Savitri Bess, author of The Path of the Mother has compiled and edited a book by Circle of Love Inside letter-writers. Chapters from the manuscript, Changing Lives Inside and Out: Stories from Amma's Prison Outreach Program, will be posted on this page periodically.


Changing Lives Inside and Out: Stories from Amma's Prison Outreach Program

There is no sin that repentance cannot wash away —Amma

"The Walls Built Around Self Began to Fade"

Aikya Param, the Director of Circle of Love Inside, when she first began working with prisoners, visited a couple of them not too far from the Bay Area where she lives. In the early days of forming Circle of Love Inside. One of those inmate was Joel Williams, in Mule Creek prison. Joel’s father used to beat him daily, often with a two by four, from childhood into teen years. His father often locked him in his room with no food. Aikya sent out a group email message seeking someone who was trained in PTSD therapy. Psychologist and Amma devotee Deborah Welborn volunteered.

For four years Deborah wrote letters to Joel weekly and did therapy with him monthly in the visiting room of the prison. Joel’s is an incredible and inspiring story of redemption.

Excerpts from
"The Walls Around Self Began to Fade," by Deborah Welborn

The letter writing was difficult because we were working with trauma, PTSD and I didn’t know how to do therapy through letter writing. Over the weeks he would write to me about some of his experiences and how difficult it was to live in the prison and how people thought he was strange and quiet and withdrawn. My letters were more supportive, lending a listening ear, letting him know that these were common feelings of someone who has had trauma in their lives, to be very inward in his process and not speak much.

He talked at length about the difficulties of trying to blend in with prison life and not participating in the ‘politics’ of prison. Often our sessions included talking about what his life was like; and how is it to be in a system that was very rough when he was always on guard anyway? He often fought tears back with a nod, not wanting the guards to see any expression of emotion. My weekly letters in-between monthly sessions in the prison left much to be desired from my point of view as a therapist.

I questioned myself concerning how he would manage deep emotions and how these emotions would affect his daily life. When a person sits in my office I can see and hear how they are managing their feelings, and we would work through their ‘suffering.’ But in the letter-writing to Joel it was different—it felt lacking in what I would hope for in a psychotherapeutic relationship.

His gentle nature is not the usual behavior or mentality of those in prison life. When someone behind walls is very quiet and gentle they can be seen as a female partner. He was approached but he let them know he was not available as a partner. Much to Joel’s relief, his fear that he would be attacked did not happen. Prison life is a brutal facade and they simply have no respect for the more gentle or quiet kind of personality. He had been abused all of his young and adolescent years, but he had no inclination to fight others. He was sentenced to prison when he was nineteen or twenty and had been in prison for twenty-three years when I met him.

When reminded of his past, intrusive thoughts of past traumas, hyper vigilance, and feelings of distress clouded the clear seeing of his true nature. The symptoms of fear, anxiety, hyper-vigilance or being on guard create a veil, a sort of mask over their true nature, because the person with PTSD can develop a belief and personal identity with always being afraid—‘I can’t trust, no one likes me, or I am a bad person.’ And this identity creates a veil or wall around their true essence. I have seen how the essence of God and the purity within is masked and the truth is not seen or revealed. Their thoughts and perceptions create their world. There would be brief moments when Joel would soften and just really open. He would open in a way that you could see his joy. But when someone is frightened they quickly close it up again and you only have a glimpse of their love within. Our work together was a process of opening and closing, and opening and closing.

Joel developed a belief system from his inner personal story that he was a ‘bad person, I killed my father, I was abused but no one really recognized that or how that affected me, and that because of what I did, I’m no good and I have nothing to offer.’ This was his story and it became a belief system for Joel.

His deep agony was felt while watching and listening to this man pour out inner feelings and thoughts. The agony and the depth of his fear was not only heard it was evidenced in his eyes. I could taste what life must be like behind the walls.

This fear for life was not in my knowing and I developed an appreciation for how it must feel to sleep at night not knowing if you would be beaten or harassed at night. However Joel’s introversion and quiet manner was somewhat protective—other inmates thought he was a ‘psycho’ and mostly did not bother him.

Over the months and years of monthly visits the edges softened and Joel was able to talk more freely about the poverty of his life and the constant humiliation and inhuman abuse handed him by his father.

Joel began to listen to what was going on inside, watching the thoughts, as the thoughts would come up. I suggested that if he just watch them, he could see the thoughts, and he could ‘be’ the witness of those thoughts.

Joel eventually could face his crime and speak of it with more acceptance of self and with knowing that the past will never change. He began accepting his adolescent behavior, clouded by alcohol, and his decision to end his father’s life…he began to accept that the past could not be changed. At the parole board hearings, they wanted Joel to take responsibility for his crime. In the first or second hearing he acknowledged responsibility as well as his true regret.

He spent much time exploring his actions and the lack of consideration for others. He came to know his decision to take his father’s life was about how his life had been affected by his father’s sadistic abuse. The grief he felt for this ‘selfishness’ was deep and he regretted his decision, he regretted his crime. From this awareness he met a new part of himself. A softening emerged within and a true awakening to the severity of suffering his siblings experienced. Respect grew for the wrongness of his actions.

Joel’s quest for a greater understanding of self and others lead him to write short stories for which he received recognition…He’d always talked about writing and then he started writing. I was able to send a few books to him on writing styles and how to write, which helped him learn how to put a story together. He’d saved up money from prison jobs and asked someone to buy him a typewriter and send it to him.

A contact of Joel’s informed him of writing contests. This contact agreed to submit his work. Some months later this same man contacted a university professor who read Joel’s writings. The professor liked his writings, calling them ‘alternative writings.’ The professor connected Joel with a publisher from Paris who came to visit Joel and told him, ‘I want to publish your book.’ Joel wrote a book of short stories, A House Burning, and now it’s available on Amazon.

He became more hopeful, less depressed, less despondent. It seemed that his heart had opened to love and compassion. This happened when he began reaching out to others teaching them the guitar. There was more lightness in him, as he gave to others, less distrust, less feeling on guard and more internal confidence... They all seemed happy to learn. Joel gained an even greater sense of worth, of, ‘I can give something. I can teach something. People want to learn this.’ It was one of his first ‘normal,’ heart-felt human qualities that when you give something you feel happy. Right around this time the guards started being kinder and nicer to Joel. On one of my last visits, before he was paroled, one of the guards commented to me, ‘You know Joel’s got a hearing coming up and we’re really pulling for him.’

Joel wanted to meet Amma and was grateful for her seva, that she must be amazing to have devotees in selfless service. I told him I took his picture up with me one time when I went for Amma’s hug, and showed it to Amma. Because of the contact he had had with Aikya and me, and one or two other Amma devotees who had been writing to him, he felt like there was so much love, that such a program could exist, that he got to be part of it. ‘Seeing with Amma’s eyes’ is seeing with compassion and love instead of the beatings and poverty he lived as a youth. So it was a different way of knowing, to feel Amma’s love.

“Regarding my work with him, he asked me one time, ‘Why do you do this?’ I said, ‘It’s a service I do for Amma.’ It took him a while to really understand that, or to accept that my coming was not for money, and that it was something I did for Amma. I told him I like doing service and that it was totally Amma’s doing. And I think that was the part he began to really understand what that meant.”

While in prison Joel married a woman he’d met by mail. Joel writes: "I was released [after 28 years in prison] on January 12, 2015. My wife Brenda picked me up on a cold and foggy winter morning. I got carsick two miles down the road. I had the uncanny feeling that my release was a mistake, that they were coming to get me at any moment. For a month afterward I felt like Fred Flintstone in the time of the Jetsons. But my wife and I eventually relocated to northern California. We now own and operate our own thrift store, called Needful Things. And I’m working toward a degree in agriculture at the local college. Life has settled into a routine."

I saw Joel recently and he was like a totally different man. He was smiling. He drove a car. He talked about his future. I said to him "This is like a new man.”

Information about Circle of Love Inside

Don't be discouraged by your incapacity to dispel darkness from the world. Light your candle and step forward --Amma

Who We Are

We are volunteers, 25 years of age or older, not on parole or probation, who love and are inspired by Amma, Mata Amritanandamayi. Amma is a humanitarian from India who is known for unconditional love and service. We aim to show the same love and dedication that Amma has shown to us, to the best of our ability, to incarcerated people, our brothers and sisters in Amma’s family. We support them in their own spiritual tradition and in personal growth toward a better life. Although we may write about love, the development of romantic relationships is not part of our work. The brothers and sisters to whom we write are part of Amma’s family and we will encourage and support them in and out of prison for as long as they wish to have that support.

What We Do

When we write to brothers and sisters who are in prison, we encourage them to use their time in prison for spiritual and personal growth. We send spiritual books especially those about Amma and her work to individuals in prison who request them. Our letters are sent by “snail mail.” Letter writers in North America use post office boxes to send and receive mail. Some satsang groups have post office boxes which they share.

About Our Book, Changing Lives Inside and Out: Stories from Amma's Prison Outreach Program (not yet published)

Through the stories of eleven of our letter-writers, you will come to know these volunteers and their inmate friends. No one is left unchanged. The inmates featured in Changing Lives Inside and Out, relate stories about prison conditions, reveal poignant details of their inner lives and their commitment to change. Inmates longing for redemption develop strong spiritual paths, adopt universal human values, and experience inner freedom behind bars. Through self-inquiry, they discover a deep sense of themselves and live with a certain inner peace and self-confidence.

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This is such an amazing and inspiring story. And also so sad to remember the reality that so many people experience such suffering and have to live like this. It also really shows what a difference Amma and her people can make.

OH MY Savitri!! Reading this it is full of wisdom and hope for the population of (mostly men) who are incarcerated. I am not drawn to participate in such an
enormous endeavor. Glad there are some who can do this. A lot can be learned in understanding and communing with the prisoners. thanks for sharing this!

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