You have a prison pen pal, who has basically no resources or family on the outside. He/she continues to request that you send money or goods (clothing, food, magazines, etc.) to them. After all ..arent' you really a "friend"? And don't friends help each other out?
Bo Lozoff in his "advice for prison correspondents' recommends this approach (when talking to a prisoner about this):
"Almost everyone in prison is broke, and almost everyone has material needs that aren't being met. But that's not what your pen-pal relationship is about. If you try to make it into that, you will probably lose a good friend. Which will do you more good in the long run, twenty bucks for a radio, or a life-long friend? "
Do you agree with Bo? Or do you think that helping out with a few bucks or presents once in awhile is okay? What would you say in response to this type of request?
Having been incarcerated I must agree with what Josh has said. It does depend on the Nature of the relationship.My experiences are ,that i would not ask a pen pal for anything other than to write me. Usually if the pen pal wishes to be of help with the material stuff they will ask. otherwise as my own experiences have shown me that it is best to leave that alone.the State prison systems provide enough to keep you alive and functioning on the level you can function in those places. It isn't fun and although oftentimes a trip to the commissary will uplift your spirits, it's more of the consumerism that takes place all over the world. pay to get what you need ,even in prison. I have sent money and books to guys i have been in the 'clink' with and have no reservations about it. with someone you do not know it is an entirely different matter. The best thing i can say is if it makes you feel uncomfortable then don't give money or gifts, since the basis of the relationship is spiritual there really is a higher goal that is being worked toward.
I really support Clay Daniel and others when they say there is a higher goal. However, I don't believe it is universally true that one makes purchases only to enjoy the pleasures of consumerism. I have a friend who has been incarcerated in Michigan for 34 years, and it is through his experiences that I have learned of the state of things there. The state is on the verge of bankruptcy, and with the cost of the prison system one of the larger pieces of the budget, they have been cutting back in every way possible. In particular, the food quantity and quality has sunk to a new low. I won't go into the power of the prison industrial complex and its stranglehold on so many aspects of what is supplied to prisons (as well as what can be purchased by prisoners or what can be sold that are products of prison labor). Meat that is past it's expiration date, even turning blue-green, is served, as is lettuce that is fully wilted and brown. For those who are vegetarian it can be even more difficult to survive on prison rations, and by that I mean just to maintain one's weight, let alone a minimum standard of health.
For another example of how money is needed to supply just the basics: Michigan Reformatory was built in the 1800's and previously housed the criminally insane. It was closed and replaced by newer facilities. However, in order to save money, the state has closed some of the newer facilities and reopened Michigan Reformatory. The water there is so poor that the staff are told not to drink it and bottled water is provided to them. However, inmates must purchase water. My friend recently fainted from dehydration. This is a case where I feel called upon to help, while being concerned about the impact it might have on our friendship. I think it is testimony to his integrity that throughout the 34 years of our friendship (I met him while I was teaching college at the prison during his first year inside) that we have been able to keep the focus where it belongs, on the relationship, and not on what I can do for him. Regrettably, I have not been able to interest him in the dharma, but I still feel there is a spiritual basis to our relationship.
Everyone does not have the karma to want to practice Dharma. A friend of 34 years is a wondeful karmic relationship that is unusual in these degenerate times. One pen pal wrote me back when he received my first letter, "why would someone on the outside want to write to someone on the inside?" My answer is that it is my karma to do so so I do it. I am training in developing a mind of compassion and as Barbara points out our country's prisons are deplorable. I read somewhere that you can tell a lot about a society by how its prison system is maintained. Barbara said it all!
State prison systems provide enough to keep you alive and functioning on the level you can function in those places. It isn't fun and although oftentimes a trip to the commissary will uplift your spirits
This was good. 'Alive and functioning' is a powerful place to be- requires a surrenderI think; to things 'as they are'. a lot of self-teaching can happen with this...
This is a judgment call. The big shift for folks I've corresponded with is from their old self - a user of people, a worker of angles, to a new self shaped by the dharma. I was once asked to help an inmate out on release as he had no family, no basics or anything. I figured we'd been talking for 3 years, I thought I knew who he was and I didn't want something like lack of busfare to affect his commitment to the dharma right when he was going to face his biggest challenge - old self or new. So I sent him something to help him out. Last we spoke he was still practicing. Other folks use the same line that Bo talks about - everyone's broke, everyone needs stuff, everyone just needs a little help to get them by. I tend to focus on the help that's on offer - not legal advice, not financial assistance, not a dating service for when they get out, not a messenger service for their friends on the outside - but spiritual assistance. I tend to put it back on them and ask them to define for themselves if they want what I'm offering. If so, they can take it on those terms. So our job is always to figure out if we're talking to the old self who's working us or the new self in genuine need. Make your judgements carefully and clarify to everyone (you and your inmate) why you are/are not giving.
IThe comittment is to be a pen pal for at least two years or the inmates release. I agree with Paul. The only purpose is to offer our wisdom based upon our spiritual path. One of my pen pals recently voiced his concern that I should be careful not to get too attached to his making progress. This puts too much pressure on him. He also told me he is not like other people I know that he has been a manipulator B.S. artist all his life. I wrote back, "you are just like many people I know, you are just in prison" I write to their Buddha Nature, they choose what they write back. Material help is only one thing we can give. I focus on giving dharma from my experience and I give an oasis of kindness and compassion.
Very well said! Actually, you brought up another topic that I'm curious about. You mentioned a pen pal feeling concern about you getting attached to his progress and this causing pressure on him... How do you manage expectations and how do you address the issue of someone feeling pressure vs. being motivated?
I would say different things to different pen pals. If I thought I established a connection I say - You should have unlimited expectations for yourself - I on the other hand have only the expectation that you try your best. The effort is what is important. I say if we put in no effort to change it is like wanting to win the lottery without buying a ticket. My pen pal is probably like many others - he is not use to someone trying to understand him coming from only a place of compassion. I attempt to only deal with things from the point of view of what I have done or have tried to do . I share what worked and what didn't work. When I start writing to a new pen pal I send a generic letter to start. I only respond to what they say and I try to respond only from my heart. I ask them to call me out on anything that doesn't ring true or doesn't sound sincere. This happened once and I immeadiately appoligized and learned from the experience. I think it is a case by case thing.
In every letter I ask my pen pal how his practice is going, and he asks the same. Sometimes we talk about our hangups about "progress" and what the heck does "progress" mean anyway. I think it helps that neither of us is trying to convince the other about practicing in any particular way, whether in form of sitting practice, chanting practice, meal practice, or everyday life practice. Although we always talk about practice, and often talk about life in the context of practice, we usually just shoot the shit like I would with any other long distance friend. I don't think of my pen pal as any different than anyone else in my sangha, and neither of us get too worked up about expectations about each other. He was curious why I started writing him and wondered if it was some kind of "helping" thing, and after I explained it wasn't, any remnant of pressure either of us were feeling dropped away.
it's fantastic to read the thoughts and experiences of others.
When asked why I wrote, I remember one response as
I just would like to share with a member of the global sangha.
And gosh these sharings by snail mail are a blessed part of "my practice".
In my experience, its always stayed at the level of just sharing.
I;m certainly not a teacher.
Just a friend.
And for the most part, its been a 2 way street.
I have found writing to pen pals is a richly rewarding experience. When I receive a letter I always think how the conditions in my life experience is so much better then my pen pals.' I complain a lot less and I am easier to get a long with so I am told! One of my pen pals was concerned about my weight and another one told me to think of others if I am having some difficulties at my Dharma center. I am training to be a Dharma teacher and have come accross the idea that the students make the teacher. From my limited experience with prison Dharma I say this is true. They drive the conversation and I share from my experience,so far, everyone seems to benefit. When we share our experience of Dharma we are like teachers; especially to those who have little exposure or understanding of Dharma. I cried at one of the first Dharma teachings I went to because I couln't connect with others, and here was a path and a method. We show others the benefits of Dharma by our good example and they can judge for themselves.