How I got involved in prison service

Following an inspiring talk on service at a retreat in May 2003, I had a strong urge to get involved in service that involved more personal one-on-one interaction.  I contacted various community programs. The Board of Co-operative Educational Services (BOCES) said that they could use some help with their prison program. Volunteering in a prison? What did I know about prisons? What could I even do in a prison?

Then, I remembered that several years ago, at our annual Sai retreat, I had attended a workshop on prison service, and decided to check out the Thresholds program in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. So the journey began.

What is the Thresholds program?

The Thresholds program was developed to teach prison inmates effective problem-solving and decision-making skills to improve their self-esteem and become productive members of society upon re-entry to the community. A trained volunteer meets once a week with a client (an inmate) for 7–10 weeks. Each session begins with an objective, structured statement of affirmation, such as, “I am unique; I am irreplaceable,” and ends with an affirmation reading. To facilitate sharing and to build rapport, we adopt an artform projective technique, using a cartoon, a parable, or motivational quotes/paragraphs, with the aim of facilitating the client’s self-disclosure. Upon completing the program, each client is awarded a Certificate of Achievement.

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

Embarking on prison service

Following the Thresholds training, I went back to BOCES and made a presentation to the prison officials. They loved it and requested I make a shorter presentation to the inmates but incorporate our Sathya Sai Baba’s teachings. For me, that was a sign of Sai Baba’s blessing and revealed His hand guiding this whole process.  As I made my way into the prison and passed several high-security doors, accompanied by officials and guards on either side, I felt very uneasy and overwhelmed. I thought of Swami and invoked him by holding on to the ring He had materialized for me. As soon as I entered the community hall, to my pleasant surprise, I realized that all the prisoners were wearing orange-colored prison uniforms (the color of Sai Baba’s robe). Even their sneakers were orange! I felt thankful to Sai Baba for what I took as a second sign of His blessing.

Sathya Sai Baba: our greatest resource and mentor

The prison service gained momentum and evolved over time, and I was able to recruit more Sai volunteers and mentor them as they embarked on this service. Although we did not mention Sai Baba in our interactions with our clients, I found that Sai volunteers, as they gained confidence and developed trust with the clients, were able to inject Sai Baba’s message of love, through motivational materials, parables, and messages garnered from Sai study circles and Sai literature into their sessions with the inmates.

Sai Baba was indeed our greatest asset and resource for doing this type of service. For example, some clients were inspired by Sai Baba’s popular punch lines, such as the ABC’s of life: “Always Be Careful/Content/Cheerful,” “Avoid Bad Company,” and so on. Another thing we were able to introduce is repeating a divine name and meditation practice, which tried with a few clients. These were all carried out during the artform section of each session. I told them to pick the name of someone they had trust and confidence in – their mother, their friend, or a divine being such as Jesus Christ. I suggest ed they either focus on that form in their mind or repeatedly write the name of the person or God-form on a piece of paper for at least 5 to 15 minutes, 3 times a day. It prove to be helpful, as the clients claimed that it had a calming effect on their mental and emotional state.

There were challenging situations that could test anyone’s faith and confidence. I remember that Sai Baba said, “Life is a challenge, meet it.” One must be prepared to be tested by clients who need extra special attention due to their misguided attitudes and/or lack of schooling or a loving upbringing. Instead of giving up, one could call on the Lord for benevolent guidance, and I can say from experience that He does respond in mysterious ways.

For example, during challenging micro sessions, I often found that I would instantaneously have an inspired moment, in which I would be reminded of one of Sai Baba’s parables or a pertinent quote. As Sai Baba has told us, “Show me your availability; I’ll give the ability.” There were also times when I had to wait 15 to 30 minutes for the client to arrive. I have found that if that time was spent quietly contemplating and calling on Sai Baba, the session was even more inspiring.

At the beginning, it is natural to have anxieties and fears about actually being in a prison facility while waiting for a client. One strategy I found helpful in easing the anxiety in such cases was to imagine the cubicle/room where would meet the client one-on-one to be the inner sanctum of a temple. The exercise helped me remember Sathya Sai Baba’s message that all beings and all places are divine, and that there is no place where God is not present.

Impact of prison service

The Thresholds program has had a profound impact on both the volunteers and our clients. In the prison newsletter, “Voices from Within,” a client wrote, “Today I know I can change. We all can, if we do things differently, and believe. There are two steps to change. They are awareness and acceptance.” These words were indeed gratifying for us to read, since the Sai volunteer had spent a great deal of time on the concepts of awareness and acceptance during his sessions with the client.

Another client noted with gratitude, “You took time out of your life to help other people. Unfortunately, not enough people do what you do and have done. With your help and guidance, with Thresholds and especially, the ‘Steps toward Inner Peace,’ I have a much clearer mind. I feel more comfortable with my re-entry back into society. ‘Thank you’ just doesn’t seem enough, but that, and maybe helping others, will be enough. Thank you again for all your help. I thank my Higher Power for sending you. May God bless and keep you and yours safe.”

One of the wonderful outcomes of this service effort was the response of the Thresholds training staff as they worked with Sai volunteers. The trainers themselves were immensely dedicated and exemplified the pure service that Sai Baba expects from each one of us. However, when I read their feedback about the Sai volunteers, it is indeed gratifying to know that as Sai devotees, we have been successful in exemplifying Sai Baba’s message of loving and selfless service:

  • “The five of us ‘floated’ home yesterday afternoon. We had such a wonderful experience working with you and your fantastic community. We enjoyed EVERY minute of it!”
  • “THANK YOU! We had an incredible weekend with your wonderful friends. We have never taught such a weekend before but hope there are more to come like this one.”
  • “Everything about the weekend was so good. I am amazed at your selfless service. Everyone in the group has the same great attitude to serve others. We were very uplifted by the care and love that came through in every part of the weekend.”
  • “Thank you very much for the excellent group of students that you assembled for us this weekend! The warmth and hospitality that EVERYONE extended to us was felt by all. You really have a terrific group ready to take that next step! The weekend went very quickly for me. With the friends we made this weekend, we all feel regenerated.”
  • “Thanks again for this great opportunity. You are right about love going both ways. I think this is what happens in the prison too. Once the client realizes you are there for them and to help and just focus on them, they are so grateful, and the love flows back and forth.”

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

Murthy Cheruvu

Sathya Sai Center of Wappinger Falls, NY


Additional Info

The author is affiliated with the Sathya Sai Baba Center of Wappinger Falls, NY. This report was about his personal involvement in service to prisoners and his efforts at implementing this service with volunteers from various Sai Centers.