In Spanish, the word “Comienzos”means beginnings. Which is kind of an odd name for a program that is designed for people who are being incarcerated. Prison is usually seen as an ending – a just punishment or punitive action to end a person’s access to society.
But since 1984, Comienzos in Albuquerque, New Mexico has taken the time when men and women are imprisoned in the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center to offer educational and therapeutic classes in Non-Violent Communication, Meditative Practice, Writing, and 12 Step programs. The Bernalillo county jail is one the largest in America, largely Hispanic and Native American, and many of the impoverished and undereducated people incarcerated there don’t have the money for bail. So for upwards of two years, they sit in jail, waiting to be tried and sentenced, or released. The Comienzos idea is to use this time of waiting to give inmates the skills and awareness to start over again and make different, better choices.
I heard about Comienzos through Wendy Jason, who teaches writing classes in one MDC prison pod twice a week to 15-20 men, mostly Hispanic and Native American. “I always have a waiting list for my class,” Wendy says. “I go in with my boyfriend, who also teaches there, and I’ve never felt anything but safe. I’m like the mother hen; the guys feel really protective of me and look out for me.”
Wendy has been deeply moved by the willingness of the men to gradually let down their guard and let our their feelings. For an hour and a half, twice a week, her class offers the men a safe place to share their pain, guilt, shame and fear – as well as to experience the dignity of being seen and heard as an individual (something that is systematically stripped away in a prison situation).
Here are two short excerpts of writings from Wendy’s class (there are many more on the website):
Poem by Bobby Casarez
I thank you for always staying….
If you ever left I’m sure my heart would crack.
I know I’ve done some bad stuff;
I wish I could take it back.
My feelings for you will never change and that’s a fact.
The way you hold me,
guarantee I’ll hold you back.
I love you and that’s that.
Life on the Line by Nick C.
The story of my life is whiskey on the rocks, with a whisky back and a whisky chaser. Jack Daniels days in smoky old pool halls and Knob Creek nights in dimly lit bars filled with vagabonds, city-square-junk-bags, derelicts and street hustlers. Cigarette smoke slowly rolling and rising to neon haze, from embers burning bar tables, while inch-long grey ash falls to the sticky floor. Windowless afternoons with hard stares, alleyway brawls and the music of a lonely jukebox, watching Keno receipts stack up next to empty glasses and peanut shells….
The story of my life is family first, old-school values and dinner at Ma’s house. Shepherds pie or beef stew with red wine and smiles all around; back together again sharing stories and catching up. Getting warm by the fire on a peaceful late night in winter, wondering if it gets any better than this.
My $100 today will go to help Wendy buy composition books, pens, dictionaries and a few anthologies of prison literature for her writers. In case you think I’m being soft on crime, I’d argue that with a 60% recidivism rate, 80% substance abuse rate, and a system that routinely sends inmates back out into society with no skills or training for anything but crime, you’d have to be soft in the head to think the current system is working. It seems that by investing in real rehabilitation, we could be making a lot more productive, economic use of time spent in jail.
Write on, Wendy!