"The dignity of the perpetrator resides in his guilt."

- Eva Madelung

Notes From Constellations in Prison

Dan Booth Cohen &
the Men of Growing Together III
at Bay State Correctional Center
Norfolk, MA


Since September, 2004 Dan Booth Cohen has facilitated Constellation circles inside a Massachusetts prison. The men of the Growing Together III program are "lifers," many of whom are serving sentences without the possibility of parole. The Growing Together program is built on the principles and processes contained in the book, Houses of Healing by Robin Casarjian. Bob David coordinates the volunteer program.

Each month, Dan, the men, and the other program volunteers sit in a Constellation healing circle. The Constellations have been dramatic and powerful, but what is more remarkable are the men themselves. Their compassion, kindness, and wisdom challenges the ordinary stereotypes about men in prison. Through our collective experiences we have all grown together in remarkable ways.

The passages below give a feel for some of these experiences.

The Constellations

In January, the wife of one of the men died of cancer. They had been together as a couple for 22 years; he had been imprisoned the entire time. Our format is to do a round of check-ins before the constellation work. On this day, the men, in turn, offered their prayers and condolences to the grieving widower. They shared stories of how the wife had touched their lives as well. When it was the husband's turn, he gave a long eulogy about their love and time together. If we had ended the day here, it would have been a deeply moving and memorable event.

Since I was present, they asked me to contribute a Constellation. I suggested a ritual where we setup representatives for the wife and her female ancestors, like an alter, and have the husband and other men step forward to face them.

We had a group of women present that day as volunteers. I set them up, one as the wife, another as the mother, another as the grandmother, etc. Almost immediately, the knowing field rebelled against my idea of constellation as ceremony. The wife was very angry. The other women scattered away from each other. Instead of an alter, it looked like a disturbed nest of ants.

The only way out, besides having everyone sit down, was to turn the ceremony into a constellation. I worked with each representative, as in a constellation, to see what was missing, what needed to be acknowledged and honored, and what was needed for a good resolution. We worked this way for sometime, effectively building the alter on a solid foundation, rather than throwing it up there as per my original plan. The husband confirmed that the representatives’ behaviors were consistent with his understanding of the relationships between the wife, her mother, and the mother’s mother.

Once the women were in place and solid with each other, I was able to continue with the ceremony. The husband selected a representative for himself and I asked that man to bow to the women. He fell to his knees and put his head to the floor, taking in the fullness of his sorrow for his own losses, the losses of his victims, the weight of his life-long incarceration for his crime, the grief for all that had been lost. And also taking in the sanctity of life, the love he had received from the women in his life, the strength and power of the animating energy that filled his body. (I'm articulating what was not spoken in the moment. This is my subjective interpretation based I what I took to be present in that moment.) It was all there and he held that position for a long time.

Then I brought in the husband. Then each of the men came forward to join him. They bowed to the women, then turned to the husband and said, "I honor your loss. It's my loss as well. I will be your friend."

We ended with all of the men standing in a phalanx behind the grieving husband, facing the alter of women. All who were there seemed in awe of what was witnessed and felt inside.

The next vignette comes from a man who, as a teenager, was convicted of 1st degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1964. Now in his 60s, he is in his fifth decade of incarceration.

A few years into his imprisonment, R. was befriended by a Catholic priest who served as prison chaplain. The priest has been the man’s surrogate father, spiritual teacher, and best friend for all these years. Now, a man of 80, the priest had been diagnosed with lung cancer earlier in the year and was expected to die within weeks.

In a departure from our usual procedure, R. asked to setup representatives of his father, brother and step-father, and also for Father M., the kind and loving priest. R. spoke a soliloquy to each one. He revealed that he had never met his father. He did not even know his name, as his mother took the secret to her grave.

He confronted the father, “Here’s you son you abandoned. Look what happened to me. I killed a man when I was a child and then to prison for the rest of my life. Look what you did to me.”

His brother had also abandoned him, never making contact after R. was imprisoned. “Where are you? What happened to you? How could you disappear off the face of the earth and leave me here all alone?”

His stepfather was an alcoholic, child-beater and rapist. R. described in grisly detail the abuse and beatings he suffered at the hands of this man.

Then he turned to Father M. He expressed his love and heartfelt thanks to the one person in his life who had stood by him as a constant source of friendship, support and guidance. Through all the years of isolation and incarceration, Father M. had always visited, always been supportive. He was even in the habit of sending R. a small monthly allowance.

Then, he turned back to the trios of “sinners” and forgave them all, “from the bottom of my heart.”

To this point, the process was closer to psychodrama than a Constellation. R was offering the trio forgiveness, but he was also running a sword through them. They were the guilty ones; he, despite what the jury and Commonwealth of Massachusetts dictated, was redeemed to his original state of innocence by the love of the saintly Father M.

The question was whether R.’s forgiveness could go deeper. I asked R. to stop speaking and brought in a representative for the Mother of All and another for God in Heaven. They stood opposite each other as the archetype polarities of creation and destruction. Once all the participants tuned in to the vastness of where-everything-comes-from and where-everything-goes, R. became a little smaller, but felt more compassion.

No longer was he elevated over the others. In the face of the totality of existence, no one is bigger or smaller. Everyone comes into life, lives for some time, and dies. As the novelist Hazzard writes, “Of those who had endured the worst, not all acted nobly or consistently. But all, involuntarily, became part of some deeper assertion of life.”

After taking this in for some time, R. said to each representative, “I agree.” Gone was the sharpness of before. In its place was a deep compassion and humility. This was forgiveness at a deeper level.

Comments from Participants

"You have allowed me to grow and allowed me to work on some serious issues that I was never able to before. I'm so grateful for that. I thank you so much. You will always have a special place in my heart." Joe R. (inmate)

"Again, I was amazed how much I became involved with the stories brought out in your ‘constellations.’ It was a great privilege to be in the company of people who had gone through an ordeal that we can only imagine, and had worked, with your help, to find a way to their souls. It is always a ‘work in progress,’ and they had progressed very far. The space did have, as you had said, the feeling of a ‘monastery.’ Maybe grace happens more clearly when one has been in ‘disgrace’ in the eyes of the world, and in extreme circumstances. I am very grateful that you gave us the opportunity to spend time with these wonderful people - there was something like a feeling of ‘coming home.'" - Doris Speer

"I am still speechless. It was an experience of a life time and I am most grateful to both of you for giving me this opportunity." - Zella Brown

"Saturday afternoon at Bay State Prison was a deep learning experience at the emotional, the spiritual and the intellectual level. I so appreciate that you have taken the time to clue us in, to take us to the prison and be so patient in getting us into the circle. Today, the faces of the men were still in my consciousness, each one left a mark on me, a mark of awareness and joy. I thank you so very much." - Marga Deiter

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