Ending Violent CrimeIntroduction | Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Epilogue
In these next two chapters I will briefly describe the two other adjuncts to the circle that we have had in place in some of the prisons. Later I will discuss them in more detail and delineate some of the reasons that led me to work in this way and why it seems to me each of these works as it does.
The sweat lodge is an almost universal purification ceremony among the various native cultures of North America, and many people today from cultures which did not seem to have such a ritual in the past are adopting it from the practice of others. It has had many purposes among these cultures, not all of which were purely spiritual. It was sometimes used solely as a physical cleansing for individuals and at other times as a social and recreational gathering for families, clans and societies. It was usual as a preparation for other ceremonies and events such as marriage, important councils and warfare. It was also a way of meditation, of mental cleansing and calling for a vision. In other words, it was found to be a healthy purification for body, mind, heart, and spirit.
Most of the teachings which we have been given concerning this ritual say that one of the central purposes is rebirth. In the process of purification we are cleansed of the various pollutions and poisons inflicted on us since our original birth, including the mental and emotional ones, and then the lodge becomes for us another womb in which we can grow in spiritual strength to the point where we are ready to emerge again into the world, reborn, as pure and innocent as a new baby. You may imagine, then, that this way of confronting and shedding past hurts, mistakes, confusion, and stress and getting a chance to begin all over again would be very beneficial for anyone seeking a better understanding and a new start in life.
In most of the prisons across North America where there is a large number of native prisoners the sweat lodge has been established. Some of the institutions were open to this from the start, and others had to be forced by the courts to accept this intense spiritual expression for their native inmates. In my own experience, the administrations of the institutions that have regular sweats have found them to be not only beneficial to the prisoners, but good for the prison, as these men then have a way to "let off steam" and deal with their pressures in a constructive fashion.
The actual ritual may differ considerably from culture to culture, and from leader to leader, so what I will describe here is only how we do it in our program in Connecticut. I should say that I have also attended the sweats at the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, PA, where the men have two lodges simultaneously each week, and I found it very important and good for them there. In Connecticut we have now a sweat lodge ritual once a month in four prisons.
To begin with, I or another elder will construct the lodge on the grounds in a somewhat secluded area designated by the prison, between the buildings and the outer fence. Occasionally a few of the prisoners have been allowed to assist in the construction consisting of saplings set in the ground in a circle and bent over and tied to each other in pairs in such a way as to make a low dome with a pit dug in the center for the stones and another for the fire outside. The institution supplies blankets and canvas for covering, and sometimes firewood, we bring in the stones and more wood as needed.
The men are called out in the morning of sweat lodge day, together with a corrections officer to stand by and guard. They build the fire, put in the stones, cover the lodge completely so that when the door is closed it is completely dark inside, and come together outside in a circle. By that time at least one of the elders has usually shown up to open the circle, but in some of the prisons the men are allowed to conduct their own ceremony even if an elder is unable to be present. This can also be very empowering and good for their learning and growth.
In the circle each one is encouraged to speak of his intentions for the sweat. The men then enter the lodge (or lodges, in two of the prisons the number of participants usually requires two lodges run simultaneously), and the red-hot stones are brought in. Except for the glowing stones in the pit the lodge is totally dark inside. The leader will conduct a ceremony that includes putting water on the stones to create steam and raise a sweat, giving thanks, and seeking mental, emotional, and spiritual understanding and cleansing as well. The ceremony is very intense and may last over two hours, and the experience cannot be translated adequately in words. In another chapter I will describe a typical ceremony as I perform it, just to give you a better idea of just one way that it may go, but no amount of description can begin to give the slightest feeling of the real experience.
It is not an easy experience, and very strong and macho men are often surprised to find they cannot last through all four rounds on their first sweat. They usually return, however, and are proud to report lasting through more and more rounds on successive sweats. Most of the men really like it to be as strong as possible and are pleased when we make it so hot they cannot or can barely stand it. It sometimes seems as though they are seeking to burn out their past, their troubling thoughts and feelings, the tensions of life in prison, and their worries about the outside world. Those who stay through all four rounds find themselves totally exhausted and will usually retire for a very deep sleep later in the day, sometimes sleeping through the night and missing evening programs. It is enough to say here that they experience a very deep physical cleansing, coupled with mental re-evaluation, emotional discharge, and spiritual searching.
All of this, as I indicated, has a very profound effect on all the participants, and they begin to look forward to their sweat all month. If something should happen that they cannot get to the sweat or it does not happen that month, they feel that loss and the need for a sweat all the more in the following month. Of course they feel a greater need for a sweat during periods of personal stress, with problems at home or in the prison. It is a way they have learned that they can safely deal with their tensions, with anger, anxiety, and grief.
As I have said, the administrations of the prisons where the sweat lodge ritual is performed on a regular basis have seen that reduction of tension among the participants and conclude that it is not only a healthy practice for the men but also has a beneficial effect for the institution. Over the years that we have been doing this program some of the prisons have experienced incidents of violence, individual attacks, gang fights, even a more general riot, but I am happy to report that not a single member of our circles has ever been involved in any of those incidents. In those 13 years two men were implicated in incidents at two different prisons, but after listening to the men of those circles and hearing later from the men themselves, I am absolutely sure that those implications were errors on the part of the prisons acting on assumption and misinformation, and of course the prison must for security err on the side of caution.
There have been men whose psychological profile has shown them to be prone to rage and violence and unable to control their actions in situations of a high level of frustration, opposition or insult, real or imagined. Counseling by prison counselors and mental health units did not help them at all, and the only recourse the prison had for them was sedation. When they came into the circle they had spent much of their sentence in segregation and solitary confinement. Some of their problems were helped by being in the circle and feeling secure enough to speak of them, and by having other members of the circle keep an eye on them in tense situations. But they would still get into trouble occasionally, until the sweat lodge was introduced. In this experience they had a deep release of inner turmoil together with a profound relaxation of body and mind. They came out feeling lighter, at peace with themselves, and with the ability to control their actions, understanding that dissolving inner conflict was something that would always be available to them in the next sweat. After their release, it is important to the ex-prisoners that we maintain a fairly regular schedule of sweats on the outside that they may attend.
I recall the experience of one of these troubled prisoners who was prone to anger and violence. His was one of those tragic stories of a child taken from an Indian community and placed in one after another of a round of foster homes and juvenile institutions. His whole life was lived with a barely containable rage that burst out easily and often with any inevitable frustration. He had been doing much better since being introduced to the sweat, but he wanted to make it as tough as he could on himself. Eventually, in what seemed like some kind of macho bravado, he determined to stand and hold on to the lodge frame above the stones, where it was hottest. I don't know if that was some inner need to suffer pain or to prove his strength and courage, but however that was he managed to stand up through three whole rounds. The last round he stayed in, but lay flat on his back.
Later he took me aside to speak of his experience. He said he had had a vision and had been, in his words, "freaked out" by it. He told me he had never believed in anything, not in any church or in God or anything spiritual. He scoffed at the idea of a spirit world, of spirits or angels or anything beyond the daily experience of his five senses. But as he lay in the lodge in the fourth round, the round of the spirit in my way, he had a vision, very clear and real, in full color, of "a rainbow eagle-dancer" dancing for him.
"You know me," he said, "I never believe in that stuff, but I saw it - I saw it! He was really shaken, but in a good and wonderful way. It had given him something he had never found in all his life. No words came through, but at that time a great wave of peace came over him, and he wept. He told me it was the first time in his entire life that he had felt at peace.
At Somers Prison in Connecticut, now known as Osborn, the first circle was such a success that it was an easy matter to institute the sweats soon after, and the administration was very helpful, finding us a good area apart from other activities, providing us with the tools we needed. The head counselor who was our liaison even went to the surrounding woods with me to help cut the saplings and make the first lodge. Later they also provided a shed where we could keep dry wood and put clothing in case of rain. If it snows heavily or pours rain the sweat will likely be cancelled, but light and intermittent rains will not deter us from a good sweat.
Because of the good experience at Somers, it was possible to get the sweat going in three other Connecticut prisons eventually, and if we had an organization with more trained volunteers we could easily expand that further in other correctional institutions which are seeking them through the state. In Massachusetts and New Hampshire there has so far been a resistance to the sweat lodge in prisons, despite the good experience of the Connecticut prisons and of many state and federal prisons throughout the western part of the US and in Canada. Because of this we have begun legal proceedings to ask the court to require the Departments of Corrections in these states to allow the sweat lodge as an important religious right, as it has been determined in many other states. We hope to win, of course, because it seems that the law, morality, and common sense are all on our side. Of course you never know with courts, but however it goes we will continue our struggle to bring this great healing benefit into the prisons everywhere.