How do you define community? Basic dictionary definitions of community read as follows: the people of a district or country considered collectively, especially in the context of social values and responsibilities; a group of people having a religion, race, profession or particular characteristic in common.
When we were all moved to A pod A and B sections on November 22nd 2021, to be a part of the new Faith Based Sections on Texas Death Row, none of us thought of ourselves as a community. Now we most certainly do. For the past 11 months we've all been housed together participating in restorative justice Faith Based Programming. The classes that we have been taking require much community participation. We all have to interact with each other on a consistent basis. Most of the 28 men here on the sections have been on Death Row for at least a decade. Most of us have known one another for 10, 15 or 20 years– or perhaps I should say that we have known of each other.
We've been housed around each other off and on at different times over the years, but many guys never really interacted with one another beyond basic “prison conversations”, (sports commissary talk, and the latest prison gossip, etc.) We are in single cell solitary confinement so even these conversations tend to be very short and impersonal. There are exceptions but this is the general norm. I started engaging in criminal justice reform and prisoner rights and education activity right after I first arrived here 20 years ago. Most people are not interested in these things so I have never interacted with them on that level.
My efforts in “community organizing'' have mainly focused on interacting with like-minded individuals (and open-minded individuals who are willing to search, discover, learn and grow). Previously, I would have considered these people “my community” if I was asked such a thing (concerning this environment). I would have only considered the entire Death Row population– both innocent and guilty– as part of my community in a broad and abstract political sense, thinking in terms of Criminal Justice Reform.
There is no doubt though: we here on the Faith Based Sections are definitely a community. We have shared responsibilities and duties in this historic experiment that we are living. The classes that we are taking are essentially Christian psychotherapy– and they require some real serious work. Most guys have never experienced anything like this. For some context I will briefly describe the class session that we had earlier today:
Around 7am Field Minister Troup (Foster) came on our section with the sound system and other materials to teach session 9 and 10 of our Anger Management Course. We complete the written assignments during the week between the in-person class days. The titles and previous sessions that we have already completed are:
Overview of Anger Management Treatment
Events and Cues
Anger Control Plans
The Aggression Cycle
Practice Session One (Review and Practice)
7 & 8. Assertiveness Training and The Conflict Resolution Model
The class that we had today was session 9 and 10: Anger and the Family. Troup grabbed the cordless mic and went around to every cage making sure we were all awake and ready. Then he went to the desk-lectern-sound system in the center of the section on 1 row, looked around making sure we're all standing at our cage door with a pen and workbook in hand and started class. Troup began by “praying in”and then he gave an overview of today's session, reading the introduction paragraphs in the workbook and adding some additional commentary. I think it's important for people to really understand the dynamics of what has been going on back here, so I will write out the intro paragraphs for this session:
Anger and the Family
In these two sessions, you will think about how anger and other emotions were expressed in your family. This involves analyzing how past family interactions affect current thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
For many of us, the interactions we had with our parents have strongly influenced our behaviors, thoughts, feelings, and attitudes as adults. With regard to anger and its expression, these feelings and behaviors were usually modeled for us by our parents or parental figures. The following series of questions concerns the interactions you had with your parents and the families that you grew up in. Discussing family issues can sometimes bring up uncomfortable feelings. Be sure to discuss these feelings with the group leader or counselor.
During class Troup will walk around with the cordless mic and ask questions and get commentary from guys. He holds the mic up to the security screen on our doors and we talk into it and everyone on the section can hear. Group therapy–and the fact that it is working in this environment-is really quite astounding. Another very extraordinary thing is that we are doing this on our own with Field Minister Troup as teacher and coordinator. Troup is serving a life sentence without parole for capital murder.
Here are some of the questions that were asked, answered and discussed today:
Describe your family? How was anger expressed in your family while you were growing up?
How did your father and mother express anger? Were you ever threatened with physical violence? Was one parent abusive to the other parent or you? How were other emotions expressed in your family? What feelings, thoughts and behaviors carry over into your relationships today? What purpose do these behaviors serve today?
Very serious questions that require some very serious work.
Hearing other guys answer and discuss such questions and work through this course and the others has been a fascinating learning experience for me. There are very broad and expansive psycho-sociopolitical implications to the Faith Based Programming that should cause some serious societal shifts in perspective concerning Death Row, capital punishment, restorative justice and really everything to do with the criminal justice system. If this programming can work in truly rehabilitating “the worst of the worst”– which it has– why isn't it offered, no, mandated for every prisoner in every prison in this country?
The statistics vary by state, but generally about 80% of people currently in prison will be released back into society. Back into your community. Do you think of these prisoners as returning citizens who will have an impact on the area in which you live? Do you think of prisoners serving Life Without Parole sentences as potential Troup Fosters, who can become peer educators and greatly help with crime prevention and rehabilitation? Some of the guys here on the Faith Based Sections on Texas Death Row have become mentors, teachers and peer educators. They continue to have a very positive influence on others around them and very impressively, the guys out in general population. This positive influence has also been felt on the outside.
Community. The news is filled with commentary about how our country is more divided than ever concerning social and political issues. Families have become divided because of this. Communities divided. In listening to a news piece about this earlier, I felt compelled to share a personal point of growth and shift in perspective that I have experienced in relation to the Faith Based Programming: I am surrounded by people whose views and deeply held beliefs are vastly different from mine. Still, after 11 months, all of the singing, music, music videos, faith-based movies, services, presentations, classes, all everything is 100% Christian. All of the inmate Faith Based Coordinators that have come to these sections are Christian, the inmate coordinators for the other faith groups (Muslim etc.) have been banned from interacting with anyone on Death Row.
This blatant and audacious denial of religious liberties violates a long list of state and federal laws and clearly established and recognized TDCJ-CID policy. For 11 months I have been the only one trying to address and resolve these issues. I've done so in a very cordial and professional manner, seeking only to promote what is righteous, honorable, just and what will support and enhance the positive changes occurring on this unit. My efforts have been met with a whole lot of disingenuousness. Frustrating… and just quite sad.
At one point, I felt so despondent that I thought of leaving the program. The Field Ministers go to a Southern Baptist Seminary and the Christianity adhered to by most guys on this unit tends to be a very evangelical conservative, right-wing, political (Republican) form of Christian belief system. That can be wonderful for some people, fine, cool, but it's not for everyone and religious discrimination should absolutely not exist on this prison unit.
After much meditation and reflection I came to this realization: my faith dictates that I have a duty to support my community that is this Faith Based section in every way that I can, even if that requires some serious negation of the Ego work and activity that I personally disagree with. In a lesson of a previous class, there was a heavy focus on condemnation of the “unbelievers” and a strict line was drawn between the two types of people in the world: Christians, (ie conservative Christians), and the others– those who “hate God”, want to destroy America, are responsible for every bad and evil thing on Earth and relentlessly
engage in spiritual warfare against Christians, striving to lead them into acts of sin and depravity.
This was the context of a lesson warning against allowing oneself to fall into ungodly behaviours and “works of the flesh”, such as: adultery, fornication, lasciviousness, excessive lust, idolatry, occultism, sorcery, voodoo, hatred, wrath, strife, defiance towards authority, wild parties, revelry, riotous living, wild partying, murder, envy and heresy. Did I point out that I find some aspects of those ideas and concepts to be highly questionable and promotion of them to be perhaps even be bad for society as a whole?
No, I focused on the positive. Guys were talking about how in the past they were doing right, doing good, but even though they knew that they shouldn't go interact with an old friend (“an unbeliever”) they did, and ended up drinking, doing drugs and engaging in criminal activity. Could this not be seen as a group therapy session offering mutual support for continued positive behavioral change, with a mindfulness discussion about avoiding negative influences? I think so. My approach has been to meet people in the middle,find areas of agreement and work on creating and promoting positive culture change in this small Faith Based Community, this prison, and striving to reach out even further into other areas of society.