Contributed by Jerry Rhodes*
No, I am not a convicted felon who practices aikido in prison. Yes, I do spend my days inside a wire-enclosed compound, surrounded by men who have been found guilty of crimes against society and their fellow man. At night they cannot go home to families and friends. After my shift as a corrections officer, I get to go home, kiss my wife, have a nice meal and, on most evenings, go to aikido class to refresh myself before I have to return for another day in prison. Another day where, for many, the favorite pastime is drawing correctional officers into their volatile and violent world.
I have been a C.O. (corrections officer) for about ten years. I began in 1986 with the Mississippi Department of Corrections at Parchman, Mississippi. I moved to Florida and went to work with the Florida Department of Corrections in 1995. I came to Florida Corrections with a lot of "baggage" from my time in Mississippi. Not only had I been in a different state, it was a different time. In my earlier days in Mississippi it was a more physical job. Defiance and violence by prisoners were met head-on. During one such confrontation I was seriously injured. Remembering that event and the resulting injuries had caused me to lose my balance between being appropriately aggressive/passive and inappropriately aggressive/passive. Carrying this around with me had, I thought, put me in a bad position in a dangerous job.
Remembering those events, I decided that when I restarted my career in Florida, I would seek additional self-defense training just as soon as I completed my training for Florida certification. One evening, after the defensive tactics class, I asked one of the instructors about some type of martial training. I expected the instructor, John Bradley, to recommend one of the high profile arts I had seen advertised in the area - Tae Kwon Do, Kung Fu, etc. To my surprise, he advised me to check out Aikido of West Florida. He suggested that aikido was an effective and practical martial art which was well suited for corrections officers. He also told me that Frank Calhoun sensei was an instructor with a good reputation.
I didn't understand what John meant by "well-suited for corrections," but after a period of training, I knew he was talking about liability issues as well as the physical, mental and even spiritual aspects of the art.
Inmates today have an enormous amount of civil rights protection as well as a lot of public sympathy through the media. Corrections officers today understand that "controlling" the inmate is much more liability-friendly than "breaking" the inmate. As we know, the same warning applies to any citizen who tries to protect himself from a street thug.
After graduation from the Academy, I went to what I soon learned was called The Big Green Drum Dojo. It was so named because of its green mat and the booming sound that breakfalls made throughout the old gothic style hospital which housed it. I met Walter Browne who was instructing that night. He invited me onto the mat to get a taste of the confusing and enlightening time I was in for. My life in aikido began with a bow and a clap and another bow and a confusing series of warm-ups, which have become so familiar and friendly over the years. Confusion took on a new meaning in my life, but by the end of class I knew I'd be back to give this art an honest try. I also knew that aikido would be no easy hill to climb. I prepared myself to bring forth the patience that I was NOT noted for.
I have studied aikido under Calhoun sensei for six years. At first, I just wanted to learn to kick butt, to give myself a physical edge in the violent world that is my job. As my teacher began to hammer in a deeper level of O Sensei's teaching, I began to understand that it was about more than physical power. I began to see that it was possible to live an aiki life. Concepts of a deeper respect for others and myself began to take hold. Words like harmony, zanshin, maai, tenkan, irimi and breath began to take on a broader meaning. They became more that tools to physically protect myself in the prison environment.
I know now that aikido changes us all. For me, it was the knowledge that I had control over myself and my actions and feelings. It was no longer about controlling inmates. It was about controlling me. I began to be more self-aware. I carried myself in a more self-assured manner. I no longer walked with my head down and my shoulders slumped, advertising myself as a victim. The inmates noticed this as well. I began having fewer confrontations. When I was confronted by an inmate, I began to change my reactions. Instead of meeting tension and anger with tension and anger, I would relax and breathe. I would remind myself that I'm not the one who will be staying here tonight. He is. While he is alone in his cell tonight, I'll be with my friends doing aikido. It didn't occur to me that at that moment I was, in fact, doing aikido.
Often it's the simple things that work best. In one incident the simple practice of "Looking at the Mountain" (some call it "Looking at Mt. Fuji) helped both the inmate and me. The prisoner was yelling and cursing and spitting on the glass window of his cell door. He was upset about a disciplinary report I had written on him earlier. I took a deep breath, relaxed and focused on a spot on the wall behind him. As I stood there, focused on my breathing and the spot at the back of his cell, the inmate realized that he was not going to get the desired response -anger and resistance - so he calmed down and lay back down on his bed. He wanted me to play a game with him. I declined to be drawn in. No muss, no force, no report to write. Thanks to aikido, life as a corrections officer can sometimes be good.
At other times, I have used a verbal form of tenkan with the prisoners, which seems to displace their center. This is usually effective with inmates who have a free-floating anger. These men are angry with the system, with themselves, with other inmates or with other correctional officers. Yet, for some reason, one may decide to make me the focus of his anger. His verbal assault usually includes a litany of the sexual practices of my immediate family. I relax, breathe and pose my tenkan question: "Are you specifically angry with me?" It's interesting to watch his expression change as we open up the possibility that I will not feed his anger, but indeed might actually talk to him in a helpful manner. This technique has worked on a number of occasions and always results in no muss, no force, and no reports!
What is funny to me about the changes in my approach, before aikido and after, is that now I know what has kept me in conflicts both internal and external - MY EGO! Looking back, I can truthfully say that my ego was the root of most of my injuries in Mississippi. Instead of calling for help, I had to be like John Wayne. Unlike John Wayne, I bit off more than I could chew. We have a sign over the shoe rack in the dojo that reads "Leave your ego with your shoes: off the mat."
To those of you who expected "war stories," I apologize. I do use physical techniques when it's necessary and when it's appropriate. For the most part, they consist of taking an inmate off his center or using an appropriate joint lock or pin. These are always a last resort. Maybe that's the important thing. Maybe learning to be human and humane is ultimately what aikido has done for me as a corrections officer. Make no mistake, if and when I am attacked and/or ordered to subdue an inmate to control him and his energy, I will. And when that is done, it's over. Thanks to aikido, I can keep that "I'll show you" mentality in check. Aikido has convinced me that we can't afford out-of-control egos on either side of the bars.
Jerry Rhodes, C.O.
Century Correctional Institute