The best food that I had in prison was at a picnic. It happened at Auburn Correctional, a maximum security facility in central New York. I brought a dish to pass around.
The concrete walls stood fifty feet high and three feet thick. My tabouli salad and I passed through a steel door, two razor wire fences, and then a guard check, where the tabouli was x-rayed and I was wanded with a metal detector. Once approved, a silent, lumbering guard escorted me and my salad to the yard.
Every Labor Day, Auburn inmates and volunteers honor the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP). At the time, I was neither an inmate nor a volunteer, just a curious picnic go-er deciding whether or not to get involved. In fact, I knew little about AVP except that it was celebrating twenty-six continuous years of workshops inside the facility.
It was my first time inside the walls, and I had a few expectations. I expected to learn about AVP. I expected to meet tough guys with long sentences, twenty-five-years-to-life long. I expected to eat tabouli salad.
Looking back, two out of three ain’t bad.
AVP started in 1975 at Green Haven Prison, in New York State. Working with youth gangs and at-risk teenagers, a group of inmates called the Think Tank wanted to start a program for fellow prisoners. They reached out to the local Quakers, who were also involved in community based conflict resolution. From that original partnership, AVP was born.
Founded in and shaped from real life experiences, AVP offers experiential workshops in conflict resolution and develops every person’s innate power to positively transform violent situations, their own lives, and the world.
The original workshop was so successful that it quickly spread to other prisons. Because violence knows no class, racial, or geographic line, AVP workshops soon branched from prisons into communities and schools. Today, workshops take place in 41 states and 51 countries.
I did learn some of that history when I rounded the corner and entered the yard on that Labor Day. I learned more later when I participated in workshops and eventually became an AVP facilitator, program coordinator, and state board member. But when I entered the yard on that day, some eight years ago, I learned to recognize my common humanity.
It was in Mike’s smile as he greeted me. It was in Amanda’s sacrifice as she described her days-how she took college courses, worked third shift at a hospital, and rode the bus for hours every other weekend to visit her man in jail. It was in Paul as we talked about his struggle to find “that of God” in everyone.
I expected to wonder what each man had done to land in jail, to earn his sentence. But that thought withered completely when Shakim spoke to the group. He said, “Not everyone here has served time, but we all have our own prisons.”
I considered the trials that I had passed and the burdens that I carried in my life. With every trial and burden, I came to a moment of surrender, where I had to accept what I was given and then learn to make it new—to transform it.
I was smack dab in one of those moments. I had to set aside sentences and crime. So I did, and that’s when the afternoon was transformed. I saw that they were me. Parents and kids played ball and put ice from the soda tubs down each other’s shirts. Friends made funny faces and rabbit ears for the Polaroid. Loved ones held hands across picnic tables.
I met strangers who’d grown up five blocks from me. We discovered common goals not being realized. We ate too many burgers, ears of corn, and scoops of tabouli. We all had such different paths, moving through different prisons, but we all understood the celebration and surrender along those paths. Such understanding nearly erased those enormous concrete walls.
Such understanding does erase the walls that exist within us during the course of an AVP workshop: walls between races, cell blocks, and gangs in prison; walls between teens and adults at school, home, or work; walls between Christians and Muslims in Sudan.
While AVP is active at the state correctional facility in Bismarck, I want to bring it to Fargo/Moorhead. Cass County Jail is interested in hosting workshops, but the AVP needs community support: A program is only as strong as the network of hands that hold it.
Read more about AVP on the web: www.avpusa.org and http://www.avpinternational.org.
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