THE BLOG

Peace Behind Barbed Wire

02/26/2015 11:11 am ET | Updated Apr 28, 2015

As media ownership converges and technology "unites" us, the concept of national identity grows ever easier to exploit -- and therefore, I fear, increasingly, and dangerously, simplistic.

This is the war on terror. This is the war on crime. They march on, despite the magnitude of their failures. They march on... because America is tough. America is exceptional.

If our news and mass entertainment outlets valued complexity and expansion of the national IQ, we wouldn't go to war. We'd be building our lives on the far side of fear and the far side of cynicism, which is the only place where peace is possible.

It's not like we aren't doing that anyway, to a certain extent. But it only becomes news when visionary journalists -- peace journalists -- declare that it is, which is why, every year for the last seven years now, I have written about and celebrated Chicago's Peace on Earth Film Festival, which showcases extraordinary films that step beyond the simplistic myth of good vs. evil, us vs. them. This year the festival is scheduled for March 19-22 at the Chicago Cultural Center; as always, it's free of charge.

"I was a thief, I was a manipulator, I was a con. I had lost all contact with my heart."

So it is in this context that I reflect on the words of Lisandro Martinez, quoted above, and the words of a dozen other prisoners and ex-prisoners at Dominguez State Jail in San Antonio, Texas, who were among the participants in a class at the prison run by volunteers and called, of all things, Inner Peace. It almost doesn't sound possible -- a class like this at a place where we corral bad guys, "offenders," criminals -- much less that it could be effective.

But one of the 40 films at this year's festival, a feature-length documentary called Inside Peace, makes the point that the class, based on the teachings of Prem Rawat, reaches hard, desperate men and helps them begin, my God, to love themselves -- to see the value of their lives, to grasp that the gift of existence is theirs to make the most of, or not. This is not the normal lesson of prison; mostly the millions of Americans who get stuck in the criminal justice system never leave it. Inside Peace is about a few who do.

A year ago, writing about a film at last year's festival called Hear Our Voices, about young people struggling with mental illness, I noted: "The film doesn't present quick fixes, but it conveys a sense of awe about what's possible." This is a hallmark of the films at the festival: Much more is possible than we publicly concede, and learning about these possibilities opens up big hope.

Early in the film, one of the men shrugs off the class, describing his motivation for attending it: "They'll give you a pen and some paper. You can bring it back, sell it for a soup, try to make a little hustle."

This was the size of their hope, to maybe trade a pen and some paper for extra food. The size of their lives was "nothing much."

"My parents were heroin addicts," Jake Alvarado says, noting that he's been locked up for 17 of the last 20 years. "My dad started going to prison when I was very young. I was in fourth grade."

He went to trade school and studied airplane mechanics, even graduating with honors. But he lacked the inner resources to stay in charge of his life. "I started hanging with the wrong crowd," he said. "They introduced me to the needle. That's what really messed me up. That's when everything started going downhill. That's when I started breaking into buildings."

"We moved around a lot. I had to grow up fast," David Sigee says. "When I was 18 I had to find a way to take care of myself." He started working at a hospital, washing pots for minimum wage, taking three or four buses to get to work. Then someone asked if he had any drugs for sale. He became a dealer.

"The neighborhood was very, very raw. I was only at the bottom of the food chain," he said. But he expanded operations, started finding success in the business. "Because I wanted a better future, I didn't believe I was born into the stereotype (of failure). In my mind, I was finally moving up -- until I was caught. And you're going to get caught."

These stories bleed through Inside Peace, and they are crucial to it, but they're only part of what the film is about. The men manage to take the message to heart that they have value as people -- no simple lesson, especially when it comes so late in life. This is where, for the viewer, the awe comes in. You mean inner peace is... always possible?

"To see everyone at peace in prison would shock the world." says Trinidad Silva. "If you can find peace in prison, then surely it would motivate the world to find peace out there."

The film follows some of the men after their release, when, if anything, life gets harder -- far more complicated and also, very often, cruelly unwelcoming. This is the way we treat "ex-felons" -- as America's permanent underclass, unemployable, ineligible for basic help.

David Sigee, one of the released, talks about the panic and despair he's had to cope with, the ever-present criminal record to which he's chained. "When things go hard, you gotta find the peace," he said. "You're not gonna make it without your peace. You gotta dig for it. You gotta fight for it."

Three of the former prisoners -- Martinez, Sigee and Chase Cowan -- will join Inside Peace director Cynthia Fitzpatrick at the film festival on Sunday, March 22, to talk about the film and about the peace it's possible to build from the inside out.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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