Our Sai Center explored opportunities for carrying out a service activity that would be heart-to-heart, from the server to the served, and one that would be beneficial in the long term for the people we served. In the “Thresholds” decision-making program, we found such a service project that fit our needs. We share our experiences with the Thresholds program at the Dutchess County Jail in Poughkeepsie, New York.

“Thresholds” program background

The Thresholds program is offered to inmates who are transitioning into the community. The program teaches inmates to make decisions and

encourages them to use the program’s six-step decision-making process while they are still in jail, so they become familiar with the concepts and get ample practice in applying the decision-making process prior to re-entry into society.

Thresholds was originally set up by Mickey Burglass, who himself spent several years in jail and discovered that inmates need tools to help them in their decision-making. For the most part, when faced with a dilemma, inmates tend to react thoughtlessly, jump to conclusions, or engage repeatedly in the same negative actions, without first analyzing the consequences. After being released from jail, they often make the same bad decisions that caused them to land in jail in the first place, and they end up back in prison again. They lack the appropriate skills to cope with the problems and dilemmas that arise in the outside world.

You are here going through sentences from courts for delinquencies. Let me tell you that all people are undergoing sentences for long or short periods, with simple or hard labor, to atone for misdemeanors and crimes done by them in past lives. Every fall makes a dent. Every fault has to be corrected, every sin has to be cleansed. Everyone is a prisoner.

Sathya Sai Baba, April 1973

A six-step decision-making process

The Thresholds program emphasizes the importance of clear and methodical thought in following the decision-making process, even more than the outcome that may result from the decision, using the following six steps.

  1. Situation: Assess a situation as clearly and objectively as one can.
  2. Goal: Set the goal best suited to the situation and one’s capabilities.
  3. Possibilities: Identify alternative ways of achieving the goal (through brainstorming, thinking outside the box).
  4. Examination: List the advantages of each option, the risks of pursuing them, and the possible effects on oneself and others.
  5. Choice: Choose the best possibility.
  6. Action: Act on the choice.

Initial Challenges

We had a weekend-long training by volunteers working in the prison. We were impressed with the dedication of the trainers and their total belief in the program. Concerns we had were about our own anxiety and nervousness about conducting the initial sessions, how the inmates would respond to us, and how we would handle them if they became violent. The two Sai Center volunteers already involved in the program allayed our fears, assuring us that it was safe and that they had always felt Sai Baba’s invisible presence in the room to shore them up.

So we plucked up our courage and plunged into the project. Yet another challenge we faced was that the officers of our local jail had not heard of the Thresholds program and had to be introduced to it and become comfortable with it. And they had to become accustomed to the idea of Thresholds volunteers entering the jail on a weekly basis. Gradually, over time, this issue melted away.

Implementing the Thresholds Program

We taught the Thresholds program as a one-on-one format, though other formats (e.g. classroom format) are also available. Thus, one volunteer would meet with one inmate in a closed visitation room. Generally, seven or eight hour-long weekly sessions are needed to complete the course with an inmate. However, we spent as much time as an inmate needed, and on occasion we spent 13–14 weeks with a single inmate.

Several measures were introduced that helped the success of the program at the prison. For example, the authorities matched the strengths and personalities of the volunteers with those of the inmates, which helped set up an environment conducive to learning. The officers often gave us anecdotal input about an inmate, allowing us to tailor the course to the inmate’s background and needs.

In the first session, we focused on the inmate’s awareness of their own thought processes. We identified that awareness as a state of wisdom, love, compassion, or discrimination. It was the best tool they had for guiding their thoughts and actions.

Throughout the Thresholds program, we focused on their progress in developing a center of inner wisdom to serve as their best aid to clearer thinking and to more successful control of their lives. We also emphasized that among their various thoughts about the past, present, and future, the only thing they could not change was history, but absolutely everything else could be changed if they so decided. They had the opportunity at every instant to work on changing what is and can be. Each moment was the threshold to the rest of their lives; hence, the title of the course.

Conversations were not only about the Thresholds concepts. We also talked about wisdom we had gleaned from our lives and spoke to them as we would to any highly intelligent young person. We made a concerted effort not to talk down to them. We invited them to discuss any troublesome aspect of their life or any dilemma with which they were struggling. Because of the one-on-one nature of the program (which was what the inmates preferred), they often opened up and confided in us their struggles and worries about reentering into outer society.

Sometimes the inmates just wanted to talk about their inner turmoil, to unburden themselves and find a safe space to work out their issues. We

were  touched by the openness of the inmates in sharing and felt it a privilege that they trusted and allowed us into their lives in such a personal way. We were told that our counseling had a positive outcome, since the recidivism rate had dropped greatly.

To reinforce their learning, we often asked the inmate to write paragraphs on their interpretation and understanding of our conversations. When

practicing the decision-making process, we emphasized the word think: think of all aspects, seek ideas, think deeper, think of all possible implications of their actions to themselves and others. For any important decisions, we encouraged them to “think” on paper and write everything down, and to use the Thresholds program’s mnemonic symbols to remind and guide them in their decision-making.

We often spoke to the inmates about the human values of truth, right action, love, peace, and nonviolence, in the context of their own lives and how to implement these values. They came back the following week to share with us how they practiced the values, for example, being able to show restraint and walk away when needled by a fellow inmate.

The Chinese have a saying, “Be like water.” We helped them interpret what this may mean for them. For instance, the inherent nature of water is pure; it shines; it is not stopped by obstacles but flows around them. When water has found its level, it flows no more and is at peaceSimilarly, we discussed how they could be like water – by controlling their temper, not getting out of control, and not engaging in conflict. The prisoners seemed to relate to this Chinese proverb very well and have learned to defuse many conflicts that arise in the prison.

We made the inmates aware of concepts such as responsibility, dependability, respect, perseverance, and self-confidence. We encouraged them to write brief paragraphs on what these concepts mean to them. We might tell them a story from the “Get Inspired” section of the radio e-journal, “Heart2Heart” (www.radiosai.org), to convey a point.

We taught the so-hum (“I am THAT; I am God”) meditation (repeating the phrase with with each inbreath and outbreath) to a few inmates who genuinely wanted to learn meditation. The vernacular we used was Cosmic Consciousness or Universal Spirit, rather than God. To our surprise, the inmates said they felt and experienced what we ourselves experience from the so-hum meditation. One inmate reported using the technique successfully to calm his mind when faced with a significant concern or a potential conflict.

Another Thresholds volunteer taught his inmate the practice of repeating a trusted name such as a name of God and taught him coping skills by asking him to think about the divine form he believed in whenever he was in trouble.

Impact of the Thresholds Program

When we interacted with the inmates and genuinely transmitted to them the wisdom we have been blessed to receive, we felt, deep in our being, that we were truly living the messages of “Love all, serve all” and “Help ever, hurt never,” which are the core of Sai Baba’s teachings and, according to Sai Baba, the core of every religion. We also noticed several changes in how we viewed the people that we served. Whenever we start a service project, whether it is food service or any other, there is often at first a feeling of separation between the people serving and those being served. Service is about personal transformation. And this transformation inexorably occurs as the feeling of separation gradually disappears. 

Our efforts were reciprocated and further fueled by the love we received from the inmates. For the most part they had never interacted with people who wanted to try and help them with their personal problems, and they had never heard of any human-values system. For many of them, the street was their mother. If we had to skip a week, the inmates were not happy; they looked for assurances that we would be back the following week.

In conclusion, we would like to share with you a note from one of the inmates:

“If by some chance we finish our studies together today or if you cannot be here before my release date, I wanted to assure you that you have not wasted your time. The lessons were inspirational and insightful, but your added wisdom put it into perspective. I can see how this will help me in my future. The lesson that will stick with me forever is, ‘Be the water.’ I have said it half a dozen times and utilized it already. Thanks for taking time out of your life to enhance mine. I won’t soon forget you.”

When a criminal is punished after being found guilty, he is kept in prison. Only the body gets punished, but the real culprit is the mind, which caused the convict to commit the crime. The mind can travel anywhere even when a person is in prison. The police have no control over the mind - only the supreme power of the Device can have control over the mind.

Sathya Sai Baba, 13 May 1994

~ Vasanti & Ramesh Mirchandani,
Sathya Sai Baba Center of Wappinger Falls, NY, USA