By Stephen “Walks On The Grass” Maisenbacher
Then Spirit Raises Your Voice
In 2000, three years after I arrived in Phoenix, I paroled to my home. Shortly before my release, my wife of 12 years died of cancer. She was the love of my life and in that frame of mind, I just wasn’t trying to live, looking for any way out short of suicide though that thought had crossed my mind. Immediately I was off and running, a fugitive from the very moment I was released, the drugs and booze all over again and not a second’s shame did I feel or any regret. I was one pitiful, sad man and began robbing again to support my being on the run. Let me tell you, there is nothing romantic about being a wanted man. It’s a world of constant paranoia and worry, not a moment went by that I could relax and be at peace. My soul was screaming out for healing and help from the Creator, but all this was, as I know, my own fault, my own doing.
I caught another set of charges, bank robbery and brandishing a firearm during the commission of a felony. The old pattern was right back again. So I got caught and was sentenced to 27 years for my stupidity. Back to the joint I came, this time with what I figured would be for life since I was 40 at the time and couldn’t imagine sitting here today 21 years later writing this.
My first stop was back to the medium custody level I had released from, a blessing. I had developed some serious health issues and shortly was sent to Butner Medical Center, NC for treatment. It was a very nice spot with the exception that they had a unit dedicated to the sexual offenders program. It was very hard to avoid problems with these men. They all knew that they were “protected” and all they had to do was lodge a complaint, true or unfounded and the staff would get rid of you. I stayed low, under the radar. Then more loss, my sister to cancer really hurt, and then both my dad and step dad; all three passed beyond sorrow within a year’s time. In the spring of 2003, I was well enough to transfer to FCI Edgefield, SC.
When I arrived at Edgefield, lo and behold there was one of the men I knew from my years in Lewisburg Penitentiary and he was the spokesman for the Native American group. Little joe was a good guy. He was able to smooth the path for me into the circle and I began going to the sweat lodge right away. I must say there were no dry sweats at Edgefield or any of the intensity of that first sweat in Phoenix. That one still is the hottest sweat ceremony I have ever undergone.
I was reasonably content there at Edgefield, but when a notice went out that the staff was taking volunteers to go and open a brand-new facility, FCI Gilmer, West Virginia, I immediately put in for this opportunity. This was the fall of 2003 and when I got there I was amazed how few men were there. At that time only 300 men had been sent to Gilmer and the place was pretty much vacant. They had whole housing units that were not even open yet, and when I arrived at my assigned unit, the officer told me to go find a cell and tell him what number it was.
The next day I went to the chapel to find out where the sweat lodge was and who the pipe carrier was. That’s when I had my first contact with Sister P., a Catholic lay sister serving as the chaplain. The good sister was as outright anti-Native as anyone I have ever met. When I asked about the sweat lodge, a professional would have explained that the place being so new they were still working on meeting our needs. Rather, the tone of her voice openly displayed her distaste, “Oh, we don’t have one of those.” Then I asked about the pipe; got the same answer. So finally I asked about smudging to get all the negativity off the transfer and off of me. Without a word, she went inside the religious services center, locking me out to stand on the front doorstep. A little while later she reappeared with an abalone shell with some sage in it. I asked for matches and a discussion ensued:
“Oh no,” she said, “You can’t light it.”
“But I must light it to have smoke for smudging!”
“Well, just kind of wave it around, that ought to work.”
“That will not work!” I handed it back. This was all I could take. “Sister,” I said, “Within six months you will have a lodge for me to have ceremony in.”
A fire was lit that day – the spark to fight for Native rights!
I went back to my housing, straight to my counselor and asked for an administrative remedy form. I filed a grievance against the chaplain and the institution’s administration including the warden and all subordinates, for religious discrimination, religious insensitivity, and unprofessional ethics, all centered around the congressional resolution for religious beliefs and practices by committed offenders within federal custody, as well as the religious land use act, a federal mandate.
Needless to say I was now the anti-star of their new prison and their little prison hierarchy. Finally, after a few strained meetings, the prison administration agreed to let me pick out the area for the sweat lodge next to the recreation yard and measure off the proscribed 25-foot square allotted for the Native American sweat lodge area as well as an additional 25-foot square adjoining for the “other” religious groups that needed space outdoors for the practice of their beliefs – the Wiccans, the Asatru and the Santería – all this in exchange for dismissing my grievance and complaint.
So, being the natural negotiator I am – a basic survival skill in prison – I also got a pipe order and some other things we would need eventually, like a thousand-dollar big drum and sticks, tarps and the promise of willows in the spring so that I could finally build the lodge. Now by this time some other Natives had arrived. They all got together and elected me the spokesman for the Native American group, an undertaking I came to regret, yet on the whole I was good at it and have since been in the same position several times in other facilities.
The important point is that it was necessary to go against the entire administration to get the rights I knew I were guaranteed in the first amendment of the constitution, arguing and claiming all along that just because I was in prison didn’t mean I wasn’t allowed to practice the religious beliefs of my choice.
But the story was not over. In the interceding time we finally got the sweat lodge built but were not allowed to use it due to them needing to build a fence to keep us contained in the area and unable to go between the housing units to the inner area at the front of the facility.
Now let me tell you how I did indeed get the first sweat lodge ceremony, even before they had the fence built. It was the middle of October, I had just gotten out of the hole for a fight I got into with a guy from Ohio over a paltry sum of money he owed me but was not paying up. Anyway, I get out of the hole, and a couple days later we have our outside sponsors from the area come into the prison for a visit in the chapel. While we are there one of the visitors tells me how good it was to see that I was out of the hole. She went on to tell me all the Sister had told her – that I was in the hole for brutally beating a man and that I was a dangerous and violent man.
Yes, I was really mad, but a fight is a fight, not a bloodbath, and while it wasn’t nice it was merely a fight. While I was in the hole, an investigation was going on – a federal investigation since the fight was on federal property. Also, in revealing any information about me without my signed release, the chaplain was in violation of the Freedom of information/right to privacy act.
So once again, I went and got an administrative remedy request and filed a grievance asking for the Sister to be fired and indicted on criminal charges in the matter since it is a criminal violation to breach a federal investigation, or to release information about a federal inmate to the general public unless it is a matter of public information. Boy did that strike a nerve! Once again the administration decided to negotiate. They said they would assign an officer to our area and let the two spiritual advisors and medicine men come in to consecrate the sweat lodge and area and let us have a sweat lodge ceremony if I would dismiss the charges. I agreed, but with the stipulation that the Sister be made to undergo re-training and apologize to me in front of the outside sponsors for her inaccurate and malicious slandering of my name and character.
It was a cold, snowy day in November and the cop assigned to the area that day for the inaugural sweat was stomping his feet and mad as all get out when he was informed that he must stay on the outskirts of the area and not to come near the fire or the firepit while the ceremony was being conducted. Sometimes it’s good to have a bargaining chip. I dismissed that remedy as well. As for Sister P’s apology, well, I never got that, but we got our sweat and she got a weeks training with pay. For the rest of my time at Gilmore, the good Sister took a different tone with me. . . “Mr. Maisenbacher. . . what can I do for you?“
While and during all these skirmishes, somehow word got out that I was battling the federal prison administration. I was asked by a reporter for Vice magazine if I would consider doing an interview over this “struggle” and my fights as a federal prisoner in securing Native American rights while incarcerated. I did this interview in 2005.
DEEP END What scares you most is the reflection staring back at you. Always trust your first impression, it’s mostly what you do. Once inside, feel free to run and hide. But then you’ll only die tired. I’m feeling weird today. That’s what the voices say There’s a crowd in here, I feel I’ve stripped a gear I’m feeling weird today. That’s what the voices say There’s a crowd in here, Tell me what I want to hear (As I) Dive into the deep end (The water’s fine) Echoes of darkness are creeping (Out of my mind) Pandora opened the box, tossed the keys, sprung the locks Dive into the deep end. The diving board will slip your disk, Take a chance there’s some risk Ain’t no lifeguard at this site No running around this pool. You get hurt you’ll look a fool You can’t tell if it’s wrong or right. A kaleidoscope picture frame. Mindless monster you can’t tame As it rolls around inside your brain (Ha Ha Ha) It’s a rare form of suicide, where fantasy and reality soon collide. The experts all agree that you’re deranged. Deep End lyrics © Steven Maisenbacher (Walks on the Grass)
“The lost home that we are seeking is ourselves; it is the story we carry within our soul.” ~ Michael Meade