Keepers of Conscience: How to Turn a Prison Inside-Out

A poet was recently released from prison in Iran. Her name is Mahvash Sabet, and she was a prisoner of conscience. Her crime? Being a member of the Bahá’í Faith, Iran’s largest religious minority and the second most wide-spread religion in the world.


Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, shared the following statement:

“I join the Bahá’í community and the entire nation in welcoming the release of Ms. Mahvash Sabet from prison in Iran…I commend Ms. Sabet and her family for their courage during this difficult time and call for the immediate release of the remaining members of the Yaran [Bahá’í leadership group]. They include Mrs. Fariba Kamalabadi, Mr. Jamalodin Khanjani, Mr. Afif Naeimi, Mr. Saeid Rezai, Mr. Behrooz Tavakkoli, and Mr. Vahid Tizfahm.”

These Bahá’í leaders have been jailed for nearly 10 years for refusing to deny their faith. Nearly 200 years ago, two divine Messengers, the Báb (meaning “the Gate” in Arabic) and Bahá’u’lláh, announced a new era of global justice and peace – and all the turmoil and pain of bringing that reality into existence. Their writings and teachings challenged the clerical establishment in Persia, leading to mass violence against their followers – which continues in Iran and several other countries to this day.

Mahvash found ways of keeping her spirit alive through prayer, poetry, and fellowship with other inmates. Her poetry, published in a volume called Prison Poems, is both heart-breaking and heart-opening. With words, she scales the barred walls to glimpse worlds within and beyond her solitary cell:

I said: ‘Give me a definition of loneliness.’

You said: ‘When no one’s there beside you.’

I said: ‘What if you’re even lonelier than that?’

You said: ‘Then when there’s no one to love you.’

I said: ‘Define the greatest loneliness of all.’

You said: ‘When no one understands you.’

And yet, despite feeling misunderstood and wrongfully accused, Mahvash always attempted to understand those around her.

Roxana Saberi, an Iranian American journalist who was imprisoned in Iran in 2009, encountered Mahvash and her fellow Bahá’í prisoners of conscience. In a recent story for The Washington Post, Saberi writes:

“Despite the serious nature of their situation, Mahvash and Fariba exuded a peace that I felt the moment I was transferred to their cell…I asked them how they could remain so calm. ‘We trust in God to do what is best for our community,’ Mahvash replied.


“’Though they were in prison, their spirits seemed unshackled,’ recalled another former prisoner…‘They taught me to see my imprisonment as part of my destiny. I stopped asking, “Why me?” and could tolerate even solitary confinement.’”

US-Iran relations are deteriorating. Our governments would have us believe that more divides us than unites us. It is a convenient lie, used throughout history to crush human oneness and keep unjust power structures in place. Instead, let’s view our two countries as mirrors, reflecting and shedding light on a shared reality. US administration bans immigration from Muslim countries. Police brutality, gun violence widespread. Iranian government tests nuclear missiles and continues to arrest minorities. How are we any different, politically speaking?

Though I have never experienced the physical imprisonment and institutionalized prejudice that Mahvash and many Iranian Bahá’ís face, I live in the United States, the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world – primarily people of color. Land of the free? How can I be free when so many of my fellow citizens are behind bars?

Beyond physical incarceration, I believe most of us know the intimacies of imprisonment, from within the narrow constructs of our own minds. Wherever the laws of kindness and kinship are broken, there you will find oppression and disease. Is it any wonder that mental illness, addiction, and chronic stress are rampant? Our brains cannot make sense of the harm we are doing to people and planet; our sensitive souls are crying out for reprieve. So it’s time to heal ourselves, as much as each other. To practice both self-love and self-release. To ask for help and mercy, as much as for justice and independence. May our voices be heard.

The human voice is the bridge between body and soul, between my soul and yours. We can sever that bridge or we can strengthen it, if we allow ourselves to breathe and listen. I think of Eric Garner, and his ghastly chant: I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.

We feel his suffocation in our daily lives. And we will continue to feel choked until every single soul is free to express their deepest truths, be heard and cared for.

Mahvash’s experiences, and other keepers of conscience, illumine the causes of injustice and the search for deep freedom. What is prompting us to shed old habits and structures, to create a just, beautiful, and vibrant people and planet? Could it be that we are all motivated and inspired by the same Spirit, by the same renewal of faith, justice, and love that is breathing life into us all?

This is the realization of our times. We are inside the moment of choice. The illusion of “otherness” and the violence of buried pain is making us sick and segregated. We’ve been sold down the river, and we know it. It’s time to go home. To return to love. But how? How will we survive, thrive, as safety nets disintegrate and human systems fail? The choice is ours: Will we rise from this haze of un-living and assume the mantle of our true lives?

Fortunately, we have insight to guide us. The collective suffering and wisdom in our DNA is being unshrouded by scientists and artists. We contain the blueprint for health and freedom, written in our genetic code, in the prayers and songs passed down the generations. We are reading the scars of intergenerational trauma, and learning the secrets of compassion and memory. Policymakers, take heed. For you too must embody and enact new laws and mores that will make life livable, joyful even, for all the people you serve.

So let’s begin the razing of prisons and the raising up of refuges – places of wellbeing and solace for all created beings, beloved communities, and just institutions.




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