In partnership with Gary Fine at Prisoner Express and the good folks at the Durland Alternatives Library, which provides a home for Prisoner Express, we collaborated on Grateful Anyhow, a project that engaged approximately 350 incarcerated men and women in an exploration of the transformative power of gratefulness. Participants received articles, scientific studies, stories, and practices on gratefulness, along with questions for reflection from A Network for Grateful Living via Prisoner Express. Below are two responses from Danny Brandon. His letters are addressed to Sarah M., the contact with whom prisoners communicated for the Grateful Anyhow project.
Dear Sarah M;
I received and have read the Grateful Anyhow newsletter from Prisoner Express. This is a concept that I have been studying and practicing with great success. I am a 46-year-old man who has been incarcerated for over 30 years. Twenty-five of that in a single-man cell in solitary confinement. No TV; sometimes, no radio; no books, no magazines, no internet, no one to talk to.
Under these circumstances one is forced to look inward. You are confronted with your thoughts and all your past deeds. I have witnessed men break down in tears. I have done so. I have seen men slam their heads into concrete walls or hang themselves or cut their wrists.
Some people can’t stand in the face of their own thoughts. They lack the discipline to control or lead those thoughts, so it’s like living a horror movie where every thought is a horrible scene you can’t escape or run from. At that point one chooses to end life to flee, one invents fantasies to override the reality of those thoughts, or one learns to live in each moment by stilling those thoughts and focusing on gratitude for every blessing one has no matter how small, or seemingly unimportant. One is able to control or still one’s thoughts and focus on the moment, which I do via meditation, then one can implant thoughts of gratitude for health, food, each day, etc. This relieves stress by eliminating expectations that can’t be met. Unfulfilled expectations are the cause of negative emotions, which lead to negative behaviors, which fuel further negative thoughts that continue the circle of misery.
When we learn to be thankful for even the most seemingly inconsequential of things, we are training ourselves how to live in the moment and to fuel positive thoughts in that moment, which leads to positive feelings of contentment and happiness, which lead to positive, constructive behavior.
When we learn to be thankful for even the most seemingly inconsequential of things, we are training ourselves how to live in the moment and to fuel positive thoughts in that moment, which leads to positive feelings of contentment and happiness, which lead to positive, constructive behavior. So what we do when we are thankful in the moment for our health or even a prison meal, we learn to build a cycle. We are building a cycle of success. Since we are focused on the moment we aren’t thinking about the future or past or building expectations that, when not met, will lead us back into the negative cycle.
When I find myself bored in this cell I’ll catch myself and say: “Okay, what can I do right now, what will be positive and constructive?” It might be cleaning my room again, it might be to sew a pair of pants, it might be to write a letter. Whatever it is, its purpose is to keep me active in the moment doing something positive that prevents me from getting into dream stuff that fuels expectations I can’t possibly meet, which then leads to frustrations and self-destructive behavior. I can’t change the past. I can’t control the future by daydreaming about it. But I can act now doing something that will positively affect my future […]
No matter how hard we try we can’t solve our problems from being emotionally involved with them. It’s only when we are able to still our racing thoughts, blank our minds of all thoughts, that we are able to defuel our emotions and allow our consciousness to pick up on what is just and the right thing to do. Some say this is the voice of G-d, some say it’s the good inner part of us all that we could hear if we’d only listen. Whatever you believe, it works […]
My Gratitude Letter
Editor’s note: the following letter was prompted by an exercise included in the Grateful Anyhow packet which invited participants to write a gratitude letter to someone for whom they feel grateful.
Dear Sarah M.;
I am so grateful for the work you and so many others at Prisoner Express do, not just for society as a whole, but for us in prison also. So many people like to look down on others to make themselves feel better about themselves. Prisons today aren’t filled with evil career criminals. Over 75% of inmates in prisons these days are victims of dysfunctional families, of single-parent households, and the abusive foster care system. We don’t sit around scheming to be more ruthless and corrupt striving towards ill-gotten gains. We wake up each morning in fear of whether or not we’ll be raped, or beaten, or stabbed because someone wants our food or our shoes. From young teens we are incarcerated in adult jails and prisons because we came from broken families and can’t afford lawyers. We are dehumanized in these places until we become what we were accused of being in the first place.
Our families have forgotten us, society feels good about their own evils by looking down on us, and the politicians and bureaucrats all get rich from our labor and incarceration.
It is humbling that organizations like Prisoner Express reach out to us. They publish our words on the internet so everyone can hear our cries for help and our pleas to be treated like human beings.
Yes, I committed a crime. I have life without parole even though I have never killed, kidnapped, raped, sexually molested, or committed terrorism. I robbed a man 22 years ago for his vehicle. For that I have to die in prison. I’m 46 years old, I have already been incarcerated for 30 years. How long before I’ve paid my debt. 40, 50, 60, or 70 years?
I wake up each morning, I clean my cell, I do my prayers, I work out, and write letters to wonderful people like those at Prisoner Express.
I’m a man. I’m no more or less evil than you or your neighbors. I try each day to do good, to help and respect others to overcome the evil and abuse I face daily, and I do so without resentment or complaint. I do so with thankfulness in my heart for each blessing I experience and each person that shows me the slightest kindness and those who attempt to abuse me because it’s those that give me the opportunity to grow and become a better man.
Danny Brandon, FL
We are immensely grateful to Danny and other participants for sharing their experiences with us. This project sheds light on how grateful living might cultivate resiliency and wellbeing in some of the harshest environments in the U.S.
We offer gratitude to Gary Fine at Prisoner Express and the good folks at the Durland Alternatives Library (which provides a home for Prisoner Express) for their partnership and important work. Learn more about their programs at prisonerexpress.org and alternativeslibrary.org.
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I wish I could send to you my deep gratitude for being able to read what you have chosen to share with us of your experience. You have made a difference to me. Your words and the context of your experience have helped me to understand how desire misguides us in both thought and actions. Your existence matters, and your uniqueness is contributing to our world. You aren’t forgotten. Thank you.
Thank you for sharing your wisdom, your story, and your gift with me this morning. I am so very grateful. Know that your writing is inspirational and infused with an honest perspective that I have never witnessed until today. I heard the fullness of your message and all the pain and promise you have shared. Thank you, Danny.
Dear Danny, reading your sharing I am knowing such shock that you are enduring this. I’m writing from the UK where I do not believe such harsh punishments exist but perhaps I’m wrong. There is huge admiration for you here. It may, in your situation, be easy to believe there is not much you can do to help others but your words are having the ability to touch people deeply. I am hearing you have tremendous courage and willing. Please see yourself as a shining being who through your experience has the opportunity to give hope and clarity to others. Thank you for changing my life. I will pray that your situation does not continue. I’m sending you love my friend.
Thich Nhat Hanh spoke at a prison and the transcript was printed in a small volume, Be Free Where You Are (2002). It inspired me, and Danny’s letter and reflections are equally inspiring, if not more so, because he is the living embodiment of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings. Thank you for sharing your vulnerability with us.
In Matthew 25:35-36, Jesus declares, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” And while He was never a prisoner, He was taken captive and later crucified. Yet in instructing us to visit the prisoner, He is telling us we would be visiting and witnessing Him, our Lord and Savior. Unfortunately, one of the most neglected fields to witness are those behind bars. My sincere gratitude to gratefulness.org for bringing to light, the need for us to be more proactive in visiting and witnessing the imprisoned, for in doing so we are simultaneously glorifying our Creator in Heaven!
We need prison reform and a move towards restorative justice.
Thank you for bringing this perspective forward, Manuel. We heartily agree.
Surely this cannot be true ?
“Yes, I committed a crime. I have life without parole even though I have never killed, kidnapped, raped, sexually molested, or committed terrorism. I robbed a man 22 years ago for his vehicle. For that I have to die in prison. I’m 46 years old, I have already been incarcerated for 30 years. How long before I’ve paid my debt. 40, 50, 60, or 70 years?”
Please, somebody tell me this is wrong. This is deeply deeply disturbing indeed, I came here to feel better not to start worrying about this man. He needs help. This can’t be right surely ?
PBS aired in their documentary series of Country Music and it includes the insights Merle Haggard gained by his experiences on BOTH sides of Societies attitudes towards itself. He was / and still is / a brilliant Human being and that same “light” is coming though D. Brandon’s shared words.
There are many “prisons” within western society …and not just the obvious box structure with metal bars. There are many many potential gains if this society would turn its eye on itself and ask to be truly Self understood and Loved.
I read hundreds of blogs each month, partly for my business as a proofreader, but more importantly, for stretching my mind and developing a better understanding of this world where we are all doing time. I’ve discovered it is not so much the “where” we are, but the “what” that matters most.
Danny’s letter moves me probably more than any other single writer has. I see from the other comments I am not alone in this. I feel like these words come from a sincere man who has found purpose in the world, not dependent on his “where.”
To be able to touch people right in their hearts with words, that is a gift of Danny Brandon’s. Thank you, Danny and Prisoner Express, for providing us this opportunity.
I am so moved and inspired by the letter from Danny, printed on the home page. I’m in awe of the example he sets of being grateful during a 30-year period of incarceration and solitary confinement. Thank you, Danny. I don’t know how you do it, but I will re-read and find one small part that I can begin to emulate. Please know that you have helped me today–if you are able to read this, and I hope you are. I also commend the program called Prisoner Express–such a worthy endeavor and so greatly needed in our retributive justice system.
This trend of school-to-prison pipeline for youth in disadvantaged community in the US needs more attention from those of us who live in a privileged communities, which, if you are not subject of this unjust mistreatment, is most of us. We’ve heard of it, we see reports, but what have I done? What have we done? Trump Administration Recommends Slashing Civil Rights Protections for Students of Color (https://www.aclu.org/blog/juvenile-justice/school-prison-pipeline/trump-administration-recommends-slashing-civil-rights) – this is the office we have elected. What happened to Danny and thousands more is something preventable. The word of the day today is “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” I have been oblivious. I have accustomed to staying in my comfort zone. I don’t quite know how yet, but I need to get involved. I don’t live in the area of “Prisoner Express” organization, but there must be someone in my area who are fighting this fight, too. I could have easily been Danny if I were brought up here. I got lucky just by born in the right place that I didn’t earn. I knew I had to be involved before. I didn’t. I can’t just let things slide, but find a way to involved somehow. I don’t know how yet, but I must.
It is soo good to realize, how my heart, feelings and thoughts are affected by this “reality-message” from human fellows who are living in quite different circumsatances I would never like to be in. Thanks for sharing and doing all this human work with Prisoners. I deeply respect and how to this people, who have decided to live so deeple reflexive and being so present. Thanks for giving this example from a part of live and society, which is true. Praying for all of us, who are involved to stand upright and walk each’s TRUTH. Blessings for all. A deep BOW from me.
I agree with Pilgrim that this is one of the most life-changing and life-giving essays I have ever read! I have no words to express how profoundly my heart has been touched and affected. Honestly, I don’t think I will ever be the same again. I am going to make copies to share with people. God bless everyone involved with Prisoner Express and all prisoners. Thank-you for publishing these letters!
With love from my heart to all, Sheila ?
Thank you for publishing this. It is one of the most life-changing and life-giving essays I have read, not only on this site, but anywhere. It will definitely help me reframe my days of frumpiness and frustration, to be days of gratitude and kindness to others. Thank you, Danny.