Ending Violent Crime

Introduction | Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Epilogue


The Circle

In the programs as we have been working with them in New England since 1983, the basic form is the circle.  In addition we have had two related programs in place, a counseling program and the sweat lodge, which I will speak of in ensuing chapters.  In them I will describe how the programs function, and in a later chapter I will give my thoughts on the underlying reasons why they work so well, their basis in a theory of reality and human nature.  As you read I would ask you to withhold any judgment or opinion that may come to you, or even any questions about the programs for now.  If you don't understand or you disagree with something, just remind yourself that this is a program which is really working when other programs are not and there must therefore be something to be learned from it.

Please do not let the fact that this is a program designed by native elders out of North American Indian traditions put you off.  Because if this program works for people of all backgrounds, as it does, then the essential elements of it should be able to be adapted in any culture for any people and be just as effective.

In the beginning the elders and prisoners stand together in a circle.  Often a smudging will take place, the burning of an herb such as sweet grass, cedar or sage, to clear the air and our minds, reminding us by the aroma that this is the start of a special time in a sacred way.  The smoke makes a door, a way to leave the other world of prison life and enter into the world of the circle.  We then hold hands and an elder will offer a thanksgiving invocation on this order:

"Look at everyone in the circle, give each greetings with your eyes and a nod of thank you to each one for coming to make this good circle tonight.  And then, when we see who we are, we can put our minds together.  So let us right away give our greetings together to our mother.  Our common mother, the Earth, gave us these bodies - they come from her, not from some other planet, and some day when we have worn them out, we will return them to her to recycle into other life.  All during the time we wear these bodies she takes very good care of us, giving us everything we need for life: all our food, our clothing and shelter and fuel to keep us warm, and medicines to heal us.  So she is a very good mother, very generous, and we must remember as we begin any undertaking such as this circle, to give her our thanksgivings for all those many blessings.

"And then we ought to greet her other children, that big family of Mother Earth, those that put down roots into her, those that crawl under her skin, those that run about on her as we do, those that swim in her waters and those that fly on her winds.  Since we all have the same mother, each of these is our relative, so we are one big family together.  Each one has a different gift that they bring to the web of life, and that web depends on all these gifts.  Therefore we also send our thanksgivings to these relatives all over the earth.

"Then we put our minds beyond the earth, and we see that it is only one tiny world in a vast universe of space, and even though we don't really know what is out there, we are told it is very vast, larger than our minds can conceive, and it seems we must have many relatives on the many worlds beyond.  Since the same laws of Creation operate throughout the universe, we may believe that whatever is there is making a contribution to the whole, and so we now send our greetings and our thanksgivings to all you unknown relatives everywhere in the universe.

"Finally, with another stretch of our minds, we may greet the Mystery that lies behind all of this.  We do not know what that is, or why, or how.  We may use different words for what we think that Power is, some may say God or Allah, or in my language Kiehtan, or we may just say we don't understand and have no concept and use no word.  There is no need to dwell on our different ideas, we can respect each other's beliefs without argument.  There is one thing on which we all agree.  We all see that this Creation exists and that we exist in it, and we are very glad for that.  To be alive, to be aware that we are alive, to be able to experience the wonders of this Creation, to learn more of it each day, to perceive beauty, to feel love and joy in being alive, these are such great miracles that we cannot say thank you too often.  So finally let us put our minds together once more and send our greetings and our thanksgivings to the Creator."

With words such as these we remind ourselves that we are all relatives here in the circle, and that we are all relatives to all that is in Creation, and that there are beauties and wonders and mysteries past all our understanding.  When we sit down we feel closer than before, and that is a good feeling, a human feeling. 

Then an elder will take the talking stick and begin to speak.  In the beginning he will explain the basics of how the circle functions.  Our elders have told us, and for this we find agreement all over North America, that the essential aspect, the essential teaching, the one requirement of the circle, is respect.  If we always remember and hold to this teaching, our circle will be a good one.  There are sometimes other circles, you may have been in some, in which people are not conscious of and careful of respect, and generally these break down and come into conflict.  We are told that our circles will always be good, a learning and a healing for us, if we hold strictly to our teaching of respect. 

The talking stick will be passed, and each one who holds it may speak for as long as he needs and chooses.  Everyone else will listen and give the speaker his attention and respect.  No one will interrupt, and no one will argue with a previous speaker, or with any other individual, out of respect.  It is not necessary that you agree with a speaker in order to respect him.  You respect him by listening and keeping your mind open to hear his words, as well as to feel his heart and what lies between the words.  It is all right to have a different opinion, but now you are learning how someone else thinks and feels, and that is an expansion of your knowledge and your world.  It helps you to understand another person, to understand all of us better.  And if the speaker remembers to respect the rest of the circle as well, he will not speak longer than he needs to, because he will want to hear others and give each one his chance to be heard.

The elders will also encourage people to be honest.  There's no sense wasting any of that precious little time we have with each other with anything less than the truth.  And if a man is not being honest with himself, that will stand out and be noticeable, even to him.  In such a circle anyone who is not honest will soon feel like an outsider and will feel the need to "get real" and be a full member of the circle.

That's all there really is to it.  It is so simple, yet so profound, and its effect is so powerful.  Elders who come to the prison bring a lifetime of experience and the teachings of their elders, which is great gift to all who will listen with respect. 

Most often the theme that the elders expound at the beginning stirs the men in their turn to discover their thoughts and feelings on the subject.  This seems to be helpful in affording them an opportunity to think about their lives, their hopes, wishes and fears, and to re-examine their beliefs in comparison with the ideas of the elders and other prisoners. 

Equally important things happen when individual prisoners speak of immediate concerns of their own.  This is where the rule of respect is crucial.  Most of these men have never in their lives been listened to with respect.  Very few have any persons in their experience who have shown them respect in any manner at all.  So for them to hold the talking stick and feel all that attention, respectful, supportive attention, it becomes a really powerful and liberating experience. 


Part of that respect that must be firmly established and understood is that what is said in the circle is to be respected as confidential.  "What is said in the circle stays in the circle," the men remind each other, and these rules of respect and confidentiality need to be repeated whenever someone new comes to the circle.  This provides the safety for people to reveal things which they do not feel safe enough to speak of outside the circle.  Administration staff personnel and corrections officers are never allowed into these circles except by unanimous invitation of the men present.  There have been a couple of instances in two prisons in which the men felt good enough about a particular staff counselor or chaplain to allow him to participate because they felt sure that these men were supportive and would respect their confidentiality.

In ordinary society few people ever feel safe enough to be completely themselves.  Just about everyone holds some of himself back, some part that he feels will not be accepted fully.  Most of us have constructed a mask, a persona, to hold up as a shield against the judgments of others.  There are few, if any, people with whom we feel safe enough to let down that mask and reveal our real selves.  We are aware that in public we hide some part of us and play a role which is not completely authentic.  It is even more so in the lives of convicts, who must construct one persona for their families, one for the streets, one for the courts and officials, and another for prison society. 

Thus every person in the circle is regarded as equal and important and special, a good and wonderful person to whom terrible things have happened which has made him have to hide behind heavy armor and isolating walls.  In the circle each person is given respect and the safety to peek out just a little from behind the armor and the walls.  Each person is given complete attention while he holds the talking stick - this is his time, to use as he chooses.  No one will interrupt or contradict him, people will only try to understand and support him.  Little by little, after weeks or months, because each one is received and heard with respect, they begin to feel safe enough to speak of things they cannot speak of in the general prison population, or with prison counselors, or members of their families, or even cell-mates.  And when they hear others express difficult feelings they begin to take courage to open more themselves. 

These circles show the most complete change in the participants of any program I have seen.  It gives them skills, as do educational courses.  It gives them a whole new way of thinking of themselves and relating to others, as do therapeutic groups.  It gives them a larger spiritual vision of existence and their place in it.  It gives a real understanding of the politics of oppression and a way to work for liberation.

One week a member of the circle may seem a bit withdrawn.  His mask is wearing thin.  His friends notice it and encourage him to speak.  He says that his grandmother is dying.  He is in a lot of pain because he cannot go to her, and she is the one person who has always cared for him.  He cannot now hold back the tears that have been backing up behind his eyes, and they stream down his face as he talks until he can go no further.  He could not show that sorrow in the harsh halls of the prison, but hear among those who have shown him respect and acceptance enough safety has been established for him to allow the power of grief its needed release.  Instead of the indifference or embarrassment or derision he imagines others will display, the men of his circle will come to him, put their arms around him, and offer their comfort and understanding.  This is infectious.  Everyone has felt such grief, and everyone has had to hide their feelings.  As the stick progresses others who have been touched open their hearts, old wounds open and tears flow that heal them.  At the end of the circle the bonds have grown, understanding has grown, safety and trust have grown, and the circle is stronger.

The first time a prisoner is in the circle it is such a different experience he often doesn't know what to make of it.  He may have heard about it from a friend, or just come because he was curious and it was something different to do, or a way to get out of lockup.  Now men are holding hands.  That's strange right there.  Men don't hold hands, he thinks, what kind of group is this?  Now they are passing a stick, and each one gets to talk, but everyone else is just quiet and listens.  That's different.  What those old guys are saying about Mother Earth and having relatives everywhere and having respect because everything is sacred - that's pretty weird.  Now he starts to listen to the others, and sometimes they are talking about the environment or animals, that's different - and now some talk about their problems, things like death and divorce in their families and not seeing their kids.  He's interested, but not ready to talk when he gets the stick - just thanks the elders for coming and passes it on.  It's too different, too scary, to get into it. 

So for a few weeks he comes back, because he is definitely feeling something when he's there.  The old-timers are giving each other hugs.  It starts not to seem so weird.  Even though he hasn't spoken, people start to recognize and hug him too, and it's okay.  As he listens he gets more and more feelings, he's thinking more and more, about his own life and the things that have happened to him and the way he sees the world.  He finds himself saying something when he has the stick.  Something that's been on his mind for the last few days, but not something you can talk about anywhere.  But now suddenly he understands that it's safe to say such things in here, and it just tumbles out because he needs to tell someone, needs someone to hear and understand.  And they do!  The others are smiling and nodding encouragement.  He is accepted.  He is part of a circle.  From now on it will become easier and easier for him to speak of what is on his mind and what is in his heart.

From time to time you will hear men report their feelings about the circle, and often they go right to the heart of the meaning and power of the circle.  Again and again you will hear men say things like:

"I'm so grateful to you elders for coming in every week and giving us this circle.  I look forward to it all week long, because it's the only time in this institution when I feel like a human being."

"It's the only place I know anywhere where people really treat each other right, you know, with respect.  On the streets, in the population, I always thought you have to earn respect, and I wouldn't give it to you unless you earned it, wouldn't expect it unless I earned it somehow.  But you elders tell us that respect is something we have to give to everyone in the circle, that you don't have to earn it, that just because you are human, just because you're here, you deserve it.  That's strong, man.  Look what happens.  We start treating each other like human beings."

Eventually, when they have been in the circle long enough and they know it is theirs, the feelings go deeper.

"You know, all my life I've heard about love, but I've never found it.  I didn't believe in it.  Never felt it, never saw it anywhere.  Not in my family, so-called family, not on the streets.  Plenty of sex, but love?  It's a scam to sell movies and magazines, man.  That's what I thought.  And suddenly I'm sitting here listening to you all and I've got a lump in my throat.  These elders here, some of them come a hundred miles, drive hours just to be with us once a week - my momma don't even do that - and they don't even get paid for it.  And it hits me.  LOVE EXISTS.  I know it because I feel it myself for the first time.  I love you guys.  You're my brothers.  I know you and I trust you.  I'll take your backs any time, and I know you'll take mine.  And that's real."

"Yeah, you know this family - this circle is my family.  You know what I'm saying?  I never had a real family.  Not people who will really get down with you, go all the way - you know?  This is real family, man.  How it should be, straight up."


In those prisons where the circle is the only part of the program that we have in place it nevertheless has a powerful effect on the thinking a feeling of the prisoners, and on their desire and their ability to control their actions and deal with stressful situations.

After some years in a prison circle men find themselves so changed that it is hard for them to believe that they once were the people who committed their crimes.  They understand that the ability to commit a crime is something that, like drug addiction, any person could fall prey to in the right circumstances, and therefore they must stay aware, be careful of not finding themselves or putting themselves into an environment or society that has the potential of trapping them again.  With their new understanding of the world and themselves they can keep away from bad or dangerous situations and keep in touch with others who could support them. 

That is why when a man is "getting short", or nearing the end of his sentence, this may be the most fearful and stressful time for him.  The men in the circle will give him a lot of encouragement and support, but he is all too aware that on the outside he will not have that circle any more to go to in need.  We the elders express our desire for him to keep in contact with us, to let us know if he is having difficulty, and we provide a circle that he can come to from time to time. 

That is why my vision also includes building an organization which can provide spaces for circles of ex-prisoners as well as expanding into all prisons and providing the possibility of circles for all inmates.  Having been rescued by a circle, having seen that the most human society is one that lives by the ideals of respect and honesty, equality, closeness and caring, these men want never to be isolated again, never to be without the support and the love of a circle of real human beings.
<<< previous | next >>>