The inclusion on non-inclusion of former inmates has become a really hot and contested issue in our Sangha, especially those with sex offense backgrounds. We're slowly working through the issue and I'm wondering what other sanghas do. If you have some experience or insight into the issue, please let me know.
Thanks for your post, that a very important topic. And not an easy one to resolve, either. A bit of info on me, I am an ex-convict who began Buddhist practice while in prison. However, my incarceration experience came about because of being a drug addict, no violent or sexual background at all. So it was not a very difficult decision, I think, for most Sangha members as to whether to have me around. I lived & worked as a volunteer for a while at a Buddhist meditation Center and did some more formal Monastic Residence at another Zen Buddhist Monastery. Both places knew my background, there was never a problem.
However, the sex offender issue is a bit more complex, to say the least. Many Sanghas have young children around, and even the most well-meaning sex offenders often have a very difficult time not going back to attempting inappropriate contact with children or others.
Perhaps the Middle Way Teaching of Buddha offers some guidance here. Such as case-by-case decisions as to the extent of involvment allowed a ex-prisoner of concern. Specific things to consider may be: What was the persons exact offense? Do they now admit responsibility for it? Did they seek treatment while incarcerated? What is their view on how they will deal with inappropriate sexual temptations when released? What kind of living situation do they now have, a job, family & friend support, housing, a probation officer, counselor? Did they have a substance abuse problem, as well as sexual issues? Are they getting help for that too, do they an ongoing program or lifestyle that supports recovery?
There are many other things to consider, no doubt, but perhaps this is a place to start.
Hi, Douglas, and many thanks for your response. Yes, it is indeed a difficult issue and not an easy one to discern an appropriate path. We're continuing to explore it and trust the wisdom of the group will arise as some point. And, congratulations on your own successful transition to life outside and your Zen practice.
Douglas, thanks very much for your thoughtful and practical post. I don't have any experience with integration of former prisoners into a spiritual community but have some experience with integration of prisoners (including sex offenders) into the community in general after release. I hope this helps think about it from a sangha perspective.
I agree with Douglas that finding out the context is important. In particular don't assume all sex offenders are pedophiles; most of the sex offenders I've worked with were convicted of sexual violence against adults and like any other crimes theirs ranged from one-time, quite context-specific incidents to habitual repeat behaviour.
In the general community there is a lot of fear about sex offenders based on stereotypes about why people commit acts of sexual violence, and particularly the stereotype that all sex offenders have an incurable mental pathology that makes them prey on other people. (This avoids looking at how social issues contribute to sexual violence. If it's only about personal pathology then that makes our communities passive, helpless, and not responsible for the conditions that contribute to the widespread sexual violence that is the reality of North American society.)
In thinking about the kinds of activities my sangha organizes, the ones that seem most high-risk are the interviews between teacher and student; every other interaction is in a group setting with lots of eyes watching. I'm fortunate to have a teacher who talks openly about issues of teacher-student power and abuse of that power, and who promotes discussion about sexuality and sexual boundaries within a sangha. Within your sangha, are there activities that would seem high risk for inappropriate sexual behaviour? If not then is it mostly about the fear of people within a sangha rather than real risks?
We know from Buddhism that there is a human tendency to polarize and separate. So we create a situation where we create a category "sex offender", and then try to create as much distance as possible. There is "me" ("us"/sangha") over here, and there are "sex offenders" over there. The "good" people would like to be kept separated from the "bad" people. We can come up with all kinds of rationalizations about why we want that -- "safety" is a great one -- but the bottom line is the separation between "us" and "them" and the illusion that that creates safety and security.
What happens if we assume that we are already living, working, and practicing with sex offenders -- that sex offenders are not some category of people "out there" and the question is not whether to let them into our house, community, grocery store, school, or sangha, but rather how to work with the human capacity for sexual violence? On the most obvious level you can think about the reality that many sex offenders have never been charged so have never done time, and how much history do we really know about anyone in our sangha? Taking that further, to know, on a gut level, that I am a person capable of perpetrating sexual violence -- that I practice with a sex offender when I look in the mirror. When that separation between "sex offenders" and "me" disappears then the question of how to be responsible around power, sexuality, safety, etc. is something we can talk more honestly about in the context of our own lives, our own practice. Until that time it is all about how to keep the "good people" safe from the "bad people". The most logical answer to that question is permanent incarceration or the death penalty, the ultimate separation.
This is not to say there aren't real issues around safety and responsibility that should be tackled by all sanghas (whether or not someone with a known history of sexual violence is part of the sangha). But those issues need to be addressed with consciousness around the assumptions made about who is "safe" and who is "unsafe", understanding the human tendency to try to avoid things that feel unpleasant, and how that manifests as pushing away people who embody the things within us that we don't want to face or deal with. The structure of practice gives us a way to work with this habit pattern and to investigate what is really going on when we are trying to push something away or cling to it. Having to investigate this together as a sangha -- how the sangha tries to push away things and create "us" and "them" -- is a fantastic opportunity for practice as a community.
On a practical level, Circles of Support and Accountability may be useful in providing some general ideas for community responses to help people reintegrate when they are being released from prison after having been convicted of sex crimes. (CoSAs started to deal with reintegration of repeat sex offenders considered at high risk for re-offense upon release, which is not the situation of all people convicted of sex crimes, but CoSAs have been very successful so provide an interesting model.) Some links to info about CoSAs:
There are a few CoSAs in the USA, if that's where you're writing from -- I couldn't find a directory listing them, but Googled "circle support accountability usa" and found ones in Minnesota, California, and Iowa.
I hope this is useful. You're welcome to contact me via Ning if you want to discuss more off the board about the specifics of the situation your sangha is facing.
Hello, Joshua. I thank you for your long and thoughtful response. It is clear you have worked with this issue. I thank you also for the links to the CoSAs and look forward to exploring what they have to offer. And, yes, we really don't know who walks through our temple gate so to separate those we know about from those we don't can create a false sense of safety and security. And, at the same time, there are practical matters to be concerned with. In our Center's exploration of the issues surrounding men and women coming out of prison, our Abbot found a really wonderful and comprehensive book entitled "The Safe Congregation Handbook" published by the Unitarian Universalist Association, 25 Beacon St., Boston, MA 02108. I've been slowly working my way through it and greatly appreciate the experience and wisdom it offers. It is a good resource work for sanghas dealing with these issues.
Hi Koan -- thanks for that resource -- looks very interesting. I will try to find it at my local library. One of the things I was thinking about today was how much I take it for granted that people who have done time are part of my life, and that for most people in my sangha that is not the case and there would be a lot of fear about dealing with someone with the label "ex-prisoner", let alone "sex offender". I can see some difficulty that could arise when one person in a sangha develops a dharma connection with someone in prison, but the sangha as a whole is not engaged in prison issues and not interested in being inclusive or dealing with the complexities that can arise in supporting someone after release. Forging the individual connection is well intentioned but could raise expectations about support and a welcoming community of practice that may not be the reality upon release. Makes me think that for those of us who are building relationships with prisoners close to where we live, it would be good to have these discussions before release, both with the person in prison and with the sangha leadership, to clarify what the expectations (on all sides) are and to try to prevent disappointment, rejection, and isolation esp. as the adjustment after release can be such a vulnerable and overwhelming time. If anyone who has gone through this transition is comfortable commenting on what worked well/didn't work, it would be great to learn from your experience.
Hi, Josh, and thanks again. You've hit the nail right on the head:
"Forging the individual connection is well intentioned but could raise expectations about support and a welcoming community of practice that may not be the reality upon release."
It's a huge disappointment to the men and women we work with when we tell them they can't come to the Center and practice with us. The "welcoming community of practice" isn't there for them. As an alternative, we're beginning to think about setting up an offsite facility, a place where they can gather and practice together as a Sangha with a teacher and/or senior people. In the meantime, I wonder if we're doing more harm than good.
Lots to think about from this post. These are complex issues, but segregating all former prisoners in a separate group from those who haven't done time perpetuates myths about people who have done time as being intrinsically and universally more dangerous than other people (rather than evaluating specific situations), stigmatizes someone with a permanent brand as "ex-prisoner" rather than looking at all facets of their personhood, and gives a false sense of security and safety in the main sangha based on the assumption that you can tell who is safe and who isn't just on the basis of criminal record.
Not knowing the context for your sangha, it is difficult to understand what has happened. How did your sangha come to be engaged in supporting people in prison? You said inclusion of ex-prisoners has become a hot and contested issue -- what does that mean? (Are some people saying they will leave the sangha?)
There are many instances, past and present, where a group of people tries to be safe by separating from whatever they think is "the other". That tendency to push away and try to separate from has led to an awful lot of suffering. This is not to say that we should be completely open. Boundaries are healthy. But there is a big difference between articulating community principles around specific behaviours that are unsafe, and encouraging people to be conscious about individual boundaries, vs. segregating an entire group of people based on fear that they might be dangerous.
It sounds like there is a lot of fear in your sangha. I hope that you will persevere in working through these difficulties. It is such rich practice. But it sure isn't easy.
Could you expand on this statement some, I am a bit confused? Do you tell ALL prisoners they can't be part of your Sangha or....?
Hi, Douglas: Yes, unfortunately, that is the situation for now, as we work our way through the issues and develop our response.
Hi Gary...yes I reacted to that statement as well, and agree with Joshua's response, especially this line "But there is a big difference between articulating community principles around specific behaviours that are unsafe, and encouraging people to be conscious about individual boundaries, vs. segregating an entire group of people based on fear that they might be dangerous."
I hope you will consider revising this position about all prisoners.