Monastic Cellblocks

This was written in October 2009 while living in a minimum security fire camp in Southern California.

My grandfather passed away a few weeks ago and I recently received a copy of his obituary in the mail.  Among those survived by him was, “Matt Hahn of Santa Clarita, CA”.  Of course, Santa Clarita is the city in which the facility I live is located.  It just struck me as strange because it means that my family, who collectively wrote the obituary, thinks of me as actually living here, as in calling this place my home.

Contrast this with three years ago, when my step-sister died: the obituary read that she was survived by “Matt Hahn of Los Gatos, CA,” which was not where the cell I was living in was located.  Rather, Los Gatos was the last city I’d lived in while on the streets. This subtle yet significant change shows me that, after nearly five years of being locked up, my family has come to see prison as where I call home.  Right or wrong, like it or not, this is my home.

I used to get into debates about this very issue with my buddy, Richard, on the yard.  He was disturbed by the fact that I referred to my cell as my “house” and Folsom as my “home”.  He said it showed a degree of comfort with living in prison that he never wanted to have.  Richard hated Folsom and said that he would never dare call it is home.  We agreed to disagree, my stance being that home is wherever one chooses to make it.  Seeing that I didn’t have much choice in the matter, I thought it worthwhile to make the best of things as they were.

I knew that Richard wouldn’t understand my take on this because he hated Folsom and I didn’t.  For a number of seemingly inexplicable reasons, Folsom was and is dear to me.  Of the dozen or so places I’ve lived in the past decade, I’ve spent the most time at Folsom and I think of it most fondly.

This probably strikes most of you in the unprison world as odd, maybe even pathological.  Perhaps you think that I am institutionalized, that I am like Brooks in The Shawshank Redemption and cannot live without the constant care of the penitentiary.  Perhaps you are right, but let me explain myself and then you can judge.

How can I think fondly of a place like Folsom?  Didn’t all sorts of awful things happen there?  Yes.  I was witness to and affected by a whole lot of terrible events that took place in my years there, from suicides to stabbings to riots to murders to you-name-it. It all happened.  An environment like that, I’ll admit, would make most any normal person grow to hate it.  I definitely see why Richard thought of it as he did, especially after the day he was unfortunate enough to be standing right next to a man who was quite literally hacked to death.  Still, as in all aspects of life, a lot of it depends upon what one chooses to focus.  99% of the men who go to and come from prison focus on the mayhem.  But it’s not all mayhem.

First of all, Folsom didn’t look like most prisons.  Or, perhaps, it is exactly what one expects a prison to look like, depending on how one looks at it.  Most prisons in California are of the modern variety with prefabricated cellblocks, electronic door vaults, miles of electrified fence studded with the occasional corrugated steel gun tower. There is nothing modern about Folsom. Built in the late 1800’s, it looks more like a medieval castle than it does a prison, with its thirty foot high granite walls and iron portcullis as a gate. Within the prison there is none of the cold efficiency of a modern lock-up; all of the cell doors are keyed by hand and windows are opened with rusty handcranks.  Folsom’s look and history give its inhabitants a certain sort of pride in living (or working) there.  Its mystique is such that even visitors are attracted to the Folsom Prison gift shop and museum where they can purchase a “my son went to Cal State Folsom” coffee mug or tee-shirt (yes, my parents have both). But that’s not all.


When it comes to level three (low maximum security) prison yards, Folsom is relatively mellow. Thus, it is a popular destination for the thousands of lifers throughout the state who want to do their time in “peace”.  The yard is packed with lifers, most of them men who have been down ten, twenty, thirty years or more. These men have a seen a lot in their decades in prison and a lot of them have grown because of it.  Instead of becoming bitter, they became better.  Some of them have spent decades reading voraciously in their cells, other have spent the decades meditating, some have learned every trade imaginable, and many have done all of the above.  And there is nothing more humbling than being a man with a release date standing next to a man who has accepted the fact that he may never have one at all.  Granted, he may have murdered someone to warrant his sentence but that didn’t change the fact that he and I were in the same place at the same time, doing time together.

I found the role models and camaraderie that I previously would’ve never thought imaginable in a place such as Folsom. I made friends that I will probably never see again, no matter how hard I try.  I took part in meditation groups and contemplative fellowships and shared ideas on spiritual growth with other men in the same predicament.  Imagine sitting in zazen between two convicted murderers and being okay with it!  All of the experiences and more contributed to a transformation within myself, a growing up of sorts, a finding of who I am, a glimpse into the future of what I have the potential to be.

I spent many days in my cell studying, reading, writing, and thinking. I sat in half-lotus for hours, gazing out my bars at a world that I was part of, imagining myself as part of something even greater.  When terrible things happened, as they often did, they served as a focus for contemplation, as an opportunity to put things in perspective and be grateful for what life I still had. I didn’t welcome the misery of Folsom, but I welcomed the opportunity to learn from it.

I don’t know when it was that I figured out what it was that a lot of the lifers had figured out before me, but I just started to get it.  At some point I thought about the fact that, even though I was in prison, this was still my life and there was no need to waste it any further than I already had.  Resenting where I found myself at the moment could only contribute to the process of killing time, and that is not what I wanted to do.  Killing time is akin to killing oneself.

Two nights before I was transferred out of Folsom, I went to my usual Monday night meeting of the Contemplative Fellowship. A cold December night outside, Greystone Chapel issued forth a warm and welcoming light, begging the weary to come within its walls. Over thirty men sat in the circle that night, some of them on zafus and zabutans, some on regular chairs, for the twenty minutes of silence we enjoyed before each meeting.

Knowing it was my last night there, I gazed around at the men in the circle just to take it all in.  I loved these men and I loved where I was at.  Despite the fact that I was going to a lower security prison, I knew that I was going to miss Old Folsom.  It dawned on me that evening that I truly knew what was meant by the word “holy”.  What we had there at Folsom, what I took part in, the process I went through, was sacred.

Men and women have done it before and they will do it for all time to come, this trial by fire, this forcible dark night of the soul.  For the willing, prison can serve as the perfect mechanism by which to transform oneself, or at least get a start on it.  It is no coincidence that a monastery, like a penitentiary, has cells.   And I suppose it is no coincidence, then, that prison has made monks out of convicts.  It is only proper.

Dear Old Folsom!  I never want to see you again, but in my heart you shall forever stay.



6 thoughts on “Monastic Cellblocks

  1. Maybe because I’ve met you but these stories stay with me. Thank you for sharing a part of your life I didn’t know.

  2. I love that you found holy in Folsom. And I’m going to quote you when you wrote: “Killing time is akin to killing oneself.” Simple, profound and very true!

  3. Matt, I have never met you, but know your dad well, and have followed your life for many years now. I’m sorry for what you have been through, although it is a product of choices – as most of our lives are. How wonderful to begin to know you through your excellent writing as you move toward enlightenment. I look forward to meeting you some day.

  4. Hi Matt, Matt is also my son’s name. He is serving 10 years in Eloy Arizona. I would love to see him start meditating, I believe it would be a real benefit to him. How did you get started?

    1. I got started out of personal interest. Check out my story “Prison Dharma”. I think if he read Noah Levine’s “Dharma Punx” and Jack Kornfield’s “A Path With Heart”, he’d get a good introduction.

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