Every morning I go into the program room. I sit with him and the program teacher. We burn incenses and purify the space together, we sit, we listen to our hearts and we build. We build a safe space in probably the most unsafe space in the country. It hasn’t been long, but I can see that he feels more supported already. He also has been much more calm and less violent in the day to day.


By Acharya Samaneti

What do we need to be able to heal? To be able to work through our traumas? What is essential?

I have been thinking about this a lot these days. I have been involved lately in a “team intervention” lately for what most would say is a lost cause, someone who will never live as a free man again. I have known this person for almost 10 years, I feel like I know them better than most, and yet I still think that we must keep trying to help him heal traumas that would of killed most of us.

This has been a challenging exercise for me—to sit at a table where I feel to be at odds with most at the table (except for the indigenous elder and the person that has created this new program that we are testing on this deeply traumatized and damaged person). The elder once described him as a baby squirrel in the forest always ensuring that he survives among many predators. He is in constant survival mode, never able to relax, to work on his traumas to hopefully heal them and let them go.

So what does he need?

He needs a home base—a community. He needs something that he doesn’t have inside and outside the walls, something that we all have a take for granted—this is what he craves most. He is not able to take a woman’s love (not romantic) and care, because he has never experienced it; he has only known deception, violence, manipulation and abuse, etc.

So, when a woman shows him kindness and care, he believes that it is romantic and that is the only way to receive a woman’s love. With the men, he craves structure and limits; almost like we all become a father figure to him, no matter what the situation is.

His emotions are completely deregulated and he is unable to hold discomfort in a non-violent way.

His survival mode has taught him that the only way to work through this is to attack and destroy the perceived threat. I have seen him in these states. I have tried to get his attention to calm him down, and he is not able to recognize me and calm down.

I see a suffering being in restraints, a spitting net over his head and not able to recognize and go toward his support system in these desperate moments because he is always that scared little squirrel.

How does one become this frightened squirrel?

His story is unique, and it is common to a certain degree when you start walking in the hell-realm that is a penitentiary. Most people can count on the unconditional love of their family, their parents, and that no matter how much we fuck up, they are there for us. What if you were never able to trust or count on your parents? What if your parents tried to kill you so many times that it is simply a miracle that you are alive and breathing?

This is our little squirrel. Here is a very quick biography for you to consider:

  • Your mother finds out that she is pregnant and she doesn’t want you, so she tries to kill you by consuming huge amounts of alcohol and hard drugs. By some miracle, you are born healthy considering all of that.
  • Your first real memory is you lying on the floor with your mother pushing her foot on your throat grasping for air.
  • You are sold for sexual favours to your parent’s friends as a child in exchange for drugs.
  • As a teenager, your mother gets you addicted to hard drugs so you can sell them for her. Your cut is your personal use of the drugs to continue your addiction.
  • You are forced to drop out of school to continue selling drugs full time. If you do not sell enough you are withheld affection or love; with time you realize that no matter how much you sell, it is never enough.
  • You begin to be angry, so much so that it becomes problematic and you enter the juvenile system. In those facilities you are beaten and raped by the incarcerated and staff.
  • You get out and are arrested shortly after for violence and uttering threats (the only tools that you know to regulate your emotions and thoughts), now you enter the adult system.
  • You get beaten and raped again, by fellow inmates and staff again. You become problematic. You are put in isolation. You spend months and years alone in a concrete room with nothing but a mattress at night. You act out, your break down, you attack staff with violence, urine, feces and you smear feces all over yourself. This goes on for many years. You are shipped from one institution to the next, some that specialize in mental health, but you are always considered too violent and to difficult to contain.

So I am sitting at this table as experts diagnose him over and over, with well thought out theories, and understandings, but that seems to be it. When I say, now what? I get a reluctant engagement for this program but the concerns are more about what to do when it doesn’t work. I leave this meeting with his biography in my mind and think about that question I raised, “now what?”

I remember when I first met him, he wanted to be Muslim.

I had many staff members come see me to tell me to not let him convert because of his mental health and because he was so manipulative and was only doing it for the halal diet. When I sat with him and we got to know each other, something jumped out at me—he wanted community. He wanted to belong to a group, a family. So I let him see the Imam and practice Islam, even if it wasn’t a popular decision and was challenged by many people.

He seemed to calm down, to breathe a little, he was finally part a of spiritual family. He was often challenged about his intention with his spiritual path, never allowed to simply deepen his spirituality and connect to something bigger than him. Eventually it was too much—he stopped practicing and descended into his spirals of darkness and violence.

He then believed that he had some indigenous ancestry, so he connected with the elder and started practicing indigenous spiritual practices. The elder is not sure if he really is indigenous, but he has understood the same thing as me—he is searching for his home base, his community. He is looking for a ground to stand on, to touch, to use as balance, because without this community, he has nothing to stand on like most of us have.

This new program is just that. We are building a community around him—collaborators that are there for him. We are teaching him to reach out to specific people when there are certain needs that arise, something that he still doesn’t know how to do (remember, that little frightened squirrel is alone, that is how it survives, by just relying on itself because no one has ever really supported him unconditionally).

We are teaching community, because that is the first step in healing past traumas; we need that safe space to do the work.

Every morning I go into the program room. I sit with him and the program teacher. We burn incenses and purify the space together, we sit, we listen to our hearts and we build. We build a safe space in probably the most unsafe space in the country. It hasn’t been long, but I can see that he feels more supported already.

He also has been much more calm and less violent in the day to day. He still acts out—he is starting and we celebrate that every morning, no matter if he acted out the night before because he has to learn what it feels like to be cared for. Now what?

This is it, for now. Step two will be something else, but right now this is our focus.

One last thing. What I am realizing more and more is the importance of empathy in the work that I do. As I sat around that table, I felt almost zero empathy for a clearly suffering person.

I know that it is easier sometimes to dehumanize people in the work that we do, but it is not right. The higher the security clearance, the higher the empathy should be in the collaborators heart and mind. If we want to really help and heal these folks, we must be trained in radical empathy and compassion; it is the only way that things will change.

Hopefully this training will shift the hearts of the folks walking these halls, and that I will not longer hear “not like it will be a great loss” if an inmate dies from violence, suicide or even transport to another penitentiary. Or hearing people in place of authority calling dying inmates pieces of trash, with no outside feeling of empathy for the discomfort that a dying person must feel in a jail cell.

Empathy may be the missing element in this question of “Now what?”


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