking for a way out 

We are free to choose to stop looking for a way out

We are free to choose to try to make things different 

We are free to choose to give up and accept what we perceive as our "lot" in life

Whatever we choose, it is our choice. We must be responsible for that choice.

It may not have been your choice that your loved one died
It may not have been your choice that you lost your job/house/car
It may not have been your choice that …….you fill in the blank

But it is your choice how you respond to that situation. And that my friend, is what you are responsible for. So you have the key to go in and you have the key to get out. Any time you wish.

This does not completely solve the problem, but it is the first gigantic step in moving toward feeling something different. It is a huge relief to know that life isn’t just happening to you. That you can take your control back and make your life what you want it to be. You hold the keys at all times.

You may not control all circumstances in life, but you control you. You control how you react and how you respond.

Locking yourself in prison or a personal hell is purely a personal decision. You may walk in by mistake, but if you don’t like how it feels, unlock the door and get out quick!

Rock into Prison

Rock into prison


Ah yes the sculptor said
The marble piece I see is solid and dead
I will take this piece of stone
And make it an image of my own
As I work with chisel I pound
Going up the side and then working it down
All the rocks on the ground you must have seen
After my art work is done it will be in a museum
But the rocks left behind have Enlightened vision
Artist formed this marble rock into prison

Dominic Colucci

Copyright ©2009  Dominic Colucci

True integrity

“Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,” declared Emerson. Personally, I think that integrity is the very base of a truly happy and blessed life. When someone is true to their integrity in their living – one way or another, the whole world knows it, the whole world is lit.

My father, Reginald Foster, had integrity. The time came when he had to stand by that integrity — just as it comes for each of us in our lives. At the age of 61, Dad, a veteran London journalist, suddenly found himself at the center of a whirlwind that had to do with a British spy named Vassall and leaks that had been made to the press concerning Vassall. The government, in its wisdom, set up a tribunal to investigate these leaks, and the bottom line was that my father and a colleague were given an ultimatum: "Tell us who gave you the information for your stories or you’ll go to prison."

Was Dad going to be true to the journalistic ethics instilled in him since he first became a reporter on the London Daily Mail at age 19 – that is to say, never disclose a source – or not?

In a dramatic face-off in a crowded, hushed chamber, Dad politely told the judge he was sorry but he couldn’t do what the judge wanted. It would be most untrue not only to himself, he told the judge, but to many brave colleagues who had perished in WW2.

Dad was given a six-month sentence, later reduced to four months, and he and a colleague became known worldwide as "the silent reporters."

We never know when we will be called upon to make the same kind of choice my father had to make in that long-ago situation — whether we will be true to ourselves and our values and principles or not.

Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, no one else is involved, or we think no one else is involved. And usually the issues are minor, or so it might seem. But the truth is, nothing is minor, or unimportant. Am I going to acknowledge, to myself at least, that something I said to another person was out-of-place? Am I going to recognize an unworthy or destructive thought for what it is?

Integrity, ultimately, is about honoring oneself, it seems to me – honoring the truth at the core of our own being. In a sense, it’s realizing we don’t have a choice. Dad wasn’t really trying to be a hero or impress anyone when he stood up and spoke as he did. He just didn’t have a choice.

Without integrity, our lives become hollow. We are a house divided, as the prophet said. And though our lives may glitter on the outside – or not — any real meaning or happiness continually eludes us.

What a different story, when integrity is present. When we surrender the delusion of choice, so that all that matters to us in any moment is to express what is true, and right, and helpful, in that moment, as best we may, we find a source of strength and comfortfs within ourselves that never fails.

In my Dad’s case — while he would no doubt have avoided prison if he could – it actually worked out in quite a positive and creative way for him. He became good friends with a number of inmates. He became good friends with the warden. His health improved, too, because he was relieved of the bother of going to a pub for awhile.

Most of all, he was able to live with himself – to keep on embodying the unique, indomitable spirit that was his until virtually the day he died, still youthful in spirit, at age 95. “A joke for every occasion,” he liked to say. Maybe it wasn’t quite true all the time. But it was true most of the time.


Prisoners Teaching Peace

 Prisoners Teaching Peace

It was graduation night for the Visions for Prisons Anger Control Program at the women’s prison and time for each graduate to receive a certificate identifying her as a "Teacher of Peace."

During the ceremony, we asked a few of the students to give a testimony on their experience in class. One inmate spoke of her feelings. "This is the only positive label I’ve ever had — ‘Teacher of Peace.’ I’ve been labeled prisoner, criminal, low life, drug addict, unfit mother, thief, and prostitute. All of those labels were true. This class has taught me that, although there was some truth to each of those negative identities, they were never the whole truth. I was always more than that."

Each class of the 7-week program has a theme: Awareness, Acceptance, Meditation, Mind Tools, Loss & Grief, Attitudinal Healing and Self-love. These steps are designed to replace a prisoner’s negative labels with a new, positive identity. Maybe "replace" is the wrong word-"eclipse" might be a stronger, more appropriate description.

The stigma of negative labeling diminishes our ability to rise above our situation; we need to empower ourselves by eclipsing every old label with a more positive one, which will be helpful in all areas of our lives. "Teacher of Peace" is a label that works in prisons, or at work, with our kids, on the freeway–everywhere.

Another student in the same class told us, "I had an altercation last week where the other girl tried to get me into a fight. Believe me, before this class, she would have been sorry. Of course, I would have ended up in ‘the hole’ for 30 or 60 days, if I fought her, so I would have been sorry too. I kept saying to myself, ‘What she says is not worth a response. I will not react to her attack.’”

She kept getting madder and madder and I got calmer and calmer as I practiced absorbing her energy and sending it back to her with love. My friends in the dorm, who were witnesses, said they could feel my peace. After a few minutes, the other girl just gave up her attack and walked away.

"Later that night she came to my dorm and apologized for ‘fronting me off’. I had been sitting in my meditation, and thinking about her, and how good I felt about the way I handled the situation. When I opened my eyes, there she was in front of me again. Only this time, she had her hand out saying she was sorry."


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