Crossing an important Threshold with women prisoners
One definition of threshold in the dictionary is “the starting point for a new state or experience.” I've been a devotee of Sathya Sai Baba for 35 years, and I have a confession to make. While I knew that Sai Baba was a wonderful teacher, have visited his center at Prashanti Nilayam (“Abode of Highest Peace”) countless times, and have read the Sathya Sai Speaks Volumes 1–11 over and over, it has only been through the prison service I had embarked on that I have truly grasped the potency of what I’ve been blessed with.
I’m in awe and wonder at this gift those who have followed Sai Baba have been so freely given – a teacher so complete, so simply brilliant that he covers every aspect of the human condition in such a way that it can be grasped by a scholar or an illiterate. I arrived at this threshold of appreciation and wonder when in 2011 I was invited to work in the “Thresholds” program at a federal correctional institution (FCI) in Connecticut.
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
Working with women in the federal corrections program
The FCI comprises two distinct parts, a maximum-security prison housing 1,200 inmates and a camp that is less restrictive and houses some 250 inmates. Being one of only a handful of federal prisons for women in the country, the female inmates come from various parts of the US as well as from neighboring countries.
I'd started volunteering there some years prior with a group of women not associated with the Sai Center who worked with the inmates on a monthly basis to bring the Labyrinth(1)experience to the women. During this period, I was also asked to visit on a monthly basis and provide spiritual support to an Indian inmate of East Indian origin, since she hadn't a rabbi, minister, or priest to turn to. Although unsure at first, I was encouraged to conduct our sessions like a spiritual “study circle.” I stepped in and continued monthly visits with this inmate for three years. I am providing this background because it is crucial for anyone embarking on any form of service to prisoners to understand how vital it is to build a strong foundation of trust and rapport with the people working in the prison. In my case, this was with the prison chaplain, Jose.
Adopting the Thresholds Decision-Making program
Because the prison chaplain knew me well through my prior work with the inmates, I was asked to help when the FCI decided to adopt the Thresholds program. The Thresholds program is a well-established decision-making and spiritual growth program that has been used successfully in prisons for some years now. It had also been adopted by a few Sai Centers in Region 1 in their work with prisoners in the area.
The Thresholds program is geared to inmates who are within a year of discharge from their sentence. The recidivism rate for these folk is high, over 70%, and these programs are efforts to build individuals’ self-esteem and reduce their return to old behaviors. To build a strong spiritual life, the program explores nine focus areas in depth. They range from managing mental and emotional health, accepting responsibility, positive use of leisure time, to spirituality and spiritual growth. The program involves weekly one-to-two-hour class sessions that continue for about six weeks.
During this time, both the teachers and the clients commit themselves to extensive homework. This includes finding and reading passages from spiritual literature, journaling our understanding of these passages, and marking our growth throughout. While in class, we shared parts of our journal reflections, discuss the spiritual passages we had chosen, and set goals for our further spiritual growth. As a teacher, I was assigned one topic to present to the women. We had a facilitator guidebook, which gave an outline of what we were required to cover, but the how was up to us.
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
The Master Teacher
This was where I began to find awe and wonder in the teachings of our beloved Sathya Sai Baba. Most everything I know of religion and spirituality, I
had learned from Sai Baba, and through my preparation for these presentations, I found the materials he provided me with, always to be perfect. It wasn’t just that I had wonderful chinna kathas(2), analogies, or clear explanations on every topic I was to present – I found I could offer these even for topics being presented by someone else!
I came to realize that Sai Baba had been teaching us a “thresholds program” that was a thousand times more potent than we generally realize. And, it’s no wonder; his message had to be so, because our recidivism rate is so high and we keep returning to the “prison” of limited, earthly human existence!
As I covered these topics and prepared my presentations, I more deeply understood Sai’s messages to us. The clarity and the depth of the learning grew with every week, and I humbly realized that the real student in the room was me! Sai was teaching me over and again, while I stood up there before 15 ladies as their instructor!
Principles for living a positive life
While I was getting this amazing appreciation for Sai, what was the impact of the message for the ladies who received it? They did not know that every word was from Sathya Sai Baba, but they now had a basic foundation of principles for living that I believed would guide them in a positive direction. They began to recognize that they were made up of two distinct parts – the “i ” and the “I.” The “i ” cohorts included LAPHAG (Lust, Anger, Pride, Hatred, Attachment, and Greed), and the “I ” team was TRAPLN (Truth, Right Action, Peace, Love, and Nonviolence).
When one operates from the Higher Self or “I,” the driving force is love, and life seems easy, clearer, more simple, and joyful. When one operates from body consciousness or the “i,” life is driven by fear and desire and can be full of conflicting emotion and confusion. This was the basis for every lesson I presented, and they totally got it and seemed to enjoy the discussion a lot.
When class ended, I felt it was important to have a closing that left us feeling uplifted. Instead of the see-you-next-week-type comments we generally heard, I taught the girls the Peace Prayer we use at our Sathya Sai Center. The girls loved it.
A successful graduation
When graduation finally rolled around in mid May 2011, eight girls prepared to receive their certification. The prison warden (VIP!) and other prison officials were invited, and the kitchen organized a wonderful celebration party. The girls were required to make a presentation where they shared their growth and learning from the course to this group. It was important that a good impression be made, since the chaplain needed funding to continue the program.
There was not a dry eye after the girls spoke of how they had grown and how some lessons they had learned were burned into their brains – they would never forget them, and definitely not repeat crimes that would return them to prison. They were certain of that.
Then, to close with, they sang the Peace Prayer:
Peace, peace, peace, peace on Earth;
Peace, Peace, Peace, for all the Universe . . . for all the Universe.
After a few moments of pin-drop silence, the warden stood, wiping away tears from her eyes. “The entire presentation was so impressive,” she said, “and with that prayer, you included all peoples – of all religions, from all parts of the world, with no distinction of color or beliefs. You can be certain that as long as I am warden, this program will NEVER lose its funding.”
Moving reflections from the participants
The girls then presented my partner and me with beautiful cards they had lovingly made by hand. Each girl had inscribed her appreciation and affection. Here are some messages that touched me tremendously:
–I feel that God sent you here for a reason. And it was for me.
–Thank you for the spiritual perspective you gave me to use in my thinking. It’s very different from anything I’ve ever known. It helps to calm the “inner me.”
–You have inspired me to be the best I can be.
–I pray that I can live my life as openly, kindly, and spiritually as you have shown me. I will remember your lessons always.
It took a full nine months for the course to be completed, and it felt as if we’d all birthed a new strength that had been long dormant. The appreciation the girls showed us and voiced was moving in the extreme. It was humbling to realize we had served as instruments to bring a divine message to these incarcerated women.
I am changed by this incredible experience and the opportunity to delve into Sai Baba’s teachings in a way I’d never done before. I know how blessed we are to have a Master Teacher with a better program of instruction than the best minds in the education business!
~ Suman Govindan,
Sathya Sai Baba Center of Norwalk , CT USA
*Although the author was affiliated with the Sathya Sai Baba Center of Norwalk, CT, this article reports on her personal endeavor in implementing the Thresholds decision-making program, which had been mplemented by Sai volunteers in several venues in Region 1 of the USA Sai Organization (Northeastern US).
(1) See www.labyrinthsociety.org.
(2) Chinna katha: a “little story” or anecdote that illustrates a spiritual lesson. Sathya Sai Baba’s discourses are threaded with many such stories. Over 250 of them have been collected in a series of volumes titled Chinna Katha.