When she comes in, the room is full of prisoners -- many of them doing time for murder, many already having served 25 years or more. She's very nervous and sits down without shaking anybody's hand. More than 10 years ago, her 12-year-old son was abducted, raped and stabbed to death. "I want to know," she says, "did he ask for me? Did he cry for me? I need to know what happened, so I can stop imagining."
But today, Maria -- a five-foot-tall woman in her fifties who works as a cashier in a supermarket -- will not be facing the offender. She's meeting a group of men dedicated to helping heal victims at California's San Quentin State Prison. That's what Maria is looking for: healing. Because she cannot live with the fact that she doesn't know anything about her son's last moments. "Perhaps I can ask them what I would have asked my offender," Maria reasons.
And so Maria, supported by another mother whose son was murdered, starts talking about her loss. She sheds her tears, collects herself and then asks the men, gathered in a circle of chairs, some tough questions: What went through your mind when you killed your victim? What do you remember about your victim at the time of the crime? Was it worth it? One by one, the men answer her. They don't get upset and don't turn away. They keep their eyes on Maria and tell her the truth, and nothing but the truth, without justifying themselves or evading her questions. This truth-telling slowly fills the room with an awe-inspiring power. Perhaps never before has the accounting of these horrendous acts been such a gift of healing to someone hearing it. "Thank you," Maria whispers, again and again.
Slowly, the room lightens up. One of the men asks Maria to share some fond memories of her son, and she responds eagerly. She also shares that while she is glad her offender has been prevented from causing further harm, she bears no ill will toward him. She knows a thing or two about the challenge unresolved pain poses. "I'm tired of coping," she says. "I want to live again."
Jacques Verduin, who facilitates this group process at San Quentin prison, has thoroughly trained these men to handle this kind of meeting. Ten years ago, he started the Insight Prison Project (IPP). Through it, some of these tough customers have acquired gifts they can share with other prisoners as well as everyone else: counselling; conflict resolution and mediation; victim/offender education; violence prevention; yoga and meditation instruction; parole planning and addiction recovery. As many as 300 inmates a week attend the programs.
Although Verduin hardly stops stressing the team effort inherent in his organization, you could say he has planted seeds of peace and reconciliation among people for whom that might seem impossible.
But in his case, the seeds were probably tulip bulbs, for Verduin is as Dutch as they come: blonde hair, blushing apple-red cheeks and bright blue eyes with the steadfast determination of Hans Brinker, the archetypical Dutch boy who stuck his thumb in a dike to save the country from flooding. And the 47-year-old Verduin, who calls himself a "recovered psychotherapist," has needed every inch of Hans Brinker's courage to deal with California's troubled prison system.
The inspiration to start self-rehabilitation programs in prison came when Verduin realized modern society was destroying its members' sense of community and connectedness. According to Verduin, the spirit of kindness, compassion and caring was gone. He resolved to build an organization that would hold up a lamp in one of the darkest places in our culture, a place where human beings are discarded, labelled as prisoners and forgotten. Where better to start than inside the walls of San Quentin?
Opened in July of 1852, the oldest of California's prisons is home to some of the most dangerous men alive. That's where the state's death row for men is located, as is its only gas chamber, now used to perform lethal injections. The cells in which the men live take up only 35 square feet (a little more than 3 square metres), and are double-occupied.
"It's a tough place," acknowledges Verduin as we wait for our IDs to be scanned at the prison gate. "When I started, it was just about as difficult to get into San Quentin as it was to get out. The first time I sat with a group of prisoners was quite intimidating. I was so green. One of the first things they said was, 'Hey man, what are you driving an ambulance for?' It took me a little while to figure out that this was slang for, 'Why are you trying to save us?' Then they wanted to know how much drugs I had used and of course, I could not impress them."
This cat-and-mouse game went on for a little while, but Verduin decided to stop playing when one of the inmates told him he looked pretty uncomfortable, sitting there trying to save their sorry asses. "At that moment I took a deep breath," remembers Verduin. "I said 'You know what? I am uncomfortable, but I want to make this a group where it is okay to be uncomfortable. Let's cut the bullshit and get real.' That did it! At that point they all started to buy in. That's how we started our first group."
If a rehabilitation program for prisoners sounds like a waste of time and money, consider this number: In California, almost 70 percent of those who leave prison return within 18 months of release.
For the past 30 years, in the wake of California's legislation asserting that "the purpose of imprisonment for crime is punishment," rehabilitation has been largely absent from the state's penal system. Despite its recent comeback, the number of inmates in California has increased. The average cost to house, feed and guard an inmate in California exceeds $40,000 a year.
In other words: California's "punishment" system has been as expensive as it has been ineffective. Verduin sees signs of change, in San Quentin's new warden Bob Ayers, for example, who Verduin believes is one of the strongest proponents of programs to "support public safety and prevent re-victimization in society."
The property on which San Quentin stands is one of the most beautiful spots in the state, just north of San Francisco in Marin County. It must be hard for prisoners to see surfers and boats gliding by all the time, we conclude as we stroll along with Verduin into a large courtyard where prisoners are walking, talking and working out. "That's why the motto of our program is 'Leaving prison before you get out,'" he answers promptly. "It is the only way to stay sane in a place like this."
As a devoted practitioner of meditation, Verduin knows that being locked behind steel bars isn't the worst kind of prison. As far as he is concerned, getting out of the other prison -- the one into which we lock ourselves -- is the main priority. But breaking free from the chains of trauma and unresolved hurt has proven to be at least as difficult as breaking out of a maximum- security prison. The reason why many people, even those who have never been behind bars, don't attempt an escape is that their prison can look so good. As long as there are iPods, televisions, computers, houses, careers, money, food and drinks, why bother about freedom?
That is the difference between the prisoners inside and outside San Quentin. When you are inside the penitentiary, your world and your prospects don't look so good and not much distracts you from yourself. That is why Verduin loves to work with these men. "When they are 'sick and tired of being sick and tired' and want to heal, there is an immediacy, an urgency, that's hard to find outside, which is very refreshing."
Walking into the shabby building where IPP's so-called Katargeo Group "holds the space" is like walking into a monastery or an ashram. The atmosphere is solemn, sobering, humbling. No fashionable clothes, no cell phones, no pretense. The main purpose of the meetings is to "sit in the fire" and face the deep-rooted pain that led to crime and murder. The men come together to remind one another of who they really are, as human beings, humble and imperfect, but deeply soulful and wizened as well. Most men have been at it for several years and have become masters in their own right. When you've been to hell and found your way back, you conduct yourself with a natural authority.
They have learned the hard way how to look within. Verduin explains, "One of the main priorities in the trainings at IPP is on something called 'impulse control.' You do this by learning to be able to witness your own experience. That's why we make space for contemplation in each class. This technique can make the difference between committing a crime and not."
Today the group topic is forgiveness. One of the inmates, who prefers to stay anonymous, says he's willing to forgive just about everyone, except the guy who murdered his wife. The inmate was in prison when she was stabbed. He had been utterly powerless, not only to defend his loved one, but to be there for his 4-year-old son who witnessed the murder. "I'll never be able to forgive that guy. I will always hold onto that anger."
Another prisoner, Eric, has plenty of reasons to be angry too. As a kid, he was molested and raped by eight people on a regular basis. It had become so commonplace that he began to think the sole purpose of his life was to be used. One day all the anger exploded, which resulted in a tragic loss of life. Eric has learned to forgive, but, he explains, "I'll never assume I'm done forgiving and being forgiven."
Listening to stories like this, it becomes clear that each man here is a victim as well as an offender. In this light, it seems cruel that men like Eric are punished throughout their lives for something that happened in a few minutes. Of course, the victims and their families are dead or traumatized forever too. Still, in meeting these men, one can't help but think that if they could take their places in society and share their hard-earned wisdom with the rest of us, we would all be the better for it.
When we ask Eric, PJ and Ali after the session what they would do if ever they got out, their eyes begin to shine. They would go back to their neighbourhoods to help build community based on the principles they have learned in IPP programs and other classes. Stories of prisoners who have done this are told and retold, like the one about former group member Sterling Scott, who now works in juvenile detention facilities across California. Sterling had been behind bars for 23 years.
Meanwhile, Verduin dreams of raising enough money to set up what he calls "The Ambassador Initiative," in which former prisoners who have learned job skills on the inside go into their communities to serve as salaried youth counsellors and violence-prevention facilitators par excellence.
IN these victim/offender programs developed and taught by IPP Restorative Justice Manager Rochelle Edwards, inmates write about how they killed or hurt somebody, and learn to understand their own histories. Each class ends with naming the victims and doing something in their honour. Each prisoner also writes a letter to his victim. It does not get sent, but as Verduin says, "they still go through it." All this is done in preparation for a group dialogue with family members who lost loved ones in crimes like those perpetrated by these men.
One of the first such meetings, just before the program started, was with Radha Stern, a woman Verduin met at a dinner party and whose son had been murdered. "I asked her if she would talk to me about this. So we met a couple of times and she took me through the whole process: the pictures; the newspaper clippings; the poems the family wrote; how she lost all fluids when the sheriff came and told her that her son was killed, everything. She taught me about the other side of the crime. When we were done, she said, 'Now I want to see what you do.'"
Verduin asked the men if it would be okay to bring Stern in. They assured him she was welcome. "The first time she brought pictures of her son," he says. "The second time she brought a quilt, which she had made for every year of his life: his favourite food, his pets, his friends... All the men touched the quilt, which was very special. Imagine the hands that had taken a life touching this quilt that belonged to a mother whose son's life was taken." After a few meetings, Stern became like a mother to the members of the group.
Then, Verduin says, something beautiful happened. He managed to get approval for a home-cooked Thanksgiving meal, to be held in a dank basement that doubled as a classroom, just past urinals you could hear flushing. Verduin had asked all those invited to come in suits and fine clothes. "After all, who ever does that for these guys?" So Verduin bought a tie and Stern prepared a delicious meal.
"By the time all the food was cleared through security, it was cold," Verduin says, "but Radha had thought about this and brought a thermos bottle of hot gravy." He stops here to wipe the tears from his eyes. "Every time I talk about this it gets me, because that's love, right? Hot gravy!" After a moment, Verduin continues. "Everybody wept when they spoke of what they were thankful for. It was beautiful."
A couple of months later, when the 10-year anniversary of Stern's son's death was approaching, the men wanted to do something in honour of Stern and her son. They decided to make a quilt. "One of the guys," Verduin says, "used the pocket of his favourite visiting shirt -- the best piece of cloth he had. There were also napkins, and pieces of mattress. Some guys drew on it; some actually embroidered on it."
After Stern was given this quilt, she took her husband and daughter to meet the guys. She's now preparing for a dialogue with her son's murderer.
"Healing wants to happen," Verduin says, "if you let it."
In 1979, when the ayatollahs in Iran seized power from the shah, the Iranian doctor Fereydoon Batmanghelidj -- like many other intellectuals -- ended up in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran. One night, he found himself tending a fellow prisoner suffering from an acute and extremely painful stomach ulcer. Unfortunately, no medicines were available. In an effort to help, Batmanghelidj gave the inmate two glasses of water. Within 10 minutes, the man's pain disappeared. That incident would prove to be a turning point in Batmanghelidj's career.
After he was released, Batmanghelidj fled Iran in 1982 and immigrated to the United States. There, he began to write articles and books based on his belief that water might play a greater role in our bodies' health than anyone had realized. A summary of his ideas became the editorial article in the June 1983 issue of the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, and were reported on in The New York Times Science section. In his 1999 book Your Body's Many Cries for Water, Batmanghelidj explains that water regulates all body functions.
Our cells need water to transport proteins and enzymes to nerve endings. Water also acts as adhesive material between cells and transports sugars for energy. If the body becomes dehydrated, a water-rationing process kicks in. The brain is first in line to receive available water, followed by the kidneys and liver. After that, it's every organ for itself. Because of that, Batmanghelidj -- who died of pneumonia in 2004 -- thinks dehydration may be a cause of many types of degenerative diseases, like asthma, arthritis, hypertension, angina, diabetes (type 2), lupus and multiple sclerosis. How is it possible that wealthy Western people are dehydrated?
It turns out that most of what we drink -- tea, coffee, soft drinks and alcohol -- dehydrates the body. Coffee and alcohol in particular rob our bodies of fluids, which explains the dry throat we experience after a pub crawl and the advice we hear to drink a glass of water for every cup of coffee. According to the prevailing wisdom, a dry throat alone is not a good indicator of thirst. Batmanghelidj also believes the body lets us know we're thirsty by creating pain. His message is clear: Dehydration may be at the root of many sicknesses. And dehydration can be avoided.
Batmanghelidj is not the only one who believes that. Peter Ragnar, the American author of 17 books on health and longevity, supports the concept of "medicine water." He believes Alzheimer's disease could be the result of long-term dehydration of the brain. "People are not demented, only thirsty," says Ragnar. At least 80 percent of the brain is water. According to Ragnar, reducing the amount of fluid available to our brains by just two percent makes our short-term memory so muddled that we can't remember the names of friends or where we left our keys. Judging from the lifestyles of people in the West, Ragnar concludes that at least 75 percent may be dehydrated.
Under normal circumstances, everyone loses three to four litres (a gallon) of fluids a day. In order to replenish the supply, we have to drink some 80 percent of that (20 percent of the needed water generally comes from what we eat). Don't wait until we're thirsty, we are advised. Thirst, after all, is a sign that our bodies are experiencing an acute water shortage. Water straight from the tap does the trick, according to some. Others say we need filtered or distilled water to avoid flooding our bodies with toxins. The jury is still out. Polluted water obviously burdens the body, but so might water that has been completely purified and may lack key minerals. But wait: If disease can be prevented so easily, why hasn't the message reached the public? The explanation may be found in the way scientific research is conducted. The "random, double-blind, placebo-controlled" studies meant to establish the value of a particular medical intervention are expensive.
And who will finance this costly research into the potentially healing effects of water if water can't be patented and therefore is not commercially attractive to the pharmaceutical industry? No answer is in sight. In the meantime, the message seems clear: Drinking more water may be an inexpensive and painless way to safeguard our health.
Homeopathy may be more effective than flu shots. In the deadly flu outbreak of 1918, patients treated with homeopathy had much higher survival rates.
Not only is the avian flu front-page news, but clinics and doctors are warning us about the dangers of the common flu. Posters and leaflets, ads and articles urge us to get our shots, the pressure greater than usual with the ominous bird flu looming.
In Great Britain, a National Health Service leaflet says, "If you knew about the flu, you'd get the jab." But the British environmental magazine The Ecologist (October 2005) can't help wondering if that's really the case: "If people truly knew about flu, and the lack of effectiveness of the vaccine being offered as protection, would they really be so obedient about getting the jab?"
Last September, a report in the American Medical Association journal Archives of Internal Medicine dropped a bombshell: Although immunization rates in those over 65 have increased 50 percent in the past 20 years, there has been no decline in flu-related deaths. One reason is that hundreds of flu viruses can be circulating at any time.
Nevertheless, every February, scientists at the World Health Organization meet to define the three that are likely to cause the most misery the following winter. The viruses they choose are included in that year's vaccine. But in the months between formulating the vaccine and administering it, the viruses -- which constantly evolve and mutate -- may have changed, or new ones may emerge.
Flu experts often get it wrong. In 1994, for example, they predicted that Texas, Shangdong and Panama viruses would be prevalent, so millions of people were vaccinated against those strains. However, when winter arrived, entirely different strains were circulating through schools, offices and households worldwide.
Even if the vaccine contains the right strains, not everyone responds by producing the antibodies that fend off the flu. As many as 40 percent of people over age 65, for example, do not respond to vaccination. Last year the U.S. Centers for Disease Control funded research on health-care workers in Colorado. Results showed virtually the same percentage of people suffered from influenza-like illnesses whether they were vaccinated or not, leaving researchers to conclude that the vaccine "was not effective or had very low effectiveness."
Ineffectiveness is not the only thing to worry about when getting a flu shot. Alternative Medicine (October 2005) lists the typical ingredients in a vaccine: Aluminum hydroxide (associated with Alzheimer's and seizures), thimerosal (a mercury-based neurotoxin linked to ADHD and autism) and phenol (a human carcinogen) are among the substances added. This has caused some people to ask whether vaccines might do more harm than good.
Do we have alternatives? During the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which killed up to 50 million people worldwide, homeopathic physicians in the United States reported very low mortality rates among their patients, while flu patients treated by conventional physicians faced mortality rates of around 30 percent. Dr. W.A. Dewey gathered data from homeopathic physicians treating flu patients around the country in 1918 and published his findings in the Journal of the American Institute of Homeopathy in 1920. Homeopathic physicians in Philadelphia, for example, reported a mortality rate of just over 1 percent for the more than 26,000 flu patients they treated during the pandemic.
Today, a number of homeopathic remedies for the flu are available, including oscillo, or oscillococcinum, which has been shown to shorten the duration of symptoms when taken within 48 hours of onset. Homeopaths have been given this remedy since 1925. Interestingly, it's made from the heart and liver of ducks, which carry flu viruses in their digestive tracts.
"Based on clinical studies, homeopathy produces some of the fastest results in relieving flu symptoms," says Dana Ullman, MPH, the author of nine books on homeopathic medicine. In addition to trying oscillo, Ullman suggests considering influenzinum 9C, a homeopathic preparation of the three newest flu viruses obtained from the Pasteur Institute in France. Although not definitively shown to prevent the flu, it is a popular protocol in Europe. Finally, Ullman advises visiting a homeopath for a specific constitutional remedy in preparation for flu season. Other homeopathic flu remedies, depending upon one's symptoms, include gelsemium, bryonia, aconitum, monkshood, nux vomica, eupatorium perfoliatum, rhus toxicodendron (poison ivy) and arsenicum album.
While there's no evidence yet that homeopathic remedies can prevent the flu, they seem to be very useful in treating the flu. And they're less aggressive that the usual injections. The people now targeted for shots -- the elderly, young and immune compromised -- are those least able to withstand a systemic chemical assault.
Research also consistently shows that people of lower socioeconomic status are at higher risk for a wide range of infectious diseases. The Ecologist wonders whether "vaccines are endorsed as a remedy for so many things that are too complicated (like better hygiene) or too expensive (like winter-proof housing) for the government to fix."
So, now that the flu season is here, what should you do? Homeopathic remedies might help. But Alternative Medicine offers the most startling solution of all: Get sick. "From a naturopathic point of view, getting the actual flu may not be such a bad thing -- that is, if you are relatively healthy -- because it will make you more resistant to the flu later in life. Also, getting the flu is an opportunity for the body to detoxify."
For those who are less healthy -- with conditions like diabetes, asthma, pulmonary disease, emphysema, frequent pneumonia or impaired immunity -- less invasive, more natural ways to "fight" the flu might be prescribed. Sometimes the simplest preventive actions yield the most immediate results: Wash your hands, get enough sleep, eat your fruits and vegetables, exercise and avoid stress.