How to help inmates heal after the trauma of prison

Half of all prisoners in American jails suffer from some sort of psychiatric disorder. Can prayer and meditation support them?

Allen Arthur
6 September 2018

Brother Zachariah Presutti leads a group of incarcerated men and volunteers through a guided meditation. Credit: Mike Benigno/YES! Magazine. All rights reserved.

Pedro Javier Rodriguez sings and dances so passionately, people call him “The Flame.” Prison life, however, didn’t allow the aspiring musician much opportunity to perform.

“I started fighting, people trying to kill me in prison,” says Rodriguez, who was incarcerated in New York state prisons for 27 years. “I get stabbed, I get cut up. I start cutting people. But I don’t like violence. I had to fight for my life.”

In 2007, he started going to church again, began playing music and rediscovered both his passion and spirituality. He also began attending every prison program he could, including Thrive for Life Prison Project, designed to bring healing and structure to men currently and formerly incarcerated.

“That’s when I met brother Zach, brother for life, the beautiful angel, the beautiful people,” Rodriguez says. “Thank God for having these people in the world.”

In 2017, Zachariah Presutti, a Jesuit of the northeast province of the Society of Jesus, officially launched Thrive, whose volunteers provide support to men incarcerated in six New York jails and prisons and help them find stable housing, education, and employment once they leave. While those are often considered the pillars of rehabilitation and recidivism reduction, Thrive also adds another focus: healing.

“Really what we’re dealing with is trauma,” says Presutti, who is also a psychotherapist. “The … trauma of being a victim of abuse, neglect, poverty, sociological constructions growing up. The trauma of being incarcerated, the trauma of inflicting pain and hurt on other people. Those have real psychological effects.”

Thrive provides spiritual retreats at the correctional facilities it serves and estimates about 700 men have benefited from them. The retreats offer a space for vulnerability and reflection, something nearly impossible to find on the inside. Thrive has also helped more than two dozen of them transition after release. In addition to seeing virtually no recidivism, Thrive has helped them make peace with their pasts and reconnect with family. Rodriguez, for example, now has a stable job and housing, while also sharing what he’s gained from his experience with others.

“We’re kind of witnesses of miracles,” Presutti says.

Sometime this summer, Thrive will open Ignacio House, a residential center in the Bronx for 24 formerly incarcerated men, intended to address more directly the stress and uncertainty that can accompany those returning from prison.

The organization addresses the trauma of the prison experience using what it calls “Ignatian spirituality.” In the 1500s, Saint Ignatius of Loyola founded the Society of Jesus, a religious order of the Catholic Church. Recovering after a cannonball shattered his leg, Ignatius read the gospels and grew to believe that closeness to God could be achieved by self-reflection, meditation, and service to others—practices Thrive sees as essential to helping men survive in prison and after returning home.

“We’re not trying to fix people or save people,” says Joe Van Brussel, the group’s chief operating officer. “We’re trying to give people tools and a lens to understand their stories.”

Those stories are frequently troubling ones, reflecting larger societal problems. Many participants have dealt with substance abuse or mental health issues and, according to Presutti, most have themselves been victimized in some way.

“I think prison is how we handle all our sociological questions,” Presutti says. “We have a hard time dealing with poverty, so we lock it away. We have a hard time dealing with [different races] so we lock them away. We have a hard time dealing with mental health. Well, we don’t have services for them, so lock them away.”

There’s evidence to suggest he’s right. As many as half of all inmates in American jails and prisons suffer from some sort of psychiatric disorder, according to new book America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental IllnessThe Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 37 percent of prisoners and 44 percent of people in jail had been diagnosed at some point with a mental health disorder. Jails in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago are now the three largest institutions providing psychiatric care in the U.S.

Van Brussel said the conditions of prison—chaotic, violent, and uncertain—further erode the psyche. The retreats give the men a chance to be vulnerable, uncommon inside prisons.

“They never get a chance to breathe or just talk in a safe environment,” he says. “People have told us, ‘It’s been months since someone listened or wanted to hear my story.’”

Tracy Tynan, who volunteers at Thrive retreats, says they begin with a guided meditation that encompasses anything from envisioning relaxing on a beach to a “conversation with God.” Then, participants share positive recent events in their lives, such as phone calls from loved ones or progress with an appeal. But they also talk about the hardships of prison life—fights, fear, and lockdowns. Retreats might include art or music.

The centerpiece of the retreats is the lectio divina—a reading from the Gospels coupled with “imaginative prayer” and introspection based on how the reading resonates individually. All this combines to create the rare space where incarcerated people can close their eyes, relax safely, and look deeply within themselves.

“It really, really helps them,” Tynan says. “It’s unusual to close your eyes in prison.”

Santiago Ramirez served 36 years in prisons throughout New York state for committing a deadly robbery while in the throes of substance abuse. He remembers those retreats as his only opportunity to trust inside.

“Sometimes in prison, you can develop friendships and relationships,” Ramirez says, “but you’re not really comfortable disclosing everything about yourself. Then you worry: Is that person going to betray your trust? But Thrive is so welcoming, so encouraging, so supportive, so loving.”

Presutti says because love is such a rare commodity among formerly and currently incarcerated men, extending it is an important part of Thrive’s mission. “They need to experience love, to be loved, and I think that’s when healing begins,” Presutti says. “Healing begins when we realize just how much we’re loved. A lot of people have bad experiences of being loved. Someone told them they were loved one time and abused them. Someone told them they loved them one time and kicked them out onto the street or gave them a needle.”

Outside prison, Thrive provides emotional support and a sense of community some participants have never experienced—employing everything from monthly group dinners to counseling and transportation.

Convicted as an accomplice to a murder he said he witnessed but wasn’t involved in, Rodriguez wanted to live in Buffalo after his release where another organization was offering re-entry help. As a condition of his release, however, he had to return to New York City, the site of his arrest. Presutti and Thrive’s volunteers stepped in, picking him up from the prison, helped him get clothes, and gave him a place to stay.

“They told me, ‘You gotta follow the rules. Step by step, little by little, poquito, suavacito, you’re gonna be OK,’” recalls Rodriguez. “’But you got to take it easy because you been locked up for too many years, and life is not like it used to be when you were there.’”

At Ignacio House, which Thrive hopes to open by the end of summer, men with whom it connected on the inside will be given priority in housing. They will receive workforce training and gain access to scholarships from Manhattan College. Thrive wants to use open space inside the house for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and local events, all designed to create a foundation of support for these men as they work to build their lives on the outside and develop a sense of community.

“It’s not building agencies,” says Presutti, who openly resists joining what he calls the nonprofit industrial complex. “It’s about being there as a community. Community brings connection and intimacy ultimately, which leads to the experience of love.”

Volunteers and participants hope that Thrive’s approach will take hold around the country, presenting it as an antidote to both the causes and effects of mass incarceration.

“I think it’s a way that we’ve been dealing with the issues we just don’t know how to deal with,” Presutti says. “If we can just put [incarcerated people] out on an island, nobody will know how to get to them and hopefully people will forget about them. The grace in the whole thing is if people haven’t forgotten about them.”

This article was first published in YES! Magazine.

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