Creating Sacred Space In Prisons

By Patrick Pinson

I feel my heart chakra shut down on the drive from Portland to Salem. All of the unhealed places in me rise to my awareness. I feel like a con. Prison represents my darkness. It activates my shadow self. I am afraid. My heart races and I feel myself holding my breath. The memories of my past flood me. I’m haunted by the memories of my days in jails and 45 days in Dammasch State Hospital. This experience of my actually doing something sacred brought back the memories of my active alcoholism and the nights behind bars and in mental institutions.

I shudder at the memories of my alcoholic craziness. The memories of my hopelessness, terror, frustration and despair. I feel the armor that I construct around myself to protect me. There is no protection. I feel a deep sadness and the terror of entering the world that I am only one drink or drug away from. I need to protect myself. I am afraid of being exposed as a con. I am afraid of being laughed at, attacked. The more fear I feel, the more I want to control. It had been years since I did service work in prison.

A short time ago, a friend asked me to bring 35 drums into a prison program in Salem, Oregon called “Cornerstone”. I said yes and it turned out to be one of the most powerful experiences in my life. Coincidentally, it was the evening that operation “Desert Storm” was initiated and this added to my existing anxiety concerning the visit.

I have always believed that some of the most talented men and women are behind bars, and that there was a great need for sacredness in this environment. Now those fears revisited me, like the ghost of Christmas past. I felt all the painful years of growth blowing away like sand in the desert. I had been asked to drum by Steve, who is a counselor in the prison program. I was to be the partial fulfillment of a gift that he wanted to give the residents. The gift he offered was to help them create a sacred space on the prison unit, and drumming. Steve had been attending the men’s Wisdom Circles in Portland. He felt the power and healing of drumming. Now he wanted to share this experience.

Steve and I had agreed to meet for coffee prior to going to the unit. I found myself wanting to know exactly what he wanted me to do. Who are these residents? Why are they in jail? What is the prevailing attitude? I wanted control of the situation. Panic was driving me. He kept telling me to just be spontaneous and trust that what was supposed to happen, would happen. I felt about as spontaneous as a digital clock. I felt my body tense as we drove to the unit. The words of my Native American teacher kept echoing in my ears, “just stay within yourself”. I prayed for the courage to speak my truth. There was an air of tension on the unit because one of the elders had just been sent back to the main prison. Steve had alerted me to this growing anger and tension in the unit. As we entered, almost everyone was watching the news coverage on the war. A few of the men helped me unload the drums and bring them to the unit. Almost all ethnic groups were represented on the unit, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and Whites. Both men and women were in the circle that we formed.

I was introduced by Steve and I took a few minutes to breathe deeply, to attempt to calm my shaky knees and racing heart. I noticed a Native American watching me and I felt even more uncomfortable. I had planned to explain some medicine wheel teachings and altar building to the group, and although I am one-sixteenth Mingo Indian, I felt I had no right to do so. I began by telling my story of recovery –what it was like, what happened, and what it was like now. I felt transparent. I wanted to be anywhere but where I was. I acknowledged verbally my fear and tension. I shared that I could have been a resident in that unit but for the grace of God. I said the words — we are all one and spirit runs through all things. The words lacked life. They were shallow and forced. I said their wounds and pain were also mine. I felt disjointed.

I invited every group member to choose a drum and beater. After each had done so, I began with a beat that reflected my rhythm of the moment. Some of my tension eased. We continued that for about five minutes and stopped. I then asked each member to go within and get in touch with whatever they felt was their own rhythm and to let that rhythm express itself through the drum. I told them not to worry about doing it “right” or how they fit in, just to honor their own rhythm. For the next 45 minutes we drummed.

We started out with a very chaotic beat that gradually transformed itself into a wonderful blending. I had explained the principal of entrainment earlier to the group that things strive to be in harmony. The drumming manifested that principal. We made a transition into a beautiful and haunting beat/rhythm. It was rhythm with rhythm. I could see the eyes and faces of the residents shift during the drumming. The drumming softened and ended spontaneously. There was a stillness in the room. They had touched themselves and each other in a very special way that many had never experienced before.

After the drumming it seemed appropriate to have a talking circle, I invited each to share their experience of the drumming and what they wanted to create in this sacred space. Each member of the circle shared from the heart. The common theme of the sharing was a sense of peacefulness. Some commented that their anger was lifted or pushed down. Others reported a sense of serenity that they had never felt before. I felt honored to sit in that circle. My tension had eased and I felt at one with the group. I offered a closing prayer to adjourn the circle. The residents lined up and nurtured Steve and I with hugs and expressions of gratitude. Steve suggested that they keep the silence for the rest of the evening. Together, the drumming circle had indeed created a sacred space. The ride home was more like a “float” home. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude and rebirth of the joy I used to feel in the early sobriety that came from working with others. T he joy I felt was of the same intensity as the fear I had felt on the drive down. For the next few weeks I talked about the experience. I felt the universe had affirmed to me the power of the drum and drumming. What had made a difference is that I showed up and walked through my fears. I connected in a new way. I gave of myself selflessly for that two-hour period. Now I was at peace.

There are so many opportunities for mentorship. Creating sacred space and ritual and ceremony is desperately needed all around us. The youth gangs are nothing more than young people trying to create rites of passage without the wisdom of elders. The cycle of dysfunction needs intervention by warriors who offer youth examples of rites of passage into adulthood. Those behind bars and in youth gangs provide rich areas for service work. As Alcoholics Anonymous has exemplified for years, all spiritual growth begins with surrender and the admission of powerlessness. This population is closest to that surrender. It is full of misdirected warriors who are potentially our greatest leaders. Few things are scarier or more rewarding than prison work. I encourage people to get involved in carrying our healing to the wounded and to share our rituals and sense of the sacred. It comes back manifold. I believe there is a great need to nourish the sacredness of those behind bars. Philosophically, I believe prisons are part of our national denial system and part of the “punishing God” beliefs. We fix and label these people as “bad”, and create a self-fulfilling prophecy by enabling their badness to manifest.

I believe we need new models of mentorship. Rather than putting people in a toxic environment, we need to create nourishing environments and healthy role models for lasting rehabilitation to occur. I invite you, the reader, to look within to see if you are called to be one of the leaders in prisons, business, or your own home.

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