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.