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Posts Tagged ‘Compassion’

As we all got to read this week, the Harper government canceled all non-Christian chaplain positions in federal penitentiaries. Having been involved in the Federal system by bringing meditation to inmates in medium security penitentiaries, I am extremely saddened by this move by Harper and his goons and their continuous crusade to cut all social programs that help those in greatest need. I have seen first hand the benefits bringing meditation and other religious perspectives in penitentiaries, helping inmates make peace with their troubled past and their long healing process that they face. I have been trying to get back in federal penitentiaries since Harper has been elected with a majority government and keep being met with obstacle after obstacle with cut after cut in programs to insure that inmates are denied basic human rights in terms of faith, something that Harper might believe is still respected if they have access to Christian guidance (but tell me how a Buddhist is to get guidance in meditation from someone who believes that the inmate will be going to hell seeing as how he doesn’t follow the teaching of HIS lord and saviour?). Before I continue, I think that it is best that I take a few minutes to explain the Canadian penitentiary system, its history more specifically.

The penitentiary was first introduced by the Philadelphia Quakers in 1789 as a more humane alternative to the harsh punishments of the time. The Quakers believed that a sentence of imprisonment, served under conditions of isolation, with opportunities for work and religious contemplation, would render the offender “penitent” and reformed. In New York, the penitentiary sentence was adopted out of a belief that work and training would lead to a reduction in the crime rate. The idea of sentencing offenders to long terms of imprisonment spread next to England as an alternative to exiling offenders to the colonies. Imprisonment as we know it in Canada today dates back to the building of the Kingston Penitentiary in 1835. For more than 30 years, Kingston Penitentiary was operated as a provincial jail until the passage of the British North America Act (1867) established federal and provincial responsibilities for justice.

With passage of the first Penitentiary Act (1868), Kingston and two other pre-Confederation prisons in St. John, New Brunswick and Halifax, Nova Scotia were brought under federal jurisdiction, creating a federal penitentiary system “for the establishment, maintenance and management of penitentiaries for offenders sentenced to two years or more.” Construction of federal institutions started in 1873 with St. Vincent de Paul (now Laval Institution). Three more institutions followed: Manitoba Penitentiary (now Stony Mountain Institution) opened in 1877, British Columbia Penitentiary a year later, and Dorchester Penitentiary (New Brunswick) in 1880. All were maximum-security institutions, administered by a strict regime—productive labour during the day, solitary confinement during leisure time. A rule of silence was enforced at all times. Parole did not exist, although inmates could have three days a month remitted from their sentence for good conduct.

In the Depression years of the 1930s, a rash of inmate strikes and riots focussed attention on penal philosophy and management style and lead to the formation of the Archambault Royal Commission of Inquiry. With its emphasis on crime prevention and the rehabilitation of offenders, the Commission’s 1928 report was  a landmark in Canadian corrections and much of its philosophy remains influential today. Among the Commission’s recommendations was the complete revision of penitentiary regulations to provide “strict but humane discipline and the reformation and rehabilitation of prisoners.” In many ways, the Archambault report reflected a society that had become less concerned with retribution and more with rehabilitation. But the priorities of a nation at war superseded penal reform, and few of the Archambault report’s recommendations were implemented.

Following World War II, rising prison populations, overcrowding, and prison disturbances spurred the creation in 1953 of the Fauteaux Committee for another investigation into the correctional system. The Fauteaux Committee envisaged a new type of prison that would not merely be a facility for custody, but also a place of “worthwhile and creative activity” with programs focussing on the attempt to change the basic behaviour, attitudes and patterns of inmates. The nature of prisons had to change in order to make these programs work and to provide opportunities for vocational training, pre-release and after-care programs. Most importantly, prisons needed more and better-trained professional staff in such fields as social work, psychology, psychiatry, criminology and law.

The recommendations of the Fauteaux Committee initiated a new era of legislative and institutional reform and expansion. During this time:

  • The National Parole Board was established as an independent body to exercise authority over the parole of inmates.
  • The Penitentiary Act was amended (1961) to establish new procedures for the operation of penitentiaries and other reforms.
  • A plan (1963) to construct 10 new penitentiaries across Canada that reflected the Fauteaux Committee’s vision for Canada’s prisons was implemented.

In 1976, continuing deficiencies in the correctional system were manifested in a series of disturbances that lead to a new approach in the management of Canadian correction institutions. The new approach was based on the belief that many of the abuses in the system would not take place if proper public accountability existed and public involvement in correctional policy development was sought. Consequently, access to penitentiaries by outside groups was expanded and citizens’ advisory committees were established.

This brief history is brought to us by Corrections Canada, which obviously makes us believe that inmates are treated well and that they only have the inmates health and well-being in mind. I must disagree with this perception, I have seen inmates be denied help and treated with less than humane techniques. One of the most blatant inhumane techniques that I must speak out against is the isolation treatment that is still status quo in all Canadian penitentiaries, as a form of rehabilitation and which takes no consideration of the actual damage that it does to the people who are victims to this “treatment”.

Here are some quick facts about Solitary Confinement, it exists in many penitentiaries under different names: isolation, control units, supermax prisons, the hole, SHUs, administrative segregation, maximum security or permanent lockdown. Inmates can be placed in these units for many reasons; as punishment, while they are under investigation, as a mechanism for behavior modification, when suspected of gang involvement, as retribution for political activism or to fill expensive, empty beds, to name but a few. Although conditions vary from penitentiary to penitentiary and other institutions, systematic policies and conditions of control and oppression used in isolation and segregation include:

  • confinement behind a solid steel door for 23 hours a day
  • limited contact with other human beings
  • infrequent phone calls and rare non-contact family visits
  • extremely limited access to rehabilitative or educational programming
  • grossly inadequate medical and mental health treatment
  • restricted reading material and personal property
  • physical torture such as hog-tying, restraint chairs, and forced cell extraction
  • mental torture such as sensory deprivation, permanent bright lighting, extreme temperatures, and forced insomnia
  • sexual intimidation and violence

Beginning in the early 1970s, prison and jail administrators at the federal level have relied increasingly on isolation and segregation to control men, women and youth in their custody. In 1985 there were a handful of control units across the United States (could not find stats for Canada in regards to this, but it should be similar with population taken into consideration). Today an estimated 44 states have supermax facilities confining more than 30,000 people. Prisoners are often confined for months or even years, with some spending more than 25 years in segregated prison settings. As with the overall prison population, people of color are disproportionately represented in isolation units.

Increasingly isolation units house the mentally ill who struggle to conform to prison rules. An independent investigation from 2006 reported that as many as 64% of prisoners in SHUs were mentally ill, a much higher percentage than is reported by states for their general prison populations. Contrary to the perception that control units house “the worst of the worst’, it is often the most vulnerable prisoners, not the most violent who end up in extended isolation. The AFSC Healing Justice staff worked with 60 Minutes on the production of The Death of Timothy Souders, a riveting testimony. Numerous studies have documented the effects of solitary confinement on prisoners giving them the name; Special Housing Unit Syndrome or SHU Syndrome. Some of the many SHU Syndrome symptoms include:

  • visual and auditory hallucinations
  • hypersensitivity to noise and touch
  • insomnia and paranoia
  • uncontrollable feelings of rage and fear
  • distortions of time and perception
  • increased risk of suicide
  • PTSD

If one is not mentally ill when entering an isolation unit, by the time they are released their mental health has been severely compromised. Many prisoners are released directly to the streets after spending years in isolation. Because of this, long-term solitary confinement goes beyond a problem of prison conditions, to pose a formidable public safety and community health problem.

Prison isolation fits the definition of torture as stated in several international human rights treaties, and thus constitutes a violation of human rights law. For example, the U.N. Convention Against Torture defines torture as any state-sanctioned act “by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” for information, punishment, intimidation, or for a reason based on discrimination. For all these reasons – for the safety of our communities, to respect our responsibility to follow international human rights law, to take a stand against torture wherever it occurs, and for the sake of our common humanity – prison isolation and segregation must end.

Just like Segregation is a violation of human rights I believe that this last cut is yet another attack towards inmate rehabilitation and helping to assure that they will be able to integrate into society when they have finished their sentence. The contracts were cut after Toews suspended plans to hire a Wiccan prison chaplain in B.C. and ordered a review of the entire program last month. “Upon reviewing the program, it was determined that changes were necessary so that this program supports the freedom of religion of inmates while respecting taxpayers’ dollars,” said Bergen.

But Liberal justice and human rights critic Irwin Cotler responded that “requiring inmates of other faiths to turn to Christian chaplains for religious guidance is clearly discriminatory.” “The Minister of Public Safety says that he is ‘not in the business of picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential status’ – but by providing funding for Christian chaplains only, he is doing precisely that,” said Cotler. In question period NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar questioned how much money the government was saving by cutting 100 part-time positions. “This is not a costly program. The minister has no justification for cutting it,” said Dewar. The total cost of the chaplain program, including full-time and part-time positions, is about $6.4 million a year. The part-time contracts represent approximately $1.3 million of that total, the Public Safety Ministry said on Friday morning.

Outside of parliament the cuts also spark strong reactions from religious leaders. David Koschitzky, chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said access to appropriate religious counselling in prison was key to many inmates’ rehabilitation. “It is no stretch to say that chaplains are at the forefront of the rehabilitation process, and work every day to ensure that inmates awaiting release have the tools they need to avoid re-offending,” said Koschitzky. “While this is a matter of protecting freedom of religion, there is also an important aspect of public safety at stake in this decision.” Sikh and Muslim leaders have also called the program’s cancellation discriminatory.

I find that Canada needs to review its whole penitentiary system and its programs for rehabilitation, we should be leading the way in more  humane and efficient way to assure that people first of all are not placed in penitentiaries, by creating a more equal and just society; and also assuring that inmates are just stored in federal penitentiaries like unwanted furniture for a selected period of time. Let us not forget that there is also a huge homelessness crisis happening all over the world, in Montreal alone there are about 30 000 homeless people for a city population of about 1.8 million (don’t try to tell me that we don’t have to do anything about this), which makes certain people turn towards a life a crime when they are simply desperate and out of ideas… I will talk about the homelessness crisis next time… But for now. talk to your MPs or even Stephen Harper if he is willing to listen, we need to take care of your citizens and assure that they have the best chance to redeem themselves and become a productive member of society again… Lets show the world that we can be a society that is compassionate and open-minded, who are we to judge what spiritual guidance one needs?

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Today I was sitting in the subway on the way home from work when I heard school children saying very derogatory comments in regards to Indian culture (for example, Namaste is something to laugh at if you ask them). It seems that lately I have been faced with many racist/anti-immigrant comment and also many borderline comments on these issues and have begun to ask myself “Why does it feel like I am the one that always siding with the other side?”, why do I always feel like there is a peaceful solution to the world’s problems? Where does this hope come from? Why do I feel like I don’t necessarily have the moral high ground in all these different situations? Why do I feel that we should always discuss and find a middle ground, that no one should impose values on others?

I feel lately that it seems that the mechanics of racism and intolerance are being acknowledged and simply accepted as matter of fact (We all remember the ESPN fiasco with basketball star Jeremy Lin and how no harm was intended by the blatantly racist comment [could someone please explain to me when the word Chink is ever used in a non-racist way?]). I think of the anti-immigration laws that have been passed in the past couple of years, the war on illegal immigrants has grown to a scale that justifies war like actions. If we look briefly at the US Mexican border we are reminded of the divide between the reality that these two countries live in, and how it is normal that one would seem like a dream no matter what the work may be. I have always gotten a kick out of the term illegal immigrant, migration is a human right and has always been what we do since our early beginnings on this planet. And hey, I wouldn’t be typing this blog post from this seat if my ancestors did not participate in some illegal immigration of their own. Here comes my question about moral high ground, who the fuck are we to say that some people are not allowed to come and impose their traditions and values in our country when that is exactly what we did 400 years ago? I mean seriously, why is our genocide of the Native American Peoples justified and now we freak out that a poor Mexican wants to come to work in horrible work conditions to ensure that I can eat my strawberries when I watch my horrible reality television shows, then what’s the problem? Please don’t talk to me about healthcare as a reason as I watch my fellow citizens eat McDonalds everyday and live mostly sedimentary lives. Seriously!

Mexican – US border

I am also having more and more difficulties with the idea that we accept immigrants to our country, but they better not try to put their beliefs in my face! Again, let’s remember the imposition of Christianity on the Native American Peoples (to save their souls if I remember correctly), by putting them in residential schools and making them live away from the parents and tribes for years only to return to their new homes on newly made “reserves” with Christian names. If this is not imposing values on a population, then I don’t know what isn’t. This is when I ask myself, who am I to judge which cultural values are better? How do I know what is best? I mean, my country doesn’t have that great of a track record either, it’s not like we have a good track record when it comes to how we treat the Native American populations, seniors (ref: The new allegations of abuse in a seniors wing in Edmonton), our veterans once they have stopped being useful to the war machines. the homeless (we all remember the Vancouver Olympics I think), and unfortunately the list could go on.

I have always believed that no one is entirely innocent or guilty, and this is why it should be hard for us to carry such absolute judgements towards others. I have and will always believe that we must take the time to sit down with people and find a middle ground instead of always fighting for the high ground. We say to the world that we are a tolerant people, but I find more and more that this statement is losing its validity. The 20th century was a century of violence (there was not a time when there was no war) and make this century a century of dialogue and tolerance. Before we try to impose our views or judgements on others maybe we could give ourselves a check list of points to examine to ensure that we make this a tolerant and compassionate world.

  • If I were the target of these comments or judgements would I find them fair?
  • Am I trying to impose a moral high ground?
  • Am I feeding into my fears of my ignorance towards a certain subject?
  • Have I looked at both sides with an open heart and mind?
  • Am I looking for a compromise to try to please both sides?
  • Am I approaching this without judgement or prejudice?

I am sorry to have imposed this rant on all of you, but I find that it is important to speak up and show people who there is maybe a better way. I am not trying to impose a moral high ground on others, but to show that we will develop a better relationship with others around us if it is done with respect and compassion. We are all different and let’s take advantage of that fact, there is so much that we can teach each other!  And who knows, we might learn a thing or two about ourselves along the way!

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I started watching the MTV reality show called, If you really knew me…, about Challenge Day and the impact that they have in schools all around the US. If you are not familiar with the work that is done you should really take some time to check out Challenge Day, it is a great answer to helping solve what is happening in schools all over with bullying, racism, etc. During the day, students are put into small groups and they each take turns letting people know the real them, we hide so much of ourselves to others which in turns creates real separation between people. They say that we are like icebergs, we only show 10% of ourselves to the world, so the exercise is to drop the waterline (get out of that comfort zone) and expose 100% of ourselves and be “real”.  What happens is that once everyone has started sharing how they really feel and what they are going through, we realize that we all have our struggles and insecurities, and that all we want is to be accepted for who we are and free to show ourselves and not hide behind masks.

Buddhism does also talk about the other and how we relate to them, especially when discussing the Bodhisattva vow and its mission of releasing all beings of suffering before leaving this earth. Awakening compassion is something that I have struggles with, especially towards myself. I am sure that we all have struggled with the inner critic inside of us, distancing myself from emotional pain – my vulnerability, anger, jealousy, fear – by letting it be covered over with self-judgment. So by pushing away parts of myself, I was digging myself deeper into the trance of unworthiness. I was not able to accept my experience because my heart was hardened by fear and blame. As long as I can remember I have been relentlessly badgering myself, ignoring the hurt in my heart. I think that it had all started with my relationship with my parents that were always quick to judge and criticize me when I was dropping my waterline, I thus developed an incapacity to acknowledge the real suffering that I was living with these harsh words and instead judging myself for being so stupid to show my real self to the world. I would never be accepted and loved if I didn’t create an image of myself that had his shit together all the time, and maintained an image that was respectable with the others around me.

This all came back up when I was watching these kids pour their hearts out, I saw myself and I remembered how hard it was to hold myself with compassion the first time that this surfaced in my meditation practice. I remember doing the body scan to see where in my body I could feel these feelings of unworthiness and judgment, feeling in my chest like my heart was bound with tight chords, realizing how painful this pain really was even though I had become used to feeling it all the time. Realizing how sad I felt to have always been carrying this pain with me, and for so long, ever since I could remember in my childhood. I had read that I should put my hand on my heart, the area where I felt the pain, and to say to myself  “I care about this suffering”. For the first time I could remember I was acknowledging the pain that I felt and realizing that it was Ok for me to care and tend to it. With time and practice, I must admit that the pain slowly softened, it never went away, but I must admit that I have a much more compassionate response to it. This care that I had always offered to others was for the first time in my life being directed towards myself, I could comfort myself with words of kindness and understanding. So now when I start feeling judgments about myself and the physical pain that comes with it, I am able to put my hand on my chest and offer words of kindness by saying that I care about my suffering and the pain and anger subsides and it is replaced by a warm feeling spreading throughout my whole body. My edge has softened with time and I am much less angry than I was.

May this suffering awaken compassion, these are the words of the Bodhisattva, a beautiful promise that is given by people who will dedicate their lives to awaken the compassion of all beings so they may be free of suffering. Challenge Day and its amazing staff are doing the work of the Bodhisattvas, they are showing that we are all suffering and we all want to be heard, loved, and accepted. We all live the same fears, insecurities, and we all have the same desires of being free from suffering. I find that they are showing that we are all in this together, so why do we judge and bring more suffering to people? We should be accepting and loving towards all people, no matter if they are different, because in the end we are all the same. I find that we get so caught up in our own stories sometimes that we forget and make the other to simply be an enemy or an object and forget the humanity that lives inside them. All beings experience love, fear, suffering and we should welcome them with love and openess in our lives. I find that the other is an illusion that we create to help justify our selfishness and to validate our suffering, that it is something that is out of our control. But if we take the time to open to our experiences and meeting them with kindness we can see ourselves in all beings. It reminds me of a story that I read once:

An aged spiritual master calls his two most devoted disciples to the garden in front of his hut. Gravely, he gives each one a chicken and instructs them, “Go to where no one can see, and kill the chicken.” One of the men immediately goes behind his shed, picks up an ax and chops off his chicken’s head. The other wanders around for hours, and finally returns to his master, the chicken still alive and in hand. “Well, what happened?” the teacher asks. The disciple responds, “I can’t find a place to kill the chicken where no one can see me. Everywhere I go, the chicken sees.”

Bring this wisdom into your life and I can assure that you will live a much kinder and compassionate life. I try to bring this attention and compassion to everything that I do, and I find that a Challenge day also lets a school see that we are not alone in our suffering and we should be helping each other out instead of creating boundaries and fear. So tomorrow when you are at school or work, say hello to someone that you normally would not talk to and let them know that you are there and you are listening!

 

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