MAM teacher Erik Hulse, CMT-200 writes about the time he spent volunteering at Transition Center Kansas City (TCKC), an organization that helps the formerly incarcerated make a successful reintegration into the community. The following includes excerpts from the thesis Erik wrote for his chaplaincy training through Upaya Zen Center. The full thesis can be accessed here.
dis·card: get rid of (someone or something) as no longer useful or desirable
“Over a period of three months, I volunteered at TCKC, offering meditation, secular mindfulness classes and a Buddhist study group. I interacted with residents and staff and to the extent possible, offered my presence and support. My experience at TCKC dislodged persistent biases borne of a lifetime of conditioning about ‘criminal offenders’, correctional officers and the system they inhabit. In a program such as this, whose proponents are unabashedly in favor of recognizing the inherent dignity of human beings otherwise discarded by society, I found an approach with broad implications for a system in desperate need of reform and a role for the interfaith chaplain to serve within it…
Nowhere is the tendency of human beings to discard fellow human beings more obvious and damaging than the criminal justice system, although the practice can be found elsewhere (families of origin, education, religion, etc.). The practice and state of mass incarceration in the United States is untenable, unconscionable, and based on a zero sum fallacy: the notion that somehow the values of civil society are eroded to the same extent that compassion is extended to those who cause harm. Also to be considered is the damage done when punishment is conflated with accountability or worse yet, when punishment is confused with compassion. Without undermining the deepest values of society at all, restorative justice seeks to bring accountability back to the fore concretely rather than performatively in criminal justice proceedings and to genuinely make things better rather than worse….
I was a police officer for 25 years (1990-2016). During that time, I served as a patrol officer, undercover narcotics investigator, detective, school resource officer, and professional standards (internal affairs) detective. Midway through my career, I was promoted several times within a relatively short period of time. About eight years after my first promotion, I requested a voluntary demotion from the position of Captain, having become disenchanted with managing from a distance, no longer engaged in the work I was most skilled at, and at the lowest emotional ebb I’d ever experienced. My request was approved and I spent the last three years of my career as an almost deliriously happy detective.
Much is understandably made of the physical dangers of police work. I’d argue, as I’m confident many other cops would, that an equally corrosive aspect of the job is wading daily through the suffering of others with only a few months of formal academy training followed by a few more months of field training under the supervision of a senior officer. Of all the skills I was taught as a young police officer in the early 1990’s, compassion wasn’t one of them. Such a response to human suffering was marginalized at best and ridiculed at worst.
Over the years, a relentlessly thickening layer of disregard for the causes and conditions that contributed to someone’s unlawful behavior obscured my sense that there might be more effective ways to serve and protect my community. I continued to feel the dissonance between my intuitions and the reality of my environment throughout my career. As often as not though, I took the easier route, a failure of character for which a lifetime of atonement is the only remedy.
My actions and values were most well balanced during my tenures as a school resource officer, a young detective and a new patrol sergeant, three all too brief periods of unalloyed enthusiasm and idealism during which I believed that I could do police work in a way that was most consistent with my deepest convictions about service to others. Being spiritually unmoored during each of these periods, I can only surmise it was a chance confluence of youthful exuberance and clarity of purpose that buoyed me.
After I retired from police work, I soon realized that a quarter century of accumulated stress and trauma hadn’t neatly evaporated just because I no longer wore a badge and carried a gun. It was also apparent that the maladaptive coping strategies I’d adopted were not going to work any better than they had when I was on the job; it was just a lot more noticeable now that I was no longer in an environment where these strategies are sometimes tolerated and in the worst cases, rewarded.
I developed an interest in secular mindfulness after learning about its potential benefits for those suffering from anxiety and depression. I began a solitary meditation practice and soon after, enrolled in a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class. As my personal practice deepened, I sought to gain a deeper understanding of mindfulness to support my own healing and development as a practitioner, but also to share the practice of mindfulness with others, so I undertook MBSR teacher training. A subsequent exploration of Buddhism led to the discovery of professional chaplaincy in which I thought I saw how I might continue serving others while deepening my understanding and engagement with the Dharma. Liberation from suffering has not been the result either of my experience with MBSR or Buddhism, but both have proven noticeably ameliorative on many fronts.
My intention for engaging in the Upaya chaplaincy training program was and remains, to deepen my personal Buddhist practice, continue to heal personally from my personal trauma and to offer the fruits of my lived experience in service to others. For much of my life though, emotional empathy has been the lens through which I viewed the suffering of others, however draining and unsatisfying it has been. Having little awareness of how transforming sympathy into compassionate action could relieve the suffering of the object of my empathy as well as my own suffering, I now understand that I spent a lot of time in empathic distress (Halifax, 2018). When I began to read about the co-equal development of wisdom and compassion in Buddhist philosophy, I knew that I’d stumbled upon a healthier and more skillful path than the one I’d previously traveled. It was apparent to me that having elevated what I’d misinterpreted as wisdom (read: book knowledge) above all else left other heart/mind states such as compassion to atrophy and thus, left me unhappy and unfulfilled.
In March 2022, I heard about the Conflict Resolution Center (CCR) of Kansas City and the Transition Center of Kansas City (TCKC) and decided to make inquiries. Eventually, I was invited to visit the facility and propose some programming ideas. Prior to volunteering on a regular basis, I met with TCKC’s superintendent and her supervisor to learn about the origin and purpose of TCKC. I also met with the Restorative Justice Strategist at the Center for Conflict Resolution (CCR) who developed the programming at the institution. I took daylong training classes offered at CCR in Neighborhood Accountability Boards, Restorative Justice and Trauma & Resilience. The principles of restorative justice informed the content of each of these training classes….
In conversations with people championing TCKC and its programming at all levels, I learned that the overarching philosophy has as much to do with cultivating the residents’ wholeness rather than focusing exclusively on the harm they’ve done. Accountability is still front and center in TCKC programming, as is developing the willingness to forgive oneself, through a variety of programming from healing dialogue circles to the mindfulness guidance I am offering. The Deputy Director of the Division of Probation and Parole, which oversees both transition centers in Missouri told me that transition center volunteer and staff members might be the only positive adult role model residents have and that even when they (residents) behave in ways that might be characterized as antagonistic, it could very well be that they’re just trying to determine whether or to what extent you really care about them.
The building that houses TCKC has some of the trappings of a correctional facility, such as concertina wire strung along the top of the fences that enclose the facility. Inside, TCKC has more of a community college feel. Months before it reopened as a transition center in April 2022, TCKC staff undertook the task of replacing floors, cabinets, installing furniture and painting the walls to transform the overall appearance. When I arrived at TCKC, the chapel hadn’t been used as such since about a year prior, when the facility was a minimum security prison. I acquired a desk, bookcase, whiteboard and a DVD player/monitor. I raised money with a Go Fund Me campaign to purchase new meditation cushion sets and solicited donations of several meditation benches via social media. I also received a box of books about Buddhism and mindfulness/meditation from the Prison Dharma Network.
The areas where residents sleep, eat and attend classes are fairly austere and mostly unadorned, but clean and functional. Officers are in uniform, but residents are dressed as civilians, walking the halls with substantially less restriction of movement than in a prison. The main hallway has offices for probation/parole officers, mental health & addiction counselors, and other support staff. I began introducing myself and offering limited programming (described in greater detail below) in August 2022, and met a number of mostly day and evening shift officers (CO’s). The CO’s I met ranged in tenure from brand new to those who’d worked for the department of corrections (DOC) for decades. Some had only worked where TCKC was located their entire careers and some had worked in prisons across the state…
On August 5, 2022, I began to volunteer at TCKC and maintained an average of three days and one evening each week over several months. During that time, I guided meditation for residents, facilitated a Basics of Buddhism study group, and presented secular ‘Mindfulness for Stress Reduction’ sessions to evening shift officers. I also interacted with TCKC residents and staff on a regular basis, discussing a wide range of issues with them. In order to introduce my programming at TCKC, I conducted information sessions and introduced myself to staff and residents over a period of a couple of weeks. I submit a biweekly calendar that is broadcasted throughout the institution via video monitors. I also posted a calendar and info sheet on the front door of the chapel and installed a secure message box for staff and residents to submit questions and requests.
Originally, I planned to guide meditation for anyone in the building who wanted to attend on a regular schedule. Attendance has thus far varied widely and I’ve received valuable advice from residents and staff about how to schedule my programming in a way that’s more amenable to the existing schedules at TCKC. Every month or so, I make adjustments to my programming and schedule in response to suggestions and after the New Year, my intention is to share a detailed program description to probation and parole officers, who recommend courses of study to incoming residents according to their individual needs. Once a resident has been at TCKC for even a couple of weeks, their schedule is already pretty much set, so familiarizing their supervising officers with what I offer as soon as they arrive should maximize engagement…
After the first month or so volunteering at TCKC, I met with my Upaya chaplaincy mentor group and I talked about how radically different it was sometimes to have conversations with residents around spirituality and religion in comparison to other populations and peer groups. I think part of the reason for this is that the cultural homogeneity of most of my associations outside TCKC all but guarantees some degree of consensus around spiritual nomenclature and perspectives. Given my sense of how much higher the stakes seem to be for someone in the circumstances faced by TCKC residents, the fear of ‘getting it wrong’ tends to loom in the back of my mind. In response to my observations, my colleagues helpfully remarked what a fertile ground TCKC must be for practicing the tenets of Not Knowing and Bearing Witness...
The tenets referred to above represent two of the three ‘pure precepts’ an aspiring Upaya chaplain must study and practice. According to the Upaya Jukai book, the ‘… precepts offer us a chance to engage with the world in a way that is inherently meaningful. The precepts do not let us get away with behavior that is harmful because they ask us to examine our lives more and more closely. They challenge us to commit to do good, cease from harm, and do good for others in our body, speech and mind.’ Not Knowing and Bearing Witness encourage the practitioner to relinquish rigid ideas about the world and to be fully present for the joys and the suffering of the world. I’ve also been heartened by a quote shared by Natasha Bruckner, who graduated from the Upaya chaplaincy program in 2020 in her paper, Moon Freed from a Cloud: Chaplains’ Support for Prison Inmates Practicing Nonviolence, she quoted Chaplains Naomi Paget and Janet McCormack who described the ministry of presence as “the art of hanging out with patients, clients, victims, or team members,” and “loitering with intent to calm, to build relationships, to provide compassion” (2006, p. 27). It’s been a fruitful practice to allow my exuberance for spiritual platitudes to evaporate into the richness of silent companionship…
This thesis seeks to illustrate the precarious status quo that currently exists vis a vis the American correctional system and to illuminate a road less traveled (thus far) by those who believe there are ways to curb and prevent harm through skillful and compassionate means. I think that the inculcation of restorative justice principles within the transition center environment, buttressed by interfaith spiritual support is likely to produce a synergistic effect that accrues to the benefit of the entire community… My hope is that this paper persuades the reader that it is possible to reform at least aspects of the criminal justice system in ways that are unambiguously restorative without compromising either public safety or the integrity of the system itself. The term ‘Transition Center’ couldn’t be more apt – it describes at once an environment where genuine transformation and healing is possible, and the process of continuous becoming from which wise hope for the future may spring eternal.” [Access Erik’s full thesis here]
…it is in our society’s best interest and inseparable from our moral standards and dignity as a human society to offer all individuals, even those on death row or serving life sentences, the opportunity for healing and transformation and the rediscovery or reclamation of their own dignity as human beings. – Fleet Maull