By Katina Castillo
On September 11th, the Education team returned to San Quentin prison as co-facilitators of the Insight Garden Program after being notified on August 31st that all volunteer programming had been halted due to an outbreak of Legionnaire's disease, a severe form of pneumonia. Prisoners' movement on facility grounds had been limited since August 27th and the water had been shut off preventing preparation of hot meals or flushing toilets. They used portable toilets and filled water bottles from tanks at the edge of their yard, and had no time in the garden.
Needless to say, it was an emotional reunion for all of us. The Education team was especially concerned during the weeks we had limited information about who was getting sick and if anyone had succumbed to this often fatal disease, especially for elders and those with weaker immune systems. When we went back in that Friday, it was still unclear to many prisoners which programs had resumed so not all of our usual participants knew to find us in the meeting room. However, word got around and more and more came trickling in to join the circle. It was the first time I broke into tears during check-in and the men expressed deep gratitude for the concern I and many others had, as I shared the prayers sent from people on the outside. They were moved by the idea of strangers sending them blessings and expressed how important our group space is to them, one of the very few places they feel they can be vulnerable and share genuine care for one another. Several men gave appreciative recognition to others in the program for the way they show up and share in the space. It was basically a love fest.
When we walked out to the garden we were pleasantly surprised at how healthy it looked despite so many days without water during the heat wave of early September. New participants and older ones that decided to come back around really enjoyed seeing the peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers growing. We decided to head the sunflowers that had wilted brown and leave their remains in the beds to compost on site. A praying mantis blessed one of the guys, landing on his hat, and we all got a kick out of who was afraid to let it crawl onto their hand, giggling like a bunch of kids.
We decided not to do the official curriculum planned for the day and just be with each other, share deeper reflections about what had occurred, what it brought up for us and how we were feeling in the moment. As usual, the men were grateful to be alive and reflected on all that they do have in San Quentin in comparison to other prisons. A few had also been keeping up with the news and were very concerned for the refugees of the Syrian crisis. They offered up their prayers for the safety and rest of those on that difficult journey, especially the children.
After sitting in silent meditation in which we sent our loving and healing energy to the rest of the units, to the refugees, to contaminated waters, and to ourselves, I asked the group to stand together and honor the 7 sacred directions. We gave thanks to the East, the direction of the rising Sun, summer heat, and of men warriors, whose role it is to respect elders, honor women, and protect children. We gave thanks to the West, the direction of the setting Sun, fall season harvest, and of women warriors whose nature is calming, cooling and nurturing, the mothers of all humanity. We gave thanks to the North, the direction of the wind and winter, of elders and ancestors who paved the way for us and provide us great wisdom. And we gave thanks to the South, the direction of springtime and of children, those born and yet to be born, the future generations of us all. Finally we turned back to center and gave thanks for Mother Earth holding us up and providing everything we need to thrive, and to Father Sky above for all the mystery and Spirit blessings of our daily lives. Then we honored the 7th direction, ourselves, for the unique souls that we are on a unique but interconnected and interdependent path in this world. And we each checked out with a word that summed up our present feeling, put the chairs away, shook hands and smiled a "see you soon."
We keep our brothers and sisters behind the walls in our hearts always and feel very blessed for the opportunity to connect with some in the way we do. Here's to an end of unnecessary incarceration and a reunification of families and communities. May all the social refugees of the world be remembered as our relatives and the dignity of their humanity restored by the compassionate support of all of us, their extended family. Aho!