Prison metes out segregation, isolation and punishment for ill deeds. Out of public sight, prison often becomes a place of brutality, mistreatment and unimagined human suffering for those incarcerated.
However, given the proper guidance, prison also has the potential to become a place of transformation and healing. An incarcerated person can also develop as a highly spiritual individual.
Once awakened to the inherent spiritual impulse, a person in longtime incarceration, with a little creativity and help from the outside, has the time and opportunity to turn his or her prison time into a “monastic” experience.
Having served as a volunteer prison teacher and chaplain for over twenty years in several New York State prisons, including Sing Sing maximum security correctional facility, I have witnessed such transformation again and again.
One fall semester, I was teaching a course entitled “The Authentic Self.” Offered on an interfaith basis, the course explored ways of turning inwards to our true self and its peace, contentment and hope.
On the last night of the course, we held a modest graduation ceremony. When I explained to the class we would close with a ritualistic candle lighting, and that I had brought a nice candle for the purpose, Mike in the front row immediately jumped up.
“Professor, are you crazy?” He shouted. “This is a maximum security prison. Candles are contraband here!”
“But wait,” I said, “My candle is different. It is a virtual candle – a candle you can see only in your mind’s eye.”
Reaching into my bag, I pulled out an imaginary, large pillar candle. I asked, “Can you all see this this beautiful white candle?” While obviously a little bewildered, several of the men nodded their heads.
I carefully placed the candle on the front table. When I reached into my pocket and produced virtual matches, Tony right away volunteered to come forward and light the candle.
This roomful of men, hardened by decades in prison, quickly embraced the moment. I could almost see the candle flame reflected in their eyes. It was totally still in the room as the audience recalled the experience of live candles that they had not seen for years.
After a brief reflection on the Eleanor Roosevelt quote, “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness,“ we completed the graduation ceremony by handing out the certificates.
The prison guard arrived to guide me out, and I prepared to leave the class room.
But someone from the third row shouted, “What about the candle?”
I had forgotten about the candle.
“Just blow it out,” said another.
“NO!” came a booming voice from the back of the room. It was Jerome, a big, strong man with a forty-five year sentence.
“Please, please, never blow out that candle,” he pleaded in a trembling voice. “I want it to stay lit, so that every time I enter this room I can see hope.”
Last I checked, that virtual candle is still shining brightly in the Sing Sing school room.
Prayer: Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners -Hebrews 13:3
Hans Hallundbaek is the coordinator for the Hudson River Presbytery’s Prison Partnership Program. He has served as an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, and as a volunteer teacher and chaplain at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York. He is the NGO representative to the United Nations for the International Prison Chaplains Association (IPCA) and Citizens United for the Return of Errants (CURE). Hans holds his M-Div. and D-Min. from New York Theological Seminary, and has been published in several national religious magazines.