“Letters From the Dhamma Brothers is one of the most sensitive expressions of hope, capacity for change, and potential vehicles for institutional health that I have read in my career in criminal justice.”
– Scott Harshbarger, former Attorney General, Massachusetts

Johnny Mack Young, Dhamma Brother

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Johnny Mack Young, Dhamma BrotherPrison Bars

February 9, 2006

Dear Jenny,

I was watching Mrs. Martin Luther King’s funeral and when her daughter Bernice spoke over her casket, a resident setting next to me asked what was wrong. It was only then that I noticed tears freely flowing down my cheeks. I told him that since I’ve been taking this class MAKING PEACE WITH YOUR PAST, I’ve become overly sensitive. I also told him that I was a little concerned over his sudden sense of empathy. Being in treatment over six years, I’ve acquired tools to dissect my behavior and recognized the tears as the product of emotional sickness.

I meditated for three plus hours and went deeper into myself than ever before. I experienced a vision where it was not Bernice standing in front of the casket but me. It was not Mrs. King in the casket but my mother. I couldn’t stop the tears and had to stop my meditation.

I first went to prison in 1965 when I was fifteen years of age with a three-year sentence, during which I’d gotten stabbed twice and had stabbed seven people. I’d turned into a hard-core man-child in a violent world where a show of any sign of weakness and you became a victim.

My mother died in 1968, a couple of months before my release. I was allowed to go to the funeral, hands cuffed behind my back and legs shackled, with two white prison guards. The Alabama prison system was still racially segregated at the time and there were no blacks working in such positions. If they had been allowed such jobs they would have had to guard white prisoners and that just wasn’t going to happen in the segregated south. There I stood in front of the casket, looking at my mothers unsmiling face in an all Black church with two white guards standing behind me. I didn’t know at the time, but it was anger that allowed me to show no emotions, only bitterness. As the years passed, I buried the emotional grief of my mother passing so deep and so quick that I’ve never felt anything. I kept piling stuff on top of my grief until death became my friend and I completely lost all to death—it was just something that happened. I’d locked myself in a prison worse than any other.

Anyway, I’m finally able to grieve over my mother’s death and not be ashamed. I still have to remember “stuff” and deal with it, but I can say that I’m now equipped to deal my “stuff.” We shall speak more of emotional healing and the adult child when next I see you. Sorry about the length of this letter, but you know we prisoners can be long winded at times when it comes to letter writing.

Johnny Mack
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