Prison Life and My Form of Therapy

May 27th 2016

I'm Samuel Escobar Jr., and I'm an inmate at Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad, Calif.

I'm serving a 25-year sentence for multiple armed robberies committed when I was a teenager.

Samuel Escobar, Jr.Center for Council

I first joined the Council program only because seven of my Indian brothers talked me into it. They said it was true to native culture and honored the sanctity of the circle. I really needed something to get me out of the cell for a while, so I let them sign me up. But when I got to the group I was skeptical. To be honest, I didn’t feel comfortable around inmates of color in such an intimate setting.

All I really knew about Council at that point was that it was a group without an agenda or a book that had to be followed. I knew it was a group where we just talk about "things." It felt like a "Seinfeld" episode: a group about nothing, but also about everything.

Then I got to meet the Director of Center for Council, Jared Seide, when he came to sit with our group. I learned about Council programs in Rwanda, Auschwitz, and Bosnia, and about how people who were once considered enemies are now using this process to come to terms and understand something about how to get along together.

AuschwitzWikimedia Commons/Nick1915 - wikimedia.org

Jared talked about how they’re working toward healing and forgiveness for acts of horror and terror committed against one another. He spoke about empathy, compassion, and listening attentively and how that connects with tolerance, acceptance, and a movement for peace.

But I couldn’t open up.

Talking about personal issues like anger, sadness, joy, love, and family in front of "the enemy" is something I had learned to avoid so that it couldn’t be used against me here.

Talking about feelings and emotions was considered a weakness, and showing weakness is something you just don’t do in prison, regardless of what group you’re in.

This was the racist gang mentality I had developed early on as a kid growing up in the Rancho San Pedro projects, where we were at war with the Crips. Prison only made me worse.

Youth prisoners are often prosecuted as adultsPaul Faith/PA Wire - apimages.com

Even though I was a skeptic, I continued with the group because we had interesting discussions. I was anxious and curious to see what other people were holding deep within. Council is about telling your story — your truth — your experience: Speaking from the heart and being spontaneous, revealing your true self while sitting in a circle.

The discussion sometimes leads to people expressing deep emotion: Things that are bottled up and hidden come to the surface, sometimes as tears. Over time, walls that we put up to guard ourselves come down as we move toward healing. It was a challenge to find the patience to actually listen to some of my fellow inmates. I couldn’t even stand to be around them, let alone find the patience to work on my "stuff." I really was trying, though. I began to hear things about people who made me curious, and I started watching those people outside of the group setting. I wanted to see if what they were sharing in group matched up with the way they were conducting themselves on the yard. Did they walk their talk?

To my surprise, they did. I watched the guys in this group, and I saw inmates of different ethnicities and backgrounds sitting down and playing cards together, sharing food and drink, playing sports, even greeting each other with a hug, as one would a member of his family. I saw them asking advice of one another.

I watched conflicts resolved without a hint of violence.

For me, this all was considered a big "no-no" once upon a time. We couldn’t even sit at the same table.

Prisoners outside in prison yardVimeo/Soledad - vimeo.com

I started to realize this group was about opening up, making yourself vulnerable, and getting out of your comfort zone. It was about learning to listen to things that were unsaid, to "listen between the lines." It was about finding the collective truth, the soul of the circle. It was about honoring the spirit, the essence, of humanity and understanding that we’re all related.

Once I began to view the group in this light, I expanded my perspective. It made my peripheral [vision] wider, so to say. I began to view the entire prison yard as one big circle. I began to sit with people that I once judged and despised and committed acts of violence against. I began to make an effort to interact with them, share with them, open up to them. I came to realize that I never really was a racist: That idea was someone else’s, not my own. It became easier to speak in the Council, because I was actually spending time with other members outside of the group setting, and I wasn’t as narrow minded as I once had been.

For someone who was once involved in street gangs and prison gangs and who participated in race riots and prison stabbings, letting my guard down was a big turnaround.

I no longer saw other inmates through the lens of the gang, as the enemy, but as a prospective member of the Council, someone who could fill the symbolic empty seat in the circle. I see them as someone waiting to be heard, listened to, understood with compassion and empathy, potential links in this chain of peace and human kindness.

Our group knows what works and what doesn’t. Dehumanizing people that are different than us does not work. Listening, compassion, and empathy works. Humility works. Sharing works. Understanding works. Love works! Through trial and error, we have learned these things, either on an individual, personal level, or on a grander, global scale. As we continue to listen to the collective truth of the circle, we will find that change is possible. It took me a long time to realize that.

Salinas Valley prisonVimeo/Stories Matter Media - vimeo.com

Today I am a facilitator of the Center for Council program here at Salinas Valley State Prison. I am also chairman of the Leadership Circle. I believe in the spirit of Council because I know its power. Although it was a struggle coming to grips with who I was, I am glad to have learned what I did about myself by simply listening to others. Today I'm humble, seeing others as part of humanity, as equals, as part of the Sacred Circle where everyone has a place, but no one is better than, or over, the other.

I have done a lot of wrong to a lot of people over the years. I am serving a 25-year sentence for 19 armed robberies, and I terrorized my own community.

But because of what I have learned in Council, I know that I, too, can be forgiven, and that I, too, can help bring about change, and I want to carry this work on the outside. I want to contribute by telling the story of how the practice of Council is producing results in maximum security, level four, prisons. Council helped me break free from the racist gangbanger mentality, full of anger, judgment, and hatred toward people I never really understood. It taught me how to "turn into the skid" with the problems that I face. Council taught me to have patience and see each of those problems as learning opportunities – growth opportunities. I want people to learn these things, to use these tools, out there, as well as behind these walls.

Today there are a whole bunch of people that I consider friends and brothers because of what I have learned sitting with them. My wife tells me she is proud I have come this far. She gets a kick out of the fact that all of my new friends are nothing like the ones I used to run around with, the ones that helped me get to prison. (Now there’s a few people I’d like to share Council with!) I am a better husband, father, and leader now. I am happier, stronger, and, most of all, wiser.

I know I can’t change the past. I can’t undo the harm that I have caused to innocents. And I definitely can’t get back the years that I have wasted on being ignorant.

But I can, and will, do my best to get the story, the truth, of Council out to the people who need it. I will show them that it works, as long as they trust the process.

Samuel Escobar Jr. is incarcerated at Salinas Valley State Prison. Center for Council's Jared Seide​ worked closely with ATTN: to help Escobar tell his story. You can learn more about him, his fellow inmates, and their struggles in the upcoming documentary "Soledad."

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