From Shamanism, Spring/Summer 1999, Vol. 12 No. 1
“There comes a time when we must stop crying and wringing our hands and get on with the healing that we are so much in need of”
—Art Solomon, Ojibway Elder 
This article focuses on bringing shamanic understandings to problems related to prisons. It is based on working with hundreds of inmates over the last four years in federal and state prisons and local jails.
In tribal cultures, soul loss, power loss, and spirit intrusions and possessions are not considered individual problems per se. To quote Larry Peters, an anthropologist and psychotherapist: “Rather, they are seen as problems involving the whole social network, and the balance and relationship to the spiritual forces of the cosmos. That is, because ‘illnesses’ are considered transpersonal and sacred crises; they involve the intense participation of deity, family, and social network. Thus treatment is simultaneously psychosocial and spiritual.” 
In this world view, illness (here defined as including prisons) is symptomatic of an imbalance between society and the spiritual realm. This larger view is critical to being able to do shamanic work in the prisons.
The United States has a crisis in prisons. The number of people incarcerated as of June 1997 was 1.7 million.  For the first time in history, state and municipal governments are spending more money on the criminal justice system than education. Prison building has become a growth industry with stocks sold on the New York Stock Exchange.
Since the 1970s, there has been a shift from rehabilitation to punishment in the criminal justice system. Haney and Zimbardo  argue that the cultural rage to punish and expand strategies to make offenders suffer has led to this huge prison expansion. Rehabilitation has died as an overall emphasis in the prison system and the general attitude of many prison staff is “nothing works.”
Shamanic Work in Prisons
The first time I worked in a federal prison, I was not quite sure what the compelling forces of Spirit I sensed had in mind. I felt drawn there like a magnet and felt myself there even before I physically arrived. I was soon to learn the importance of doing shamanic work in this setting.
As I would discover many times over, correctional facilities are built in beautiful areas. I wondered what it would be like if I were an inmate surrounded by the beauty of the natural world. Would it taunt me, knowing I could not walk freely in the beauty that surrounded me? Would I feel cut off from the world I left behind? It felt important to me to know that feeling within myself before I entered a facility.
In all the places I work, I contact the spirits of place and work carefully to honor my being there. I have found that every prison I have worked in is built on sacred land. Most often they are built on burial grounds and places of healing. I have found this to be true of state mental health hospitals as well, and often wonder why this occurs. There is always a guardian spirit at the site who is angry or distressed by what is happening there. I do what work and ceremony I can to bring healing to the place.
Entering a prison with a drum and rattle requires a sense of humor. It takes months of paperwork and security clearances before one can enter such a facility. Paperwork has to be at the entry point and in the prison guards’ hands before entry. Everything I bring into the facility has to be pre-approved by the warden. I have experienced a number of incidents at the entry point. For example, in addition to having been detained several times because they did not have the paperwork, my African gourd rattle was once x-rayed seven times to “make sure this is not a bomb or that you’re not smuggling in drugs.” While I could speculate on the intent behind comments about the rattle or drum, I mostly work to engage the guards and be lighthearted with them.
A typical visit lasts a couple of days. I work with circles of 45 men for three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon. While the format I follow is essentially consistent, I journey prior to each visit to learn what I should do. Most often, my work involves a teaching story, a group healing ceremony, a truth speaking time, and a closing prayer.
Most of the teaching stories have the intent of teaching about spiritual healing and come from my personal history. The specific stories I use and format I follow are always guided by journeys I take prior to working in a specific prison. The following is an example of a story I have used for this purpose: I grew up in a poor inner-city neighborhood where we were the only Jewish family. Because of religious hatred, I was often gang beaten and/or sexually assaulted. When alone, hiding in my room, I would pray to God that I could get even with the worst of these bullies. As luck would have it three of the four died violent deaths before I graduated high school.
After I left high school, I dreamt everyday of killing the one who was still alive. In my dream, I would go to my tenth high school reunion and kill him point blank in front of his wife and all who were there.
In my early twenties I left Indiana, and moved to Wisconsin. Shortly after moving, I received a letter from my mother who wrote that she was in the hospital with cancer. I had lost my father a year earlier to the same disease. This news meant I needed to immediately make arrangements to be with her.
After driving for six-plus hours, I pulled into a parking garage across from the hospital. I drove to the seventh level, where I found a parking place. I got out of my car and started walking toward the elevator when the bully I had dreamt of killing drove up. Recognizing me, he parked and got out of his car. In the next moment we were face to face. It was the first time I was facing him without someone holding me down for him to kick or hit. Posturing, he began shouting antisemitic epithets and threatened that he was going to beat me up like he always had. In the incongruity of the moment, I began to laugh hysterically. The madder he got, the redder in the face he got, the louder I laughed, tears rolling down my face. Inside myself, I knew that I had enough rage to kill him. But then, a miraculous thing happened. He fell apart and began weeping. And then he ran off. I had a horrible feeling about this and tried to catch up to him, but to no avail.
After a story like this, I can begin to engage the men. Most of the time, they do not understand why I felt bad. I talk about how healing needs to happen for my adversary as well as myself. I talk about how making another person suffer does not alleviate our own suffering, instead creating the seeds for more spiritual illness. Usually, they will share some stories about themselves that my story evokes. Many of them tell what I call “dissociation stories.” Two examples of these stories, which are typical of persons incarcerated for murder, are:
1. I got angry while making a drug buy. I don’t know what happened. All of sudden, I was speaking in this language I didn’t know—like Arabic or something. And then I watched myself shoot him in the head.
2. My old man was always beating me. I don’t know why. I was filled with so much pain and hate. But I felt good when I hurt people. But you know, it never felt like me. It was like someone else did it— even though I know I did it.
Interaction with the men leads to talk about soul loss, symptoms of soul loss, and the need to connect with Spirit. I talk about what shamanism is and how shamans work. It is consistently my experience that they want to connect with this in a direct way. Many of them speak of frustration with prayer and meditation. They feel they must be doing something wrong when they cannot find their place of connection. The desire to be healed is strong. Their biggest complaints are of emptiness, numbness, or intense internal pain.
In a typical first visit, I talk a lot more than the men do. It is prison and “everything you say can and will be used against you.” That aspect of the dynamic usually makes it difficult to know fully what is occurring in the minds of the participants. When I teach journeying to the men, I get four or five at best who will admit something happened for them. My journeys about this issue consistently give me the message, “there is so much soul loss here, their fear will not let them go.”
As a result of this guidance, I put more emphasis on group healing ceremonies. I tell the men who do not want healing to sit outside the circle. In four years, I have had only one man remove himself. Afterwards, I ask the men to share their experiences. They report hearing chanting, someone touching them, a feeling of electricity in their body, or a dead family member appearing to them. They are surprised when I tell them I was not singing nor did I touch any of them.
There also have been incidents with staff in these ceremonies worth noting. A number of staff members who were watching have left with tear-filled eyes. The law of “everything will be used against you” applies to them as well.
In one incident, a prison guard saw a Native American Medicine Man dancing behind me as I did the work. It shattered him. He had been having spiritual dreams of this man for months. A born-again Christian, he had been advised that these dreams were the Devil’s work and that he needed to deny them to keep them from occurring. Another part of him felt the power of the healing work. The incongruity of experience and belief created a huge quandary for him. Fortunately, a staff psychologist sympathetic to my work took the time to help him talk through his experience. In another incident, my spirit teacher told me to stop a ceremony when we were right In the midst of it. I felt a blast of pain come into my heart. When I looked in the direction from where it was coming, I saw a prison guard with absolute horror etched on his face. As it turned out, he was having a flashback to a prison hostage situation of ten years prior. He was convinced I was being held hostage because the lights were slightly dimmed. Private
discussions led to an agreement to do the ceremony under full lights. I had to find a way to let him save face in front of the prisoners.
Case Examples of Work with Inmates
It is difficult to summarize the totality of my experiences in the prisons. One way is to share a few stories as a way of giving readers a flavor of the work that I have done up to this point. I have changed people’s names and omitted prison locations so as to protect their confidentiality as per my agreement with the prison staff. The majority of the inmates I have worked with are African-American, Native American, and Hispanic. Most of them are incarcerated for drug offenses, murder, or illegal immigration. Surprisingly, this diversity yields no discomfort with the kind of work I do. Most of these inmates have had some sort of exposure in their lives to spiritual healing. The stories will reflect that diversity.
Case # 1—Carlos
“Carlos” is a young man in his late twenties from Columbia. He says his family is Kogi, though he lived in a city his whole life. I met him when I was asked to work with a Native American group by the Religious Services Department. I was told they could not get any Elders to come into the prison and needed to find some way to support the prisoners who wanted to practice their religion. When I met with the group, I was quite astonished by its diversity. Several were from Central and South America. A diverse number of tribes were represented, including Seneca, Lakota, Apache, Seminole, and Cherokee. Two of the men were African-Americans who had Cherokee relatives. There were also several European Americans who thought they had Native American ancestry, but were not sure.
Carlos was sitting directly across from me in the circle. Everything about him was depressed. It was like a black cloud hung over him. After a brief talk about soul loss and healing, he became the most active talker in the group.
“I want to die. If I journey, will it help me die? Do I have to come back? I’m a heroin addict. Heroin killed my spirit. I don’t want to be here. I‘ve tried to kill myself in lots of ways, but they always bring me back.”
At this point, he pulled up his sleeves and showed all his knife scars. Then he pulled up his shirt and showed all of his bullet hole scars.
“All I feel is pain. When I was young, I saw people like you. They scared me. I saw things you would not believe. But my spirit is sick. I ran drugs into this country so I could have heroin. I killed people so I could have heroin. I am cursed.”
Further discussion revealed he had grown up in poverty and did not have much knowledge of his ancestors. On this particular day, I did a group extraction ritual and some soul retrievals. Carlos happened to be one of the people for whom I was guided to do more specific healing.
I learned later that day from prison staff just how destructive towards himself he had been, as well as the full range of his criminal record. He had not exaggerated.
When I returned six months later, I was shocked when I saw him. He was bright and glowing and very much at peace. He was participating in educational activities for himself, and the staff reported he was a changed man.
“Tony” is an African American man who, when I first saw him, I thought to be in his early twenties. He was actually 37. He is a strikingly beautiful man—an “adonis” type. He expressed a great concern about what I would be doing because, as he explained it, he was a “Christian man,” and was skeptical that there was anything to my work.
As I began a group healing ceremony, a vision of an old Cherokee woman came to me. She said she was Tony’s grandmother and that I should tell him she had been visiting him in his dreams. When it was time to end the circle, I pulled him aside and told him what I had experienced. He was totally shocked. He shared with me that he had been having dreams about her and that he had not seen her since he was five years old. He had been taken to see her then and vaguely remembered being at a ceremony. It was why he came to see what I was going to do. He added that his mother was Cherokee and that his people had been taken in by the Cherokee long ago. The dreams had been disturbing for him. He felt torn between what he was being taught by his Christian minister and his pull towards Cherokee spirituality. We were able to have some time to talk about how they could complement one another. Over the months, he wrote me a few letters, so our dialogue continued. His dreams were becoming more profound and disturbing to him. In effect, he was learning the Cherokee ways through his dreams.
In my next visit to the prison, Tony asked me to teach the circle journeying, which I did. He was able to talk with his Cherokee grandmother, African ancestors, and Jesus in the Upperworld and was told he was to help bring all the “colors” of people together. Typically a very guarded person, he opened up in the circle and shared much of his story. He asked me if I would do a soul retrieval for him, which I did as part of the group healing ceremony. Much of the focus in the soul retrieval journey was on the trauma of losing his family roots. Tony has since been paroled and has written me once saying what he learned continues to help him in his life.
“John” is Lakota. In four different circles with me, he never said a word. I knew him by name and knew he had grown up on Pine Ridge, for I asked all the men to tell me their names and where they were from. But that was all I knew.
After not seeing John for about a year, we were finally in circle together again. I had worked with many of the men there before so I asked how they all were doing. I was surprised when John started talking.
“Don’t know what happened since you were last here. I haven’t had a drink since you were here. Don’t know why, just didn’t feel like it. People here get juice, something, and let it ferment ‘til you can get a buzz off it. People invite me to drink with them, but I just say, ‘No thanks.’ I don’t feel empty inside like I used to. That ceremony we did, I felt something come into me—it was like electricity. It stung me like a bee and I was hot. I began drinking every day when I was six years old. My father would get drunk and violent. I became like him. For the first time in 30 years I’m not drinking and I feel good inside. I feel blessed by the Creator.”
Mike approached me after I told the story about myself mentioned earlier in this article. He shared with me that he thought a lot of what I had to say made sense and he thought I could help him. At the same time, he admitted it took him aback. Mike was a national leader of the Ku Klux Klan, in prison for murder and a variety of hate crimes. I told him that his approaching me was a healing for me and I thanked him. It was not what he expected to hear.
In time, I did do a couple of soul retrievals for him. He came from a horrible background of beatings by his father. Most of our talks and writing focused on how to heal the bad we had done. His desire was to find a way to make amends. Most of our work consisted of him talking and me listening. He talked about his discomforts being incarcerated with many of the people he had hated most of his life. He talked about wanting to turn his life around. We talked about baseball—it really did not matter what we talked about. He needed to talk and I needed to listen. I think Spirit healed hatred that lived in both of us.
“Scott” was a leader among the Native American prisoners. Doing sweats (many prisons allow sweat lodge ceremonies) and other ceremonies were important to him. He expressed bitterness about the sweat lodges at the prison. He noted that almost none of the Native prisoners had ever been in a sweat lodge before, Native people from outside the U.S. were lumped into the group who were doing sweats, there was a lack of sacredness in the sweats, and many who were in gangs used the sweatlodge as a time to talk and create “bad medicine.”
Whenever I am in circle with Native American prisoners, I tell them l am their guest and I follow their lead. Typically, everyone smudges and then someone offers a prayer, followed by some drumming and chanting. At this point I usually share my teachings and do a healing ceremony. Native American prisoners feel that prisons work to keep them away from their practices. They cry for Elders, for many have little to no knowledge of their traditions. Scott is one of the most articulate of the inmates in expressing these concerns.
I agreed to meet with Scott alone as per the request of the prison Chaplain. Scott has great bitterness and anger, but wants to be on a good path. I learned that he killed a man in a bar fight. He is filled with sadness because his mother died while he was in prison, and very recently, he learned his brother also had died. He could not be with them, nor could he go to their funerals. These were the two people who he felt cared for him. Many of his family members had cut themselves off from him. In his anger he was easily depressed and thought of suicide daily. His biggest physical complaint was severe daily migraines, which I learned from prison staff was a major concern at the prison. In my discussions with him, I promised to help find an Elder who would be willing to come to the prison. I also did a soul retrieval for him.
I did not know how difficult it would be to get an Elder into the prison. The Chaplain explained that the Medicine People would not come in because it is a federal facility and they hold great bitterness towards the federal government. He said he had tried many times to get someone to come in.
Through people I knew, I found three Elders who were willing to come in and work with the men. Two of them had been in jail early in their lives, had turned their lives around, and were living exemplary lives. Prison officials insisted they fill out security clearance forms. I was told that their policy was that no one with a prison record would be allowed in. I argued, who better to talk about getting on a good spiritual path than someone who has done it? This point fell on deaf ears. One Elder was cleared after prison officials agreed not to do a security clearance on him. However, they insisted on a contract with the Elder involving payment for his services. This raised a number of issues concerning Native American cultural beliefs. In my discussions with the Elder, he said it would be nice to have his expenses paid for travel, food, and lodging. It was not his way to sell his services or ask for a fee. Fortunately, there was a sympathetic prison psychologist who helped resolve these issues. I found the prison and prison policies to be the obstacle to letting Elders in to serve the Native American inmate population and not the “tribal resistance” being expressed by prison personnel.
By the time the Elder was able to come, Scott had already been transferred from the prison to another facility. I wrote to inform him I had kept my promise. He wrote back, saying this gave him a good feeling in his heart. He also told me his bitterness and migraine headaches were gone for the year since the soul retrieval.
Kareem is an African-American prisoner and a Black Muslim, a religious organization that does a tremendous amount of service work in the prisons. They offer spiritual support, educational tutoring, and mentoring in almost every facility where I have worked.
In a circle of inmates that included Kareem, we did what I call a “Jewish extraction/soul healing ritual.” A group of my teachers whom I call “People of the Just” said they wanted me to do this ritual. I taught the men a Hebrew song that invokes my teachers to come and help take spiritual intrusions away. The song had a lot of power that day as the men sang with deep booming voices. It was surprising to me to experience the men so fully letting go.
In this ritual I work to pull out intrusions. I never touch anyone. In Kareem’s case, I was shown a five year-old part of his soul to bring back. I also was shown his father in a drunken rage beating his wife and beating Kareem for trying to protect his mother.
When the ritual was over, Kareem was the first to speak. “Did you touch me?” I simply shook my head, “no.”
“I felt hands all over me. And then later on, I felt like a balloon being blown up. What was that?”
I asked him if he wanted me to speak about my experience in the group or talk with him later.
He said he wanted to know now.
I told Kareem about my experience of being asked to bring a piece of his soul back and what I had seen.
He began to weep and through his tears said, “How did you know that?” As he wept, it was as if a tidal wave hit the whole circle and all the men began to cry. It was one of the most powerful moments I have ever witnessed.
Universally, the research asserts that imprisonment does not stop crime. It is ironic that incarceration is booming at a time when crime rates are falling.
Ultimately, shamanism is a system of learning and understanding the hidden forces that effect us all. I would not argue that it works for all the men in prison, and yet it offers a way of looking at alternatives to punishment. Saulteaux Elder Campbell Papequash, who works in the prisons in Canada observes:
“You will learn whatever you desire that you want to learn. Learning can’t be told. It has to be experienced. As we learn, we always change. So does our perceiving. If man wishes to grow, he must become a seeker. Our first teacher is our hearts. It is not enough to want to change. We have to take steps to change whatever we want to change: the Mind, e.g., the way we think; our character; our conduct; our personality.” 
In one of the prisons, a drumming/journeying circle has been established. A nonrequired event in the facility, it grew in popularity. Like anything new, it had growing pains. There were some power struggles that needed to be worked through. These struggles were mostly resolved through journeying and by the men learning to work with the guidance of spirits.
Until recently I had done no reading about prisons. It struck me how prisons did not exist in tribal cultures. Rather, there were systems in place for working on restoring balance. Most often, banishment was a last resort. The power of the community was brought together to bring a person back to a right path. A question I now hold is: How do we restore our culture to a place of healing where prisons are a last resort solution to our collective problems?
I end with a few words from Ojibway Elder Art Solomon, who works actively on behalf of Native peoples in the prisons: “When Christopher Columbus landed in North America not one Native person was in prison, because there were no prisons. We had laws and order because law was written in the hearts and minds and souls of the people and when justice had to be applied it was tempered with mercy. The laws came from the ceremonies which were given by the spirit people, the invisible ones. As a people we were less than perfect as all other people are, but we had no prisons because we didn’t need them. We knew how to live and we also knew how not to live.” 
1. Keen and Posluns 1994:51
2. Peters 1994
3. Bureau of Justice Statistics 1998
4. Chambliss 1994
5. Haney and Zimbardo 1998
6. Waldrum 1997: 81-82
7. Keen and Posluns 1994: 118
Bureau of Justice Statistics
1998 “Nation’s Prisons and jails hold more than 1.7 million. Up almost 100.000 in a year.” January 18 press release. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice
1994 “Policing the Ghetto Underclass: The Politics of Law and Law Enforcement.” Social Problems 41: 177-194
Haney, Craig and Philip Zimbardo.
1998 “The Past and Future of U.S. Prison Policy: Twenty-Five Years After the Stanford Prison Experiment.” American Psychologist 53
Kneen, Cathleen and Michael Posluns, eds.
1994 Eating Bitterness: A Vision Beyond Prison Walls, Poems and Essays of Art Solomon. Toronto: NC Press Limited.
1994 “Rites of Passage and Borderline Syndrome: Perspectives in Transpersonal Anthropology.” ReVision 17.
Waldram, James B.,
1997 The Way of the Pipe: Aboriginal Spirituality and Symbolic Healing in Canadian Prisons. Orchard Park, N.Y.: Broadview Press.