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The radical choice of militant kindness

The first lesson every young man learns upon entering the prison system is that aggression is king and violence is law. The traits that are valued in the real world — honesty, generosity, friendliness — are viewed as weaknesses in prison. Weaknesses that are pounced upon and exploited. Survival in this world depends on at least the perception of brutality and if you’re not particularly brutal, you had better be a damn good actor.

So that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 22 years. Acting. Acting tough, acting hard, acting cold. Acting as if I don’t see the loneliness and sadness and brokenness that surrounds me. Why? Simple: Fear.

In 1992, a scrawny teenage version of myself looked around at the savage world of prison and said to my mind, “Help! I don’t wanna be jumped or stabbed or raped or beaten to death by abusive guards. I wanna make it back home in one piece!” And my mind, amazing babbling problem-solver that it is, said, “I got this,” and went to work on building a wall and posting the ultra-sensitive ego as a sentry to ward off any potential threats. My job was to act. And act I did. I spent so much time acting that I almost lost myself inside the faรงade that was supposed to be protecting me. Almost.

But looking at prison through the eyes of a 40-year-old man is a much different experience than seeing it through the eyes of a scared little 18-year-old kid. And recently, after decades of fortifying this hardened exterior and living with a conditioned mindset that places toughness over all other attributes, a series of books, films, and extraordinary people have wandered into my life with an unmistakable message: there is nothing more honorable, more radical, more standup than the path of kindness. Especially in such a hopeless world.

Suddenly — no, not suddenly — gradually, I wanted this more than anything else. Militant kindness. Love without fear. A wide open heart. For someone who has spent years coveting the appearance of fearlessness and physical strength, the concept of kindness, regardless of consequence, was a revelation. A last shot at a life of meaning and authenticity. I wanted to get back to the me I was before all of this acting BS began, back to the kid I built these walls to protect.

Kindness. It seems like such an easy choice. But a crazy thing happens when you drop your guard and step from behind that icy standoffish barrier: people become comfortable around you. Comfortable enough to open up, to confide in you, and occasionally, comfortable enough to hurt you. Or at least say things that are damaging to your ego. But that is what we want, isn’t it? It’s what I want. This lonely half-life of keeping the world at arm’s length for a false sense of safety and to defend the ego is a fool’s game and the exhaustive struggle to continue propping up an illusion is not only cowardice, it’s treasonous.

Only kindness matters.

[This post also appeared on Huffington Post on 11/29/14.]

A fresh take on prison reform

Another day, another article involving prison reform. The same politicians who were once shaking their trembling fists and promising to get tough on crime are now calling for an end to the war on drugs. The crocodilian Beltway suits are coming out of the woodwork to be at the forefront of this hot-button issue, even (gasp!) reaching across the aisle, which has been a rarity since our 44th president coached Chief Justice Roberts through his inaugural swear-in.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the numbers. They’re almost a catch phrase by now. The U.S. makes up only 5% of the world’s population, yet a whopping 25% of the world’s prisoners are confined right here in the U.S. of A. The world’s freest country owns the dubious distinction of being the world’s leading incarcerator, and it ain’t even close.

Prisoners and prisoners’ rights groups know these numbers and facts by heart but lately they’ve been surfacing in the unlikeliest of places — conservative op-ed pieces. Tea Party congressmen sound bites, even the old guard of “lock ’em up and throw away the key” talk-radio blowhards are suddenly Gandhi-like in their benevolence.

The winds of change are picking up momentum and the prison industrial complex, with its multibillion-dollar, tax-guzzling budget and draconian policies, is slowly drifting into the national crosshairs. But each time the numbers are trotted out and prison reform is mentioned, there’s the accompanying political escape hatch of an asterisk. *Any relief would be strictly for non-violent drug offenders.

Here’s the thing: An overwhelming majority of these “non-violent drug offenders” are the same traffickers and dealers pumping dope into communities. Selling drugs is purported to be a victimless crime, yet anyone who lives in a neighborhood where drugs are sold can plainly see the victims in the form of crackheads and junkies shuffling up and down the block like zombies. Most violent offenders were not out robbing gas stations to build their stock portfolios. They were just sick and desperate for money or anything else of value to exchange with their local non-violent, victimless dope dealer for their coveted medication.

The recently deceased truth seeker and international friend of prisoners, Bo Lozoff, once said, “Every joint smoked, every drink drunk, every pill popped, every crime committed, is just to get some relief. Just to feel good, to feel safe or powerful. It’s like going crazy from a toothache without knowing what to do about it; we blindly grope around in pain, and some people do it more violently than others.”

Prison reform will be a major milestone in the evolution of this country and it’s refreshing to see President Obama, the Department of Justice, and members of congress working tirelessly to eradicate minimum mandatory sentences and the heavy-handed policies of the war on drugs. But rather than blanket relief for non-violent drug offenders, why not a renewed focus on rehabilitation, a revamping of the parole system, and the powerful incentive of hope for all?