Dear folks, my pen pal writes that he didn't commit the crime for which he was imprisoned. He doesn't say what the crime is, just that he did not commit it and would never do such a thing. How do I respond to him? What would be helpful, and what wouldn't be? Thanks for any insights you can share with me. Maria
I can only speak from my experience and I don't have an answer for what would be helpful and what wouldn't be in this specific instance. Just from my experience, I tend to say that I'm open to listening to whatever my prison pen pals want to talk about, including the context for their imprisonment if they want to, but I tend to not engage in a lot of discussion about the past and what did or didn't happen. I try more to listen to what my prison friends are saying in the moment they write so I can better get to know them and understand their perspective, rather than to evaluate guilt or innocence. Sometimes when my prison friends have said "I'm innocent" they are asking for help with a legal appeal of their conviction -- money to hire a lawyer, help to do legal research, help to find a competent lawyer, etc. Sometimes when my friends in prison have said "I'm innocent" they are trying to convince themselves and me that they are a good person and distance themselves from the stigma of being considered a criminal.
In my experience, it has been useful to be open that I am not invested in believing whether someone did or didn't do the act they were convicted of, and exploring with my prison friend why it is important to them to say they didn't do it -- what impact they think it might have on our friendship either way, what impact it has on their own sense of self, what they are hoping will happen or worry about happening, whether they're scared I will think they're a bad person if they don't profess their innocence. I've met a lot of people in prison who were adamant that they didn't deserve to be there and that they were only there because they were treated unfairly -- by the system, by an ex-partner, etc. Sometimes that is undoubtedly true. There are many examples of racism influencing charges and convictions in the North American prison system. And sometimes it's probably not quite as true. I used to joke with one friend that even though he didn't do 90% of the crimes he was in for, he did 90% more that he wasn't caught for so it all evened out in the end :) But sometimes people didn't receive the legal help they should have had and it is appropriate to try to connect them with resources for an appeal.
For me, I don't see a difference in my attitude or motivation in writing prisoners whether they did or didn't do what they're in for. I've had very warm and close pen pal friendships with people in prison who in the past committed murder, rape, assault, and all sorts of other hurtful acts. Those friendships have been warm because we've both been interested in connecting on a human level and talking about our mistakes and how those mistakes impacted us and the people around us -- not in the specific context of what they're in for, but the mistakes we make in the more recent past when we screw up with family, neighbours, work, etc. I've had more difficulty connecting with people in prison who were wanting a pen pal primarily because they wanted someone to hold them up as completely innocent. I'm not an innocent person (I've made a lot of mistakes) so it is tough for me to relate to someone who feels that way about themselves. All this is to say that being myself, and asking my prison pen pals to also be themselves, seems to have been the path to connection in the pen pal relationships I've had.
I hope this helps. It will be interesting to hear what other people on this forum say.
I agree that it doesn't matter whether or not he committed the crime. There's also any number of reasons why someone would want to talk about their guilt or inocence. I think when he wrote this particular letter he was feeling low because it was his birthday. He spoke about things in his past that he regretted doing, and how they affected the people close to him. He also spoke about sharing his birthday ice cream (bought with a money order from his mother) with another prisoner (also a Buddhist) only to find out it was also this man's birthday. When he spoke about not having committed the crime, he said that he must have ended up in prison because of some bad karma from the past he needed to burn in this life. It's a very touching letter, full of gentleness and introspection. I got the letter last night, on my way home from work, and will be spending some time answering it, hoping I can give him whatever he needs. It is a six-page, handwritten letter, and both letter and envelopes are illustrated with his drawings and poems.
The situation prisoners face moment to moment is one I can only imagine... and my imagination is not pleasant. Thus said, I feel much compassion for those held in a cage among those who do harm intentionally.
I think of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche speaking of basic goodness. Causes and conditions have created suffering. We each suffer because of wrong action, wrong thought, wrong speech, wrong effort... and so on. Yet, we each were born with our essence that is basic goodness. Within each person, whether they are aware or even interested in knowing there is the seed of basic goodness is the light... might be dim, but the light is there as long as breath is drawn. We are all guilty and innocent.
To speak with your pen pal about being with 'what is', breathing through the pain and fear, might seem shallow, but touching his/her basic goodness through breath is a beginning.
Dear Kate, I can't agree with you more. Those were my thoughts as I read and re-read the letter last night. There was a basic goodness coming through. His description of the prison conditions is very graphic. I have to admit that the letter shook me up. Thanks for your comments, Maria
I tend to agree with Joshua. I never ask what my friends inside are there for - some tell me, some don't. I only found out what one guy was in for when he mailed me his prison sentencing form. I focus on the dharma issues that we can work on together - mindfulness and meditation mostly. I would suggest that if your pen pal focuses on talking about the sentencing and you are uncomfortable with that conversation, you point out what sort of conversation you're good for - Buddhist stuff, and maybe connect him with some legal aid to discuss the other issues.
If your friend is focused on regret, I'd suggest what I call the 'shit list.' This is a list of all the bad things we feel low about. Go down the list and flag anything that's in the past that can't be fixed ('cause we live in the present, not the past). Then flag those things that are unchangeable (chronic disease, for instance). These two types of items are 'facts of life.' Anything else that is on the list that extends into the present and that is changeable is a 'problem' that can be worked on. It's amazing how short the list is when you throw out the unchangeable items and the crap you've been beating yourself up over. Of course hypothetical stuff like worries can't be on the list because they are future things and haven't happened yet.
I look at it this way... It's my penpal's story to tell. I left it to him to share whatever he was comfortable with. I also did my own research after he shared a brief story. Not because I didn't believe him or because I wanted to verify it, but I wanted to see a different perspective. Things my penpal didn't share said more about him than what he did - in my mind good things.
I came into with three simple rules to guide me:
1) Don't judge - that's been done to these individuals already - right or wrong, fair or not.
2) Relate everything to practice - what is said in the letters has some impact on practice for either my penpal, me, or both
3) It's not a mentorship relationship - I'm not the teacher or master.... I am a friend, share and learn together.
I have just joined and I was struck by this note. The whole reason to be involved with prisoners is to be that one voice that can truly hear the person and be with him/her and with one hope that we can all become peacemakers. But it is important to be cautious.
I have a female friend who befriended an inmate who was later released. She continued to be in contact for several years but on an occasion of meeting with him, was the victim of an attempted rape by him. It is a complicated, sad story as this man had a long practice of sitting meditation while in prison, and upon his release, spoke before many groups (including an audience with the Daili Lama). No one is perfect. No one is immune from temptation--not even Buddhists. The man is back in prison, probably for the rest of his life, but has resumed his meditation practice and tells others that he regrets his action.
As others have said, it is not up to us to judge the veracity of someone's innocence or guilt--there are other groups that can do that. But we can be supportive of individual's efforts to improve their lives through Buddhist practice but also to be sensible in our contact with them. Gassho.
Gary and Jason, thank you for your insights. As a former Boston resident, I'm reminded of a story of the racial tensions in city during the civil rights era. A woman who did not want to be racist and judgmental agreed to drive a young African American man home to the projects. He invited her in, she accepted, and was raped. Yes we do want to be kind, and we do want to be compassionate, we don't want to judge, but we also have to be wise and cautious. You are so right, Gary. Not even Buddhists are immune from temptation.
I have absolutley no interest in what my pen pals did or didn't do. Their karma brought them to their current situation and they have asked me to write to them. I only respond to their letters as honestly as I can. The past does not exist and the future is a fantasy. I write to their potential, their buddha nature.. They are the ones constantly stuck in the past, indentifying with their past actions and the labels that others place upon them. I try to undo all this nonsense and share my imperfections with them. They laugh when I tell them I still have regrets about taking someone's lunch money in the third grade! Learning to accept our situation with a happy mind and an open heart is one of the great goals of Buddhist practice. If there is something we can do about our poor conditions and troubles then we should do it. if nothing can be done we patiently accept. Convincing me that they are innocent has no meaning because they cannot escape the natual law of karma. Inmates live in a world of very little kindness and compassion and I hope to be an oasis of both. I try to understand them and be a good listener. Then I only respond with a discussion based upon what they say in the context of Dharma. They do what they wish with what I say. Actually, they have no idea how much what they write helps me in my practice. I try to tell them but they have very little self esteem and don't believe me.