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Even among convicts, 'seeds of enlightenment' can take root

On a muggy Saturday, I pull off an unassuming road outside Lillington, N.C., into the dusty parking lot of the Harnett Correctional Institution.

Housing 854 male inmates, a quarter of them lifers, it is our state1s second largest men1s prison. 3Medium security2 means two perimeters of razor wire atop chain link fences, with marksmen in gun towers who are authorized to use deadly force to prevent an escape. They call it a 3camp2; the men live in 3dorms.2

A motion sensor beeps as we approach the fence, and the guy in the towerDthe one with the rifleDgets a wave from the officerDthis one carrying only maceDbelow.

The gate opens.

One1s first impression is of heat, fatigue and boredom. Gangsta rap drifts out from a brick shack where a few trustees gather with garden tools to tend the no-man1s land between fences. The inmates move slowly, as if underwater, all dressed in blinding white v-neck tee shirts and brown shorts. Outside the fence a sign reads 3Meat Processing.2 Inside, another says 3Do Not Slam Gate.2

Miraculously, four towering pin oaks, much older than the facility, thrive in the prison yard, giving generous shade to the hundreds of men sitting and talking desultorily at concrete picnic tables. The loveliness of the oaks is so unexpected here that all the visitors pause to look up at them.

A man of about 50 appears in street clothes and shiny loafers, chewing furiously on a stick of gum. This is the chaplain, who will usher us into the only air-conditioned building, a cinderblock chapel protected by three levels of locked doors. Once inside, our orientation is occasionally interrupted by a loudspeaker erupting with a burst of unintelligible commands.

Senior Chaplain B. introduces himself, and warns us to give only our first names to the prisoners lest they look us up once they1re released. He also warns us about shaking hands. 3If you cut your finger gardening or the like, it1s best not to come at all. We1d hate to see you get infected with AIDS,2 grins the chaplain. 3And under no circumstances should you hug them.2

3These men are like children,2 he continues. 3Once you say no to them, they hate you. So don1t believe any complaints they might have about the chaplains. And don1t use your time here to reform this institution. Okay?2

Later, we settle in for a session of meditation, having been invited by the prisoners under the new federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The eight inmates in our group range in age from their early 20s to about 50 there is a Taoist with dreadlocks and a sweet smile; a blond man with a magnificent Melvillean beard; an older guy who had almost lost his eye in a fight. All had been convicted of serious crimes; all are working harder on their spiritual and emotional equilibrium than anyone else I1ve ever met.

They speak of learning to trust, and the difficulty of showing compassion knowing that it may be taken for a sign of weakness. A black man with a shaved head suggests that maybe Buddhism could help him learn to be more like Jesus. His insight takes us by surprise. The one who looks like Melville mentions 3psychic vampires2 who inhabit the prison, waiting to pounce on the vulnerable. Everyone nods. A guard pauses to peer at us through the window.

And there we sit, we murderers, rapists and cheaters on taxes, and cautiously lower our shields. Prayerful, frightened, loving, we begin to see that if we label each other only as our crime, our disease, we can never do justice to the movement of grace in us.

Who would have thought it, surrounded by all that pain? Who would have thought that in the midst of a field of razor wire, we would discover seeds of enlightenment?

These eight amiable men are not academics, they lead no classes. Yet they become my teachers all the same. It turns out that they love beauty in all its forms, when they dare. And behind bars they begin to bloom.

People who live through the hour of lead sometimes have a breathtaking generosity, and will share their hard-bought wisdom if you know how to listen.

Teachers are everywhere, is all I1m saying. Watch for them.

Paul Baerman, Fuqua 190, is a Durham resident.

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