“How is your heart today?” George asked me gently, looking into my eyes with an eager openness that I imagine comes only from having a lot of practice asking people that question. I definitely didn’t extend equivalent grace when, a few minutes prior, I awkwardly asked him the very same thing, my eyes darting between his own and the white wall behind him. “My heart is full of joy and gratitude,” he had replied.
George is a middle-aged Black man who has been incarcerated for the past 12 years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary--better known as Angola--the largest maximum security prison in the United States. He spends much of his time mentoring younger men, playing piano in a band, and preaching at his church--all of which are inside the prison walls. “This day is going to be a little weird, a little different,” he warned me playfully when I sat down at Table #5.
Indeed, a prison cafeteria full of incarcerated men and visitors from outside meditating and discussing compassion together was a little different.
In my mind, prisons have always been dark, ugly, claustrophobic places, filled to the brim with injustice. When I got to Angola, I saw parts of that truth up close. Injustice is evident in the remnants of the Angola Rodeo arena on prison grounds. It’s evident in the rows of homes inside the prison gates known as “the City of Angola.” These homes, complete with basketball nets and ‘children playing’ signs, house the prison’s staff and ooze nostalgia for small-town America in the eeriest of ways. Of course, the most striking evidence of injustice are the acres upon acres of crop fields that surround the prison buildings. As Angola is a former plantation, these fields are the site of both age-old and modern-day slavery.
What I could not have imagined, though, until I found myself at Table #5 across from George, is the light that this group of men radiate in the face of blatantly racist and discriminatory realities.
Laura Naughton is the brains behind the Day of Compassion event. She runs an 8-week Compassion Cultivation Training course at the prison. Its goal is “to build a culture of compassion at Angola through mindfulness and the daily practice of compassion. By recognizing common humanity, free and incarcerated people will cultivate and nurture the value of self, others, and togetherness.”
Throughout the day, men who had been through the course taught us visiting folks about compassion and its necessary place in justice work. From this, I learned that if suffering isn’t present, compassion will not arise. I also learned that compassion is activated in four stages. First, we must notice suffering. After that, we must care and then wish for that suffering to be relieved. Finally, we must be willing to act to relieve that suffering. The action is the key, and that compassionate action is boundless. The more it is given, the more it is created. Compassion begets compassion.
In this political age, there is undoubtedly plenty of suffering to go around. Newspaper headlines overflow with corruption and cruelty. Our planet is burning, flooding, sinking. Our people are beaten, stolen, shot. Our political and social systems appear to be broken at every seam. We all see suffering. Many of us who are engaged in movements for social justice care deeply and wish for this suffering to be relieved. And luckily, we have ample opportunity to act.
Towards the end of the day, one incarcerated man took the mic and explained that “compassionate justice is to understand the person who is sitting across from you.”
Maybe that is a good place to start.
Sarah Gordon is VOTE's newest staff member. She is serving a one-year fellowship through Avodah, a Jewish service-based organization.