Thursday, 4 August 2016

Learning Compassion in Shackles

Learning Compassion in Shackles

This article was originally published in 2001

Table Number 13
The corrections officer points to a small wooden table with a large number 13 etched in blue paint. It’s 9:20. The metal detectors and guards have put me on edge this morning. Fifteen men are seated at various tables around the room. They are all wearing dark green, state-issued pants. One man leans in close, as his mother holds his hands in hers. A couple in the corner speak softly and kiss—they will continue kissing for the entire duration of my five-hour visit. A number of young children, mostly black and Latino, are visiting their fathers today. Near the bathroom is a small area designated for playing. There are a few books and toys lying about.

I have driven an hour and a half to visit John MacKenzie at Woodbourne Correctional Facility in Sullivan County, a medium security prison, encompassing a series of interconnected brick and concrete buildings designed and built in the Spanish monastery style of the 1930s. It’s been three years since John and I last saw each other. I wonder if he’ll look different, if he’s aged since being denied parole.

25 Years to Life
John greets me with a big grin, and welcomes me as if we were standing in his living room. He seems even taller than I remember, and I have to reach up on tiptoe to hug him. This simple gesture offers John the rare opportunity to make physical contact with another person, and he later tells me how deeply warm and human it made him feel. His eyes are shining, and he looks in good spirits, not exhausted like I had feared. I go over to the vending machines and buy John a coffee. He has to stand behind a painted yellow line while I deposit the money.

John is serving a 25-years-to-life sentence for murder. In 1975, John shot and killed Nassau County police officer Matthew Giglio. The crime took place late at night in Hempstead, Long Island. Officer Giglio died 10 weeks after John shot him, leaving behind a wife, Phyllis, a son, and two daughters.

By the time he was 29 years old, John was leading the life of a criminal, stealing things large and small. He was addicted to Valium, and was taking a combination of other drugs, including an anti-psychotic—all prescribed and supplied to him by a doctor. During the year leading up to his crime, John started have periods of amnesia that became progressively more regular. He would have violent episodes and then not remember them. He said that his girlfriend once told him he had hit her, but he had no recollection of it. “The more I was medicated, the bolder I became with crimes.” He stole a riding mower, a boat, diamond rings—some of which he remembered stealing and some of which he would discover in his possession the morning after.

John claims it was in this state, during a week of sporadic memory lapses, that he broke into Thelma Jay’s Boutique and shot Matthew Giglio, the police officer that arrived on the scene. John does not make excuses for himself, although he does maintain that the medications he was taking “changed my personality and caused me to act irrationally.” He says he doesn’t remember shooting Matthew Giglio, but has come to acknowledge the fact that he did so. In 1975, John was sentenced to 25 years to life imprisonment; he went to Attica prison, leaving behind three daughters. Only recently have some memories of the night and the events surrounding the shooting come back to John through sporadic flashbacks.

Vacant Apartments
When he was four years old, John’s mother taught him how to pick his first lock with a bobby pin. His father was absent and he grew up with his mother in New York City, breaking into one-room apartments, living there in secret for a few days or weeks at a time before moving on to the next flat.

When he was six, John was removed from her custody by the court. He recalls that the Department of Social Services was involved; someone had filed a negligence suit against his mother, but John didn’t understand that at the time. In the visiting room of the prison, John vividly re-enacts the traumatic scene. He spreads his arms wide to show how a guard dragged him away from her. John recalls screaming, “ How can you love me and let them take me?”

John was sent to live at a children’s center, but he immediately set about escaping. He managed to dig his way to freedom with the help of a neighbor’s German Shepard. Together they clawed at the ground by the center’s high fence, and soon John was on the road with the dog, heading back to his mother.

John’s childhood was colored by many incidents like this one. He was in and out of foster families and Catholic Charities for years. Twice, on New Year’s Eve, his mother dropped him off at the main office of Catholic Charities in New York City. Each time, he would escape and find his way back to her. “I was a homing pigeon,” John says, smiling. When I ask John why he thinks his mother kept giving him up, he doesn’t answer. When I ask if she was mentally ill, he says, “No, she was beautiful.”

Auspicious Meetings
John spent his first 10 years behind bars at Attica Prison. He describes himself during those years as being frustrated and angry. “Up until ’84 I [thought I] got railroaded by the system and [they] abused the shit out of me. All I could think about was beating the system.” Then, in 1984 and 1985, John had two pivotal encounters that would profoundly influence the course of his life and work. First, in 1984, John was asked to be an inmate participant for a conference hosted by Attica. It was at the Alternatives to Incarceration conference that he met George Grobe, former chairman of the Crime Victims Board, who spoke with a passion about victim’s rights. The second significant experience occurred one evening in 1985, when John Mackenzie met John Daido Loori, abbot of the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper. This meeting marked John’s first encounter with zazen (Zen meditation), and the beginning of a life-long spiritual journey.

When John first met Mr. Grobe at the Attica conference, he vehemently argued that it was he himself who was the real victim, sentenced to 25 years-to-life for a murder he couldn’t even remember committing. John recalls Grobe’s words, “He told me that if I put as much energy into victims as I did into myself that I’d be a worthy proponent [of victim’s rights]. It danced through my head, and I thought: maybe I don’t think that much about victims… So began my journey into [the world of] victims and how they are treated, how they feel, how they are in fact, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters—how they are family.”

Shortly thereafter, John was transferred to Green Haven Prison, where Zen master John Daido Loori had come to lead the newly formed Buddhist group. John dramatically and comically re-enacts his first night sitting in meditation at Green Haven. He recalls a silent Daido, seated unflinching on a small wooden bench. All the other prisoners were doing the same. An endless 30 minutes passed. During that time, John’s knees were burning. He shifted around, he looked at his watch. This was more difficult than he ever could have imagined. He remembers Daido saying, “The hardest thing you’ll ever do is sit.”

At the same time as John began to reconsider his position on victimization and victim’s rights, Daido introduced him to a spiritual path that emphasizes selflessness, the interconnectedness of all things and taking personal responsibility for one’s life. These teachings complemented and gave life to the realizations that John was beginning to have on his own. He was simultaneously experiencing the pain he caused the Giglio family, as well as the compassion that arose out of understanding that pain.

Despite the strangeness and discomfort of his first meditation, John was drawn to Zen practice by the existential questions: Why am I here? What is my purpose? For over 15 years, John’s practice has been one of not separating himself from his physical and emotional pain. In Zen Buddhist terms, as John puts it, “I have learned to be the barrier. To be the pain.” Mostly, he is pained by the destructiveness of his own past, and the life he ended with a gun.

John now keeps a cutout paper image of Buddha and a pinecone on the altar in his cell. He normally rises for 6 a.m. meditation, chanting, and bows. On the weekends he sometimes does mini-intensive retreats with long hours of meditation. Listening to John describe his spiritual life, I find myself forgetting that he is incarcerated. He keeps me in check by saying, “The reality is, I’m still in prison no matter how much Zen I practice.”

Full Prostrations in the Mud
John’s commitment to Zen and to victim’s rights developed hand-in-hand. The more he got in touch with his own humanity and suffering through zazen and his work with a spiritual teacher, the more responsible he felt for the welfare of victims. He finally had a window into the pain that crimes cause, and into the hearts of those who he’d wronged. There no longer seemed to be such a great distinction between his own human nature and emotions, and those of the Giglios and other crime victims.

In the midst of this personal transformation, John’s estranged mother, Julie Steinmetz, decided to contact him. In 1990, she began writing to him, after 10 years of silence. They started mending old wounds through correspondence, and Ms. Steinmetz expressed her wish to come visit John. John said that he sensed something was wrong—there was urgency about her communications. In May, only four months after John received his mother’s first letter, he was informed that she had died of cancer. “For three days, all I could think about was what she had done for me, not to me. I loved her.” He said instead of blaming her for his rough childhood, he now reflects on how his actions must have impacted her, caused her suffering.

In 1990, Shugen Sensei, a teacher at the monastery, made a trip down to New York City and brought Ms. Steinmetz’s body back for the funeral, which John requested to be held on monastery grounds. After a long, bureaucratic process of trying to work out John’s attendance at the funeral, he was cuffed, shackled, and transported to Mount Tremper. It was to be his first and only visit to the monastery that supports his practice.

John describes his first impression of the monastery as “awe-inspiring. I felt a connection—like this is me… this is my home. This is appropriate. I felt like I belonged there.” The event was a first for everyone involved. The monks had certainly never held a funeral with armed corrections officers in attendance, and the guards had never before accompanied a prisoner to a Buddhist funeral. At one point, they were asked not to enter the main meditation hall, the zendo, with their guns. They waited outside.

John’s leg shackles were removed, but not his handcuffs. At the monastery’s cemetery, a silent procession led the way during the ceremony. John describes the robed students and monks as resembling a “gray centipede” as they snaked their way up to the burial site. He did full prostrations in the mud, his hands cuffed together as he offered incense. In a poem about the experience, John writes,“ My mother rides a carpet of incense to the heavens… a never-ending, perpetual ribbon to the heavens.” He said he felt closer to his mother than ever. After the funeral, he felt as if a burden had been lifted. He hugged his Zen teacher. “I felt, full. Complete, not empty. I just can’t think of words. We were all one family, including my mother.”

The Birth of Awareness
John used his mother’s death as an opportunity to see life from her perspective. His vision extended beyond his own personal feelings and desires, and allowed him to take her life experiences into consideration, when reflecting on why she raised him the way she did. This helped to wash away anger and harsh judgment. It was the same consideration that drove John to explore what a crime victim’s experience might be.

Since he met George Grobe at Attica, and all the while that he was practicing Zen, John had been writing to crime victim’s groups. He was gathering as much information as he could about victim’s issues. John learned that the very same system of which he had considered himself a victim for so long, was also a system which victimized survivors of violent crimes and their family members. These people were often denied access to information about the proceedings of their case. Their ability to participate in the justice system set up to protect them was severely curtailed. John also began talking to other inmates and realized that many prisoners were so caught up in feeling victimized that they could not take responsibility for their crimes. As a result, they could not feel sympathy for the victims they had created.

John’s increasing knowledge about victim’s issues galvanized him into action. In 1997, after years of hard work and research, he got authorization from Green Haven Prison to start a prison discussion group called the Victim’s Awareness Program (VAP). In 1998, during the VAP’s second year, three student interns from Vassar joined the group and took part in the meetings. I was one of the interns, along with Justine, and Carolyn—a young woman whose brother had been murdered in 1991. Each week for four months, we passed through Green Haven’s metal detectors, left our keys and jewelry at the door, and entered another world. Students and prisoners had a chance to interact, share ideas, challenge stereotypes. Many of the prisoners in the group were young, and struggling to acknowledge the full impact of the crimes they had committed. They struggled with their horror, sadness, and the desire to trust one another.For 15 years leading up to this point, John had taken classes, designed curricula, and tried to get fellow inmates interested in a Victim’s Awareness Program. John outlined the idea behind this program as such:

The VAP gives offenders the opportunity to understand the impact their actions have on society. It sensitizes offenders to the long-term effects of crime on both victims and victims’ families. [One of the goals of VAP is] to analyze and change offenders’ tendency to depersonalize the people they injure. In addition, this program motivates them to recognize the importance of behavioral accountability and empathy for other human beings. The program holds offenders responsible and accountable for their actions and encourages offenders to make responsible choices.

As John argues, “The key to change is taking responsibility. Once your defenses come down and you take responsibility, there is no choice but to be honest.”

John put a lot of effort into getting funding for this project, and was even awarded an $8,000 grant by the Open Society, but the Department of Corrections never accepted the money. John said he was, “determined to make this work. I wanted other guys to feel what I felt—the hurt, the pain, the compassion [for the victims].” To cover program costs, John asked the other prisoners participating in the program to contribute funds. On a shoestring budget, the program was initiated at Green Haven Prison in 1997.

The Green Haven VAP program was a result of a decade and a half of planning, bureaucratic struggles, research, and soul-searching. The program consisted of 16 three-hour sessions in which men convicted of violent offenses were challenged and supported in their efforts to take total responsibility for their crimes. Using techniques such as discussions, role-plays, and written assignments, sessions were designed to give the men an opportunity to express deep regret for their actions. In order for the program to be successful, John was clear about one thing: men needed to stop placing the blame on society, the legal system, or on anyone but themselves.

After many weeks of preparation within the group, John arranged to have victims come in to the prison for a face-to-face meeting with the inmates. For many inmates, this was the most poignant part of the journey. John invited judges, family members of murder victims, and an assemblyman to participate in this aspect of the program.

A Mother's Love
Carolyn’s presence in the VAP was treasured, partially because of her experience as the family member of a murder victim—her older brother, David. For one of the last group sessions, her mother, Carolee came in to talk. She describes visiting the VAP as, “the most extraordinary interaction with humankind.” Her son, David, was murdered 10 years ago during a hold-up at the New York City bar where he worked. Since then, Mrs. Brooks has been an active member in the support organization, Parents of Murdered Children. Even though John had been working on setting up the VAP for years, it wasn’t until he met Carolee that he fully understood what a member of a murder victim’s family goes through. She reached a part of John that had previously remained untouched. He said, “[David’s murder] happened years ago, and she was talking like it happened yesterday. I looked at Carolee and I could actually feel…” he paused, reliving the moment, “her pain. And for a split second, I saw Matthew Giglio’s mother. I leaned over, and for years I had been trying to say I was sorry. I started to choke up. I couldn’t say I was sorry to [Mrs. Giglio], so I apologized to Carolee. Everyone in the group started crying. We were all running for paper towels.”

John recalls that Carolee brought in a lot of pictures of David. She talked about him and cried. It really affected John to hear her mention that the lawyer in court referred to David, not by name, but as “the bartender.” Carolee corrected him, saying, “My son’s name is David.” Carolee has been very sensitive, from the beginning, about giving names to human beings, and I believe this is part of the reason she has been able to heal her wounds. She always refers to the men involved in David’s murder as “the two young men,” or “Donnie and Sean.” She has not permitted rage and grief to blind her to their humanity. She says, “Anger interferes with healing. It’s like an irritant. It constantly gnaws at the wound.”

Even in the wake of her son’s death, in the midst of grief that must have been overwhelming, Carolee noticed that there was never anybody in court for Donnie White, the man who shot David. She has vowed to try to help make a difference in people’s lives, and she believes in forgiveness. She says, “In my life, I’ve been forgiven. People have had to give me a second chance. I think people deserve it. I know the mistakes I’ve made are on a different scale, but still.”

"People Don't Change"
In 1994, John and a childhood friend (who happens to be a former NYC police detective) began trying to locate the Giglio family, so that John could express his remorse. In a letter he composed to Matthew Giglio, more than 20 years after he killed him, John wrote:

Sorry will not allow me to travel back in time and undo the damage I’ve done, or correct my mistake. When compared to your life, which was so precious and short, an apology seems totally meaningless. Nonetheless, my heart burns with the pain, and the reality of what I did torments and torments me. It never lets me rest, or forget that it is because of my thoughtless act that you’re no longer alive.

The letter remains unseen by the Giglios. John’s efforts to get in contact with them were unsuccessful, and he was unable to say how sorry he was, until he took the opportunity to do so during a television interview last October. Right before his parole hearing, Long Island’s 12 News reporter, Connie Conway, did a story on John and the Giglios. About five minutes of the nightly news was dedicated to interviewing John and covering the family’s grief over the loss of Matthew Giglio. The family had a hard time believing John’s claims that he did not actually remember shooting the police officer. They firmly maintained that John should not be allowed to come out of prison. Matthew Jr., the officer’s son, said, “He killed my father. He destroyed my family. He doesn’t deserve a chance.”

At a press conference, one of Mr. Giglio’s daughters said, “People don’t change. They don’t change. They stay the same.” Later, John would see this on television, surrounded by fellow prisoners. He tells me that they were all really angry, but he had to hold back tears. He wanted to cry when he heard that statement, because it was a nullification of all the work he had done on himself over the past 15 years. Although John’s Zen practice constantly reinforces the importance of selfless, compassionate action with no expectation of reward or acknowledgement, those words stung him to the core.

John was never able to apologize directly to the Giglios, but he took the opportunity during his interview to say he was sorry for the suffering he had created. John said, “All the forgiveness in the world is not gonna relieve me of responsibility. I just wish it was me that night instead of him. Then I wouldn’t be sitting here, and they wouldn’t be in pain.”

Vanishing Parole
Zen master John Daido Loori often says that being human covers the whole spectrum: from Buddha or Mother Teresa to Genghis Khan and Hitler. We can choose what we want to be, and then manifest that in our daily lives. John’s story is important because it demonstrates the capacity for great change. The existence of stifling sentencing laws or mandates like the death penalty are frightening in their blindness to this part of human nature and human potential. The VAP had a successful, yet short, life span at Green Haven. The program was cut after only a few years, when John was transferred to Woodbourne. John has been attempting to start another VAP, but is encountering bureaucratic roadblocks. John wrote in a statement about his years of work:

Why care at all about this? Because most of the people in prison will eventually return to their communities, more specifically, the very same neighborhoods they left. How they return is not only your concern, but also your responsibility, your responsibility to ensure they reintegrate with a different attitude, one that encourages them to sublimate their energy into more productive lifestyles. The only way to accomplish this is to offer them a chance to effect positive change, and to do that, you must provide a vehicle—a vehicle guided by a sincere desire to make amends for one’s immorality.

As a long-term prisoner, John has had the opportunity to see many inmates go through the devastating and nerve-racking parole process. New York State is known for its draconian sentencing laws. In 1991, before Governor Pataki took office, 24 percent of violent offenders were granted parole after serving their minimum required sentence. By 1998, only eight percent of the same population was released upon their first meeting with the parole board. Granted, not every person convicted of a serious crime has transformed their lives in the same way that John has, but funding and politics are the main considerations for the governor-appointed Parole Board. The Board’s decision to grant early release seems to depend less on a prisoner’s rehabilitation than on the fact that starting in 1994, the US Congress began granting states additional funds for the construction of prisons, and then allotted even more money to states that toughened their sentencing laws. In New York State, parole for violent offenders has been eliminated, and Pataki has expressed a desire to get rid of parole for all felons. The idea of “presumptive parole,” the notion that a prisoner will be released if she or he fulfills the educational and rehabilitative requirements imposed by a judge, jury, and/or a corrections counselor, has been rendered farcical.

It was in this conservative, “tough on crime” climate that John came up for his first hearing with the Parole Board in the winter of 2000. He was not released. The fact that he murdered a police officer overshadowed the reality of John’s rehabilitation. John was denied parole for the one thing he will never be able to change: the nature of his crime.