Recently Today’s Honoree recognized the work of John Mandala by featuring John on their website.
Today’s Honoree is a partnership between L.J. Holloway and Derrick “Headlines” Hayes that gives both a chance to give back to others. Today’s Honoree was started as a way they both could make a difference in the lives of others.
Since being released, John Mandala has always wanted to help others that have been incarcerated make a smoother, more successful transition back into society. His book “After Prison: A way to Succeed” is a guide that will help you or your recently released loved one a way to do that.
John Mandala is on the Brevard County Reentry task force. He has written a booklet called “A Successful Reentry”.
It spells out how to think about re entry into society, where to find volunteer opportunities, how to deal with feelings of isolation and many other things. John’s focus with the reentry handbook is to make it easier for people who don’t have any support, to find a way to navigate this reintegration into society. It was to help them find a methodology, a list of things to do or not to do, new ways to think about their place in society. It’s a place to start. The Brevard County reentry task force concerns themselves with things like that too. That’s why John is on the team.
Here is an example of the kinds of things the Brevard Reentry Task force focuses on. To quote them:
“Homelessness – Even though an individual or family does not have a place to live, their identity should not be lost in the stigma of being “homeless”. They have names. Often times their living conditions or lack of shelter is temporary. It is not who they are.
Perception- The stigma that follows an individual who has been involved with the criminal justice system can inhibit reentry. Public perception of crime is heightened by the constant attention to high-profile cases on the news. This brings attention to the public’s general fear and distrust of past offenders, which can complicate any progress made to help those looking to gain meaningful employment.”
“John Mandala announced that Breathing Space partnered with PETA family and gave out 565 meals at Thanksgiving.”
-Minutes, 2014 Strategic Planning Committee, Brevard County Re- entry Task force
We need to support people who can identify as “homeless” and ex-prisoners. If we expect them to fall in with the rest of us, they are going to need a leg up. A moment of compassion, an extension of trust, an opportunity to work, an opportunity to help out and to feel a part of things; this is how the community at large needs to react. The Brevard Reentry Task Force is a great example of how we can come together to help.
Numerous studies in the past suggest that higher education reduces prison violence, lowers recidivism and results in safer communities.
John Mandala took part in a privately funded Master’s Degree Program while at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. A Reverend Dr. Richard Murdoch (RYE church) was quoted addressing this program in his church 1997 bulletin, “Each month when I go to Sing Sing, I am reminded of the great human potential which is buried deep within us. For some, only great trauma will release it. Often, I am overwhelmed by how God’s redemption works among those with whom we work. There are not many second chances given in life, especially in prison; but we are witnesses to it”
Government, community and the private sector are aware of the importance of education and reintegration programs as the stark reality has hit home, that building more prisons is not the answer to safer communities. Education then, not only allows for employability upon release, but offers hope of our communities becoming a safer place.
John is actively participating in helping ex-prisoners, veterans and homeless people. He has given them the opportunity to help with grounds work around the Unitarian Church, Friendship Fellowship at Pineda. John is a co-chair for Building and Grounds Committee there and he does a lot of work in that capacity, through Breathing Space.
In the talk, John shares how he became familiar with Friendship Fellowship at Pineda through a class he took there. He met Marshall Frank after reading an article of his and asked him to talk to him in more depth on the subject. They met at a restaurant and became friends. Marshall Frank, a retired homicide detective, says that he admires John Mandalas integrity.
John commences to speak about how a year ago from the day of his talk, he went to his first class at Friendship Fellowship. It was an Alternative to Violence workshop. They all had names which were adjectives to identify the person. Marshall was Marvelous Marshall and John decided that he was “just John”. A woman once corrected him and told him that “just John is a lot more than just John”.
John commonly closes an email this way, to this day.
According to John, the Alternative to Violence Project started as a result of a disastrous time in the prison system. Attica needed to be closed. This was a time when people needed to understand how society had changed for the better. It was time for society to recognize their treatment of prisoners. He mentioned how Martin Luthor King Jr had written some important letters from jail, how Nelson Mandela had become an anti-apartheid, political leader who eventually became the president of South Africa. These men were prisoners. They had worth. “Prison does something to you. It makes you think about who you are. What you are. Where you have been, where you are going. There are so many things to consider.” He asked the congregation if they cared about 500,000 prisoners coming home every year. “Do we care about an 85 % recidivism rate? Do we care that it costs 60 billion dollars to run the system? Do we care about how they are going to come home? Do we feel safer because we have so many people in prison?”
He quotes Fyodor Dostoyevsky “you can judge a society by how well it treats it’s prisoners”. This quote brings to mind two other similar quotes: Mahatma Ghandi once said “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats it’s weakest members” and Winston Churchill said that “you measure the degree of civilization of a society by how it treats its weakest members. There is a common theme among these wise men. Perhaps we should take a closer look.
Next John shares a very personal story with the congregation.“I took the life of another human being, which I carry with me for the rest of my life. I paid the debt to society. I served 20 years in prison, so now everything is okay, right? Nothing is okay, because in my heart, I carry that with me, until I am in my grave.”
“One day, I was sitting in a cell with two bunks and I was on the bottom bunk and there was a guy in the top bunk, and he was dying of AIDS. And I was trying to figure out ways that I could die. And he was trying to figure out ways that he could survive.”
He received a letter that day. “I was afraid to open the letter because it was from the sister of the woman I had killed. I had many thoughts; what does it say inside, it can only be negative.” Three hours later when the officer yells “lights out!”, John realizes that he has been sitting there the whole time, trying to figure out how this person could possibly have forgiven him. “To this day, I don’t know”
Then she came to visit and “I had hope. From that moment on, I realized that I wanted to do something with my life. I wanted to understand who I was.” He talks about a book he wrote. While in prison, he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and became a certified optician. Then a man offered him to pay for his master’s degree; the man was Bill Webber He gave him a price that was unbelievable. He said, “you are mine for the rest of your life and you will do good as I have done good to you”. 1996 when the US gov eliminated college programs from all prisons and penitentiaries in the United states. John went to Bill Webber and said, “If there are no more people with bachelor’s degrees, what good would a master’s degree be?” He said, “go fix it John.”
He then became involved with people who were trying to do positive things. Someone gave them an old copy machine that didn’t work well, and John started buying octopus oil so he could oil the chains of the machine. He couldn’t get regular oil for it. You could make a copy in the law library for ten cents. John kept the machine working and they charged per copy. Over ten years, they had $5000 to spend on a new machine, and with that new machine, they were able to make enough copies to start a college program that is privately funded and today its now in 5 different prisons.
At one point he raises a sea bean: “They all come in different shapes, different sizes. This sea bean floated for hundreds of miles, some of them float for a hundred years. The hope of the sea bean is to be broken open. If it is, and it is given the right nourishment, it can grow into a tree. It knows what to do. People get broken open. I was broken open and I was given the right nourishment and I was given what I needed to grow. I can see now that we are all connected together, we all have that “it”, whatever it is. So how do we, as a community, begin to reach out and shake a hand and say how can I help?”
At the time of this talk, John was running a little food truck every week, by the side of the road. He would use that to feed people and give them jobs to do. We believe in giving a hand up, not a hand out. If you can work, we can give people purpose. I have one guy that does nothing but chop wood and mop the floor. He has been living in the woods for two years in a tent “I have a reason to get up now every day.” This is exactly what Breathing Space is all about.