tv Religion Ethics Newsweekly PBS February 20, 2011 10:00am-10:30am PST
coming up -- the re-entry problem for the hundreds of thousands of men and women getting out of prison, and the states and faith-based organizations trying to help them. and famed novelist ernest gaines on why he owes so much to his louisiana ancestors. also, a meditation lesson from sharon salzberg.
welcome. i'm bob abernethy. it's good to have you with us. president obama delivered his 2012 budget to congress this week, as house republicans pushed for deep cuts in federal spending. many religious groups warned against reducing services for the poor, while faith-based aid organizations like world vision and church world service lobbied against cuts in funding for international relief. some charities say they are also concerned about the president's proposal to reduce the tax deductions for charitable giving. meanwhile, several conservative groups say the rising debt is cause for moral concern, in part because of its burden on future generations. they also called for the elimination of federal funding for family planning organizations.
the catholic archdiocese of philadelphia said it will reopen its investigation of allegations of sexual use brought agnst more than 30 local priests. the announcemencamefter a grand jury charged three priests and one catholic school teacher with assault and rape. the jury also indicted the monseignor who oversaw the clergy for endangering the welfare of children. he is reportedly the first u.s. catholic official facing criminal charges for failing to remove abusive priests. the vatican ruled this week in favor of three catholic churches in western massachusetts. they had been closed by the diocese of springfield to save money and because of what they said was a decrease in membership and a shortage of priests. round the clock vigils have taken place in one of the buildings since its closing. the diocese says it may appeal the vatican's order to reopen the churches. also this week, the greek
orthodox church in america filed a federal lawsuit against the port authority of new york and new jersey. the church accuses the public agency of backing out of a deal to rebuild st. nicholas church located near ground zero. it was destroyed on september 11th. the greek orthodox archdiocese wants to rebuild the church nearby but says the port authority has refused to work with them as promised. the port authority says the church is asking for too much money. indian officials have cleared a top tibetan buddhist of any wrongdoing after an investigation into his finances. the 25-year-old karmapa lama is the third-highest ranking leader of tibetan buddhism. he has been living in dharmsala, india, since 2000. last month, police raided his monastery and seized more than $1 million in cash. speculation swirled about the
source of the money. indian officials have now concluded the cash was from donations and that the karmapa did not break any laws. it's estimated that nationwide more than 600,000 prisoners will be released this year to re-enter society. but they, their communities and faith-based organizationsrying to help them face a painful reaty -- too little money to pay for the help many former prisoners need to stay out of trouble and keep from being sent to prison again. lucky severson reports from hawaii. >> located in town. >> reporter: this is a re-entry program for inmates about ready to be released back to their communities. it's funded by the state of hawaii and the social ministry of the catholic archdiocese of honolulu. angela anderson is one of the fortunate participants. she's been serving time for drug abuse. >> when i had got out of jail
before, you know, i went directly back to drugs, because that's really all there was. but here i got structure. i made great friends. you have classes that you have to attend to. you have to live to a schedule. >> reporter: what it does is lessen the odds that she'll go back to prison. in 2009, the latest statistics available, there were 2.3 million americans serving time behind bars, the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. since the early 1970s, the prison and jail population has increased by 700%. now, faced with the staggering costs of incarceration, about $55 billion a year, politicians are asking community and faith- based volunteers to help the re-entry process for the hundreds of thousands of ex-cons who are coming home. the state of hawaii is no exception. to reduce the spiraling costs of incarceration, a number of states started exporting inmates
to cheaper localities, often to other states, and quite often to private for-profit prisons. over the years, hawaii has shipped thousands of inmates to the mainland. at latest count, there are over 1,800 in one prison in arizona. but the state has discovered that the costs are considerably greater than projected, and not just in taxpayer dollars. >> we've had a terrible "nimby" problem over the years, not in my backyard, about building another prison. >> reporter: judge steven alm started the nationally recognized project hope, a program for probation violators that has cut recidivism rates in half. t wh you're out in the world on probation, you're the one who's going to be making all these decisions. >> reporter: judge alm says hawaii inmates doing time in arizona are deprived of crucial family support. >> families are not going to be able to fly up to arizona to see them. they're not going to be able to keep that kind of relationship. they're going to get cut off, and some are going to get cut
off from their culture, from their faith organizations. it does create a real problem. >> reporter: some are now reconsidering the wisdom of locking up prisoners from hawaii almost 4,000 miles from their families. kat brady is with the community alliance on prisons. >> and what they found was that people who served their sentences abroad actually, when they're released and if they get rearrested, it's for violent crimes. where people who serve their sentences in hawaii, upon release if they get rearrested, it's usually for a drug crime. >> reporter: nationally, about six out of ten inmates commit another crime within three years of being released. brady and others here now think that hawaiian prisoners serving in arizona are bringing gang crime back with them. jeffrey silva was in arizona, part of a ten-year sentence for failing a urine drug test while on parole. >> you feel alienated way out there and stuff like that, so you form friendships with each
other and stuff and bonds, and next thing you know it's a gang. >> reporter: ted sakai is a former warden and hawaii public safety director. he says hawaiians feel a cultural and religious connection to their homeland. >> what we have found is that just having somebody you can talk to, just having a connection with your neighbor, church member, with -- definitely with somebody in your family can make a big difference. >> there was a big study done in california, probably the premiere study, and they found that people who are incarcerated who had no visits were six times more likely to be rearrested, where people who had at least three visits from three separate family members a year, their recivism rate was much lower. >> reporter: nationally this year about 650,000 inmates will be coming home from prison.
there are so many and so few services to help them re-enter society instead of re-entering a life of crime. here in hawaii, the local catholic church asked for some help from gene williams. >> faith-based organizations, as a matter of public policy, have been designated first responders by default. but they're being asked to do it with no resources. >> reporter: are they stepping up? >> they're stepping up with collections, with volunteer hours, but there's a real problem. that's not sustainable. >> reporter: williams heads a national congregational and community nonprofit organization. >> and when you're talking about communities having to absorb and reintegrate people coming back from prison, those costs are astronomical. you have mental health costs, you have housing, social services, family reunification, anger management, drug treatment. there are a whole host of
re-entry ingredients that faith- based organizations are actually, you know, investing in and providing. >> reporter: les estrella works with addicted inmates for the archdiocese of honolulu. years ago, he served time for drug abuse. >> research has shown that faith, as far as recidivism, recovery from substance abuse, you know, mental health, those types of disabilities, is really a good resource. it's a good place to be, it's a safe place for the most part. >> reporter: this program, operated by catholic volunteers, provides housing and training for inmates about to re-enter their community. elliott kaimi served time in arizona. now he's learning job skills. >> yes, this program teaches you how to fill out applications, make resumes. they also teach you how to do what they call a mock trial interview, one on one with a
staff, so that way when you do get interviewed you don't feel nervous. >> you can go in there in the morning, get on the internet, you check your e-mail, you go to craigslist, hirenet, put in applications. it's really wonderful. >> reporter: angela got a job working at a homeless shelter. >> i've been going out from november every day looking for a job. >> reporter: any luck? >> no, but i still -- everyday i put in at least one application a day. >> james rodriguez is now in a low-security hawaiian prison that allows him to leave the institution each day to look for work. after the long saration from his parents, they're quite hpy to provide transportation. gene williams says faith-based groups are so overburdened with prisoner re-entry they need help, too. >> faith-based organizations believe in redemption. in many ways, though, that belief system is being exploited.
government can say, "we can't provide programming for people coming home because we have budget constraints." but faith-based organizations, if they refuse people, they are undermining the very integrity of their institutions, because compassion is part of their mission, and so what you find now are congregations who are struggling, and many who are developing compassion fatigue. >> reporter: meanwhile, hawaii has a new governor who has pledged to move the prisoners back to the islands and end the contract with the arizona prison. whether there will be funding to help with their re-entry remains to be seen. for "religion and ethics newsweekly," i'm lucky severson in hilo, hawaii. in other news, president obama awarded the medal of freedom to 15 men and women this week. the country's highest civilian honor is presented to those who have made important contributions to u.s. national security or culture.
among this year's recipients were congressman john lewis, a civil rights pioneer and an ordained minister, and gerda weissman klein, an activist and holocaust survivor. dr. tom little, a christian missionary killed in afghanistan, was honored posthumously. february is black history month, and we have a profile today of novelist ernest gaines. he is probably best known for his historical novel, later made into a movie, "the autobiography of miss jane pittman." he also wrote "a lesson before dying" and "a gathering of old men." gains says the lives of his forbears, their struggles against racism, and thei religious fervor have been essential to his writing. gaines talked with bob faw. >> reporter: ernest gaines is older now, 78, and hobbled by a
bad back, but as he slowly makes his way to the church where as a boy he rang the bell at funerals, he will not, indeed, cannot forget the debt he owes to his ancestors in this louisiana bayou country. >> without them, buried back there under those pecan trees, i would not be the writer today, if i would be a writer at all. >> reporter: for more than 50ears, he has brought them to life in short stories and novels, some made into major films. ♪ happy birthday to you >> reporter: perhaps his most famous novel, "the autobiography of miss jane pittman," charts the dawn of the civil rights movement from her days as a slave. >> i've been carrying a scar on my back ever since i was a slave. >> reporter: miss jane pittman was inspired by gaines' aunt augusteen, whom he calls the greatest influence in his life. >> she could not walk.
>> reporter: she could not walk. >> she crawled over the floor all her life, but she did everything in the world for me. >> reporter: she could not walk, but you say she taught you how to stand. >> right. by her action, by her overcoming all the obstacles. >> reporter: gaines remembers his aunt and other forebears as he sits in the church which he has restored on plantation land where he once picked cotton. >> when i'm sitting in the church alone, i can hear singing of the old people. i can hear their singing and i can hear their praying, and sometimes i hum one of their songs. >> reporter: and gaines feels so indebted to his elders that, on his own property, he has also lovingly restored and now maintains this cemetery where many of those elders are buried. >> i'd always go back to the cemetery and sit on one of those tombs back there, and i felt more at peace at that time than any other time in my life.
i could feel their spirit there with me. >> reporter: that connection helps explain why gaines writes so passionately about the people and places in his past, because he worries that past is facing extinction. >> that tractor was getting closer and closer to the graveyard, and i got scared that that tractor would plow up them graves and get rid of all the proof that we ever was. >> all writers write about the past, and i try to make it come alive so you can see what happened. >> reporter: john lowe, professor of literature at louisiana state university, is an expert on ernest gaines. >> he's writing for his people. you know, there's an old african proverb that says no people should be hungry for their own image. that world was missing, and he's put that world on the stage now. >> reporter: there is in that world darkness, then hope. in "a lesson before dying," an
innocent man, jefferson, will be executed. but before that, he learns to face death with dignity. >> good-bye, mr. wiggins. tell the children i'm strong. tell them i am a man. >> his works radiate that spirituality that gaines has always seen as part of the human condition, that man has to believe in something bigger than himself, and it might be religion, it could be any number of things. jefferson does walk to the electric chair as a man, because he has come to understand that his life has meaning for other people in the community, and it makes a big difference to them how he handl thasituation, and so he does, indeed, endorse something bigger than himself. >> reporter: through jefferson's transformation his teacher, grant wiggins, also grows and emerges stronger. >> ain't going to be no lynching tonight.
>> reporter: and in "a gathering of old men," an entire community, long beaten down, finds self-respect. >> there is a sense of hope. >> reporter: marcia gdet is the director of the ernest j. gaines center at the university of louisiana at lafayette. >> it may not be perfectly optimistic hope, but there's certainly the possibility of hope, and that's a much more realistic thing. >> reporter: raised a baptist, gaines attended catholic school for three years. he doesn't want readers to overstate religious symbolism in his work, but many scholars find it there, from miss jane pittman's religious conversion to the christ-like figure of jefferson in "a lesson before dying." >> gaines was raised in a religious tradition, and this is a pretty religious state even todayand it's quite understandable that his work would be permeated everywhere, you know, with this kind of religious symbolism.
in the south, our great mythology is the bible. it's not greek or roman myth like it is in europe. it's the bible. >> go home, jamison. i don't want to have to tell you anymore. >> reporter: black clergymen in gaines' novels are sometimes portrayed as sanctimonious and ineffectual. when in "a gathering of old men" a group of black men stand up to white oppression for the first time in their lives, the minister tries to stop them. >> nobody listening to you today, you old bootlegger, shut up. >> gaines understands the importance of the church, particularly during the civil rights movement. but at the same time, he's also aware because of the way the white community imposed it on the slave community to keep blacks in line. i think he has a very mixed attitude about the church. >> reporter: for the black church, gaines is awed by its role as a sanctuary. >> what i miss today more than
anything el, i don't go to church as much anymore, but that old-time religion, that old singing, that old praying which i love so much, that is the great strength of my being, of my writing. >> reporter: do you regard yourself as a religious person? >> i think i'm a very religious person. i think i believe in god as much as any man does. i don't only believe in god, i know there's god. >> reporter: gaines wrote the first draft of all his novels by hand. while hisn't writing much now, he still remembers 1948, when he first left the plantation land around false river, carrying with him an imaginary block of wood. >> the old people told me that okay, you can leave us, but you would carry this, this symbolic big piece of wood that i must struggle with for the rest of my life until i've completely finished that wood, which i
doubt that i ever will. but there will always be something to chip away and to carve into something nice and beautiful. >> reporter: ernest gaines, honoring the past, making it come alive because he must. for "religion and ethics newsweekly" this is bob faw in oscar, louisiana. we sit in today on a meditation lesson taught by sharon salzberg, a teacher and author whose new book is "real happiness, the power of meditation." ms. salzberg says meditation can reduce stress and encourage concentration and compassion. recently she taught her buddhist practices to the insight meditation community of washington, d.c. a very, very common
foundational exercise in meditation is to just sit down and feel your breath, just the normal, natural flow of the breath, wherever it's appearing. and most people are kind of shocked to discover it's generally not like a thousan breaths before yr mind wanrs. it's genally, like, two. we practice letting go. we practice beginning again. no matter how long it has been, no matter where your attention went, it's okay. just gather our attention back to feeling the breath. we all get distracted, and i think it's important to realize that it's normal. it's natural. it's not a sign of failure. it doesn't mean you are doing badly. because i would say the critical moment in the meditation in that way is the moment we realize we've been distracted. and at ia monthere it is so common to just berate ourselves and condemn ourselves and carry on for a very long time, whereas we have this opportunity to just let go and to begin again.
so beginning again is, i would say, the essence of the transformation of meditation. so many times people in manhattan will say to me, it's fine for the buddha sitting under a tree 2,500 years ago in india. it's too bad that i live in manhattan where it's so noisy. but if you do live inanhattan, ou ve rk to make iteal right there. meditation has been cradled in many, many religious traditions. it's really about the method. it's not about a belief system, it's not about a dogma. it's about personally utilizing a method to see what benefits you might get. i come from a family with a great deal of suffering and loss and conflict, and like for many people, it was a family system where this was never ever spoken about. so i didn't know what to do with all of those feelings inside of me. and here was the buddha saying you are not alone, this is part of life. and the other thing was his completely op invation to do something about that suffering, not of course the suffering that comes our way through loss and
circumstance, but the way we hold it. there are very practical, pragmatic methods that anyone can utilize to transform their own minds. when we are lost in anger, that's very painful. and greed and fear and jealousy, these are extremely painful states. and if we can make that transition to reframing it, we can have some compassion for oursees. and that's good begiing. so maybe you are at that coenous meing at work and energy is starting to rise and tempers are starting to go up. you don't have to say, oh, excuse me for a minute and, like, go and open a closet door and pull out all your equipment and do the set-up and, you know, light the candle. sorry, buddha. you don't even have to close your eyes. no one needs to know you are doing it. isn't it amazing that we can have that kind of resourcefulness? we tune in, we connect, we come back.
finally, on the tv game show jeopardy this week, a supercomputer squared off again the program's two longest running champions. and the computer won. watson, the computer, got the $1 million prize, which its creators at ibm say will be donated to charity. half will go to the faith-based aid organization, world vision. that's our program for now. i'm bob abernethy. there's much more on our website, where you can read excerpts from books by meditation teacher sharon salzberg andovelt erst gaines and find links to more resources on faith-based prisoner re-entry programs. you can comment on all of our stories and share them. audio and video podcasts are also available. you can follow us on facebook and twitter, find us on youtube, and watch us anytime, anywhere on smartphones and iphones with our mobile web app.