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The Human Kindness Foundation

Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center



One Nation, Behind Bars

Holy smokes! That's a lot of people behind bars!
This country is spending more money to lock you up than it is to educate you. State prison budgets are growing twice as fast as spending on public colleges and universities. How does that make you feel?

The United States locks up more of its population than any other country. In 1970, there were fewer than 200,000 prisoners in the U.S. Now there are nearly two million.

Yikes! The prison population is going up, up, up!
Sure, Neda, you may be thinking to yourself, but these people are horrible violent monsters who deserve to be locked up. Well, did you know that almost seventy percent of all American prisoners are serving time for nonviolent offenses? Sixty-one percent of federal prison inmates are locked up because of drug offenses (the majority of which are possession charges, not for smuggling or selling drugs, as you might think). Sadly, the prison system is so horrifying that many of these nonviolent offenders will no longer be nonviolent by the time they get out.

Bo and Sita started their prison ministry work back in the 1970s
This is exactly what the Human Kindness Foundation is trying to combat. Founded by Bo and Sita Lozoff in the early 1970s, the foundation is aimed at encouraging more kindness in the world (not such a bad idea, eh?). The organization sponsors and funds the Prison-Ashram Project, whose goal is to help prisoners use their time in jail for focused spiritual growth. How have Bo and Sita attempted to achieve this? The base of their work is a book written by Bo entitled We're All Doing Time. The Prison-Ashram Project sends free copies of Bo's books and tapes to prisoners and prison workers who can't afford to pay for them. They also offer support and friendship through various correspondence, newsletters and workshops. Bo has personally visited over five hundred prison institutions across the country.

Micheal Nicastro, a member of the Human Kindness Foundation and a former prisoner, described his experiences to me.

"It was 1985. I had been in prison for ten years and was on a wheel of self-destruction." It was in this state that Micheal ran across Bo's books lying around in the prison. "I was at a point in my life where I truly wanted a better way." Micheal began corresponding with Bo, maintaining a relationship until he got out of jail in 1998.

With the rise of the prison population in the late '80s and early '90s, Bo and Sita's efforts also exploded. They began receiving fifty letters a day from prisoners all across the U.S. and even around the world. In 1995, they bought a plot of land in rural North Carolina and started the Kindness House, a spiritual community based on a commitment to simple living and unselfish service.

For Michael, moving to the Kindness House was "a way to continue in my spiritual practices, to be more of a giver. I jumped at the opportunity."

A little kindness can go a long way...
Michael is quick to point out, though, that the Kindness House is not a halfway house. "This is not a transition period, it is an alternative lifestyle." The thirteen-acre community includes residences, the Human Kindness Foundation headquarters, a fruit orchard, and a large garden. Sita explains the significance of the garden. "It is exhilarating to have an ex-con get in there and feel the earth, smell the dirt. I still remember a man who planted a pea, watched it grown and then was able to eat it -- it was thrilling."

There are currently fifteen people from all different backgrounds living in the community, some ex-prisoners, some not, but all dedicated to the cause. They eat together, work together and worship together. "We're all here because we believe in the work -- we're joined in a common interest." Through their support of each other, this small, dedicated group of people is able to run the largest interfaith prison ministry in the country.

"We don't see that there is a criminal justice system. A system implies organization, coherence, unity. Yet this is simply not true in our prisons." Michael explains how prison reform involves a whole assortment of social issues, from poverty and education to drug abuse and race issues.

The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center has formed a coalition with about 80 organizations who believe prisons should be the last resort
I picked up the Rocky Mountain News the other day and was intrigued by the headline: "1 in 19 Black Men in Prison." Minority populations are disproportionately affected by imprisonment. While African-Americans are 13 percent of the nation's general population, they are nearly half of the incarcerated population. We need to look at the root of the problem, instead of pouring more money into a prison system that is not working.

The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center is one organization that is trying to combat the system. Based in Boulder, Colorado, their Prisoner Rights Project is working to end the use of the U.S. prison system as a tool of racism and political oppression. They focus on women in prison (the fastest growing segment of the prison population), ending the war on drugs, and halting prison expansion in Colorado. Betty Ball, the nonviolence education coordinator at the Center, believes that there needs to be major changes, pointing out, "We're harming people instead of really solving anything."

Betty shares her knowledge with me
To top it off, there has been a rise of private prisons and prison labor in our society. The huge increase in the number of prisoners along with the rise in imprisonment costs over the last two decades has led to private corporations taking over prisons from the state or federal government. Private companies, such as the Corrections Corporation of America, now operate approximately five percent of prisons. Doesn't it seem troubling that there is an industry that is profiting from imprisonment?

And it's not just the prisons. During the last twenty years, more than thirty states have enacted laws permitting the use of convict labor by private businesses. TWA uses a California correctional facility to handle some of its reservations. Microsoft has used Washington prisoners for telemarketing. Honda has used prison labor to manufacture parts.

The labor is as cheap as it comes. Konica has hired prisoners for less than fifty cents per hour to repair its copiers. In Oregon, companies can "lease" prisoners for three dollars per day. Oregon actually passed a ballot measure requiring all prisoners to work forty hours per week and requiring the state to actively market prison labor.


Hunting Lions on a Saturday Afternoon

Since companies do not have to give prison workers any benefits, such as health insurance, worker's comp, vacation days, or sick time, they are probably pretty happy with the rise of the prison population. This not only affects convicts, but also workers outside the prisons who are trying to make a decent living.

Some people argue that labor is good for prisoners, helping them prepare for re-entry into the workplace. The problem is that spending on education and training has been declining. Prisoners must often work long hours in sweatshop conditions with no rights to organize or strike or file a complaint. In one case, two prisoners were put in solitary confinement for more than forty-five days after complaining about substandard working conditions.

"In a lot of ways, this is a new form of slavery," explains Micheal.

So what can you do to make a difference? Betty suggests banding together in huge, loud, non-violent protests, being as creative as you can to make your voice heard. She tells me about the center's Radical Cheerleaders who "act like clowns," coming up with zany songs and cheers to protest.

But even if you are not into protests or crazy songs, you can still make a stand. Be radical in your mindset, your attitudes, and actions towards prisoners.

Turning prisons into a spiritual journey
The Human Kindness Foundation emphasizes compassion, reconciliation, forgiveness, and responsibility. They believe that one of the most powerful remedies to crime is friendship and a sense of belonging. They hope that we can move towards a system of "restorative justice," a model based on bringing the offender "back into the community, if at all possible, rather than closing him out." The idea is to change our attitudes towards those who wrong us. This doesn't mean that we allow people to do us harm. I am not saying that it is okay to commit a crime, or that people do not have to deal with the consequences of their actions. But we do have to seek alternatives to our prison system. We need to focus less on punishment and more on rehabilitation. We need to treat people with compassion instead of making things worse with hatred.

As Micheal puts it, "A lot of people have given up on prisoners or on people's abilities to change. We prove daily that people can change." Micheal and I smile at each other, and I can only hope that everyone will someday learn this same lesson.


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Jennifer - A day at juvie - doing time in your teens
Nick - The birth of gangs: a violent reaction to poverty
Stephanie - Military boot camps for teens gone bad
Irene - Don't mess with Texas or 'Old Sparky' may call for you!
Nick - Police brutality is a problem that needs our attention