Just as we arrived to the Rudolf Steiner House in Ann Arbor, a kind gentleman pulled into the driveway and offered his greetings. We walked around a bit, taking in the sights before entering the building and heading straight for the lower level where we hoped to find Kathy Serafin of Anthroposophical Prison Outreach. On the stairs, we ran into the nice man again and he asked how he could help us. We explained that we had been driving for some time and were interested in speaking to Kathy if she was around. He said she was and led us toward her office. After welcoming us so warmly, Kathy introduced us to our guide, who turned out to be Fred Janney, the man who planted the seeds for the prison outreach work many years ago!
We made arrangements to come back to meet with the two of them a bit later and shared a few stories before heading out to the farm at Kathy and Fred’s recommendation. Their community-building spirit was evident in their interest in sharing with us the work happening in the area. They also suggested that we see the Rudolf Steiner Health Center, but it wasn’t open at the time we stopped by. Maybe on a future visit we’ll have better luck!
When we arrived back to meet them, Kathy was clear that she wanted to have the conversation in their basement office, right where the work happens. Indeed, it was incredibly beautiful to sit in this space with boxes of books and letters ready to go out to interested inmates. What we learned about this work moved us deeply!
Fred moved to the Ann Arbor area in 1987 to work in the prison system as a psychologist and was studying Rudolf Steiner’s work on his own at the time. As he worked with the inmates, he realized that there was so much in the anthroposophical path that would meet them in their full humanity. It was not easy, and he had to keep persevering to bring this work about inch by inch. He wrote “Self Development in the Penitentiary” for the prisoners, basing his work on Rudolf Steiner’s six exercises. He also started a prison study group, exploring themes of evil and death. He offered group therapy that was open to the general prison population, and he was able to expand his work in it to include anthroposophy. This was a true pioneering effort!
Henry Barnes described the beginnings of Anthroposophical Prison Outreach in his book, Into the Heart’s Land:
“In 1997 a new project began to take shape. Blanche Price, membership secretary of the Anthroposophical Society in America, knew Fred Janney and his work and introduced him to Jean Yeager and Eileen Bristol, both of whom had recently joined the work of the society in Ann Arbor. They recognized what the initiative Fred Janney envisioned might mean, and they helped to bring about a meeting in April 1999, in which some fifteen society members from various parts of the country met at the Rudolf Steiner House in Ann Arbor. Some of those who attended had already been working with imprisoned individuals, and all arrived with a strong interest in supporting and expanding the work.”
The work with the prisoners includes an artistic element, including visual arts and poetry that are deeply touching. The walls of the two rooms of the Prison Outreach office are covered with artistic offerings from prisoners. When the quarterly issue of Being Human magazine goes out from the Anthroposophical Society, a Prison Outreach newsletter is always included, containing powerful poems from the inmates involved with the program.
There is a project underway at the moment called “Enter Light: Voices from Prison.” For this event, youth from local schools spoke poems from 21 prisoners, reciting in the first person to offer the prisoners a voice. While the teenagers spoke on the stage, two images were projected behind them: a current photograph of the inmate being represented and a photograph of the inmate as a young child. Words cannot describe how moving these videos are. Kathy expects them to be ready for release in the next couple of months, and Fred said he wants them to go viral. We will surely do our part to get this footage out there, and we hope you will join us! This work has incredible potential to meet the striving youth in our movement! Imagine how they could take it forward in the world!
The program that started with an ad in a prison publication has grown to include 2,500 prisoners studying the work of anthroposophy! In the beginning, Fred put out a simple ad that read: “Does my life have meaning? Write to us.” This invitation was shared in the prison library, and word spread. Word of mouth is now the primary way inmates find out about the opportunity, and there is a resource on the internet as well that has been approved by the prisons. Word of mouth is extremely powerful in prison, Fred tells us. The work appeals to inmates who appreciate the idea that there is something meaningful out there for them to read. Sometimes a prisoner notices a friend beginning to act differently and wonders, “What is he doing?” This question can lead to a conversation that inspires another inmate to take up the work. Fred and Kathy described how a real sense of brotherhood is developed through this program. The prisoners involved want to help transform the other prisoners! They hear stories of some who read Steiner’s work to cellmates who are not able to read.
Fred has developed a new form of group work that involves the “victim chair.” For this process, a group of prisoners sit in a circle with one in the middle. The prisoner in the center chair tells the story of his crime from the victim’s point of view. Afterward, the others are able to ask questions or make statements, and there is a chance for a response. This is a powerful form of biographical mapping.
In his work with the groups, Fred also guides them through their commitment to the six exercises, asking direct questions. For the thought exercise, he might ask, “What did you focus on today? … Yeah, and how did that go? What was your thought process? Alright, and what about the next day? Did you choose the same thing or something different?” In this way, the inmates are able to keep up with work, receiving helpful feedback and encouragement.
Over the years, the Prison Outreach program has been solely funded by donations from the members of the Anthroposophical Society, and there has been one significant angel donor who has been of tremendous assistance. People are really able to see a value in this work, and Kathy and Fred are so grateful for the generosity they experience.
When Kathy joined the work in 2001, she was distributing 100 books a year to prisoners. She now sends out about 50 per month! She has never turned anyone away who wanted a book. There is now a Correspondence Course that connects inmates to mentors in the Anthroposophical Society. The opportunity to mentor a prisoner is open to all Society members, though sometimes people don’t think they have what it takes. Fred said he was once contacted by a member who said that she’d like to help but didn’t feel qualified. He asked what she did, and she said she had been a Waldorf teacher for 30 years! Telling the story, Fred laughed as if he was hearing this response for the first time. She certainly had the necessary qualifications!
In the mentor/prisoner relationship, Kathy says that it is of utmost important that all mail come through the central office. Mentors’ addresses are never given out, and all letters are monitored to be sure communication is within healthy boundaries.
As for the current needs in the work, Fred and Kathy would like to have more study groups happening in the prisons. There are 90 women in a nearby prison, whom Kathy and Fred would like to serve. Someone would need to be able to meet with them, but it is not easy to get into prisons, even if you have worked there for years. Prison chaplains can be helpful if they are open to the work. There is no road map here, Fred says. You have to work it. Even books can be hard to get in. Fred and Kathy have found that it is important to move forward with confidence. It is not always helpful to ask questions. Instead, they take the approach: “This prisoner asked for books. We’re sending them.”
Fred has been inspired by a George Ritchie book called Return from Tomorrow. It has all the makings of anthroposophy, he says. He has long been interested in making a film of the book and would like to connect with a screenwriter who can help with the project. There are so many things in Steiner’s work that can lead to initiative! The prison outreach work was sparked by the words from How to Know Higher Worlds: “The student should feel coordinated as a link in the whole of life.” Steiner suggested that this gesture of brotherhood can lead one to look upon criminals differently. We remember that they are “our brothers and sisters in humanity.” We then come to the insight that “as a member or organ of humanity as a whole, I am jointly responsible, with all human beings, for everything that happens.” (chapter 5, Requirements for Esoteric Training)
To Fred, anthroposophy is his life’s blood. He loves the work he has taken up in it, because he gets to respond to people who say, “I’m interested.”
Fred and Kathy also shared a book with us called The Near Death Experience by Calvert Roszell.
For Kathy, anthroposophy is best captured in the words, “Not I, but the Christ in me.” She loves being in service, and knew that service would be a part of her life ever since she was a little girl. There was a family down the street from her as a child with a single mother and seven children. Kathy used to go help out in the house even at a young age. At age 21, she volunteered at the Santa Barbara prison. She is inspired by questions of karma and has a deep dedication to helping others. She first read Rudolf Steiner’s autobiography and then the book of lectures, Anthroposophy in Everyday Life.
The question Kathy would like for us to carry is whether we can cultivate an openness to accepting people who are released from prison into our lives. She would like to be able to connect them to active study groups and for them to be accepted as full members. Someone out of prison does not even have to tell their story, she said, but she would like for those in this situation to be able to move forward openly without meeting resistance.
Truly, this is incredible work! In reflection, Fred declared: “Here we are! We are a program of the Anthroposophical Society!” The program is currently working on art cards as a way of giving back in appreciation for the support it receives.
We can learn so much from this initiative and the impulse living in Kathy and Fred as they continue forth in the work that was striven for so strongly by Eileen, Blanche, and the others who seeded its earliest beginnings. The question we have is “What more can we do to support this initiative?” Are there any mentors out there or any friends interested in looking at the needs of a local prison?
Keep your eye out for the video they are putting together that is going to knock your socks off! Let’s be ready to support it by getting it out everywhere we can!
One of the most touching poems we heard during our visit was from a prisoner named Mark Robinson, who is on death row for a crime he committed at age 18. Mark has taken his work with anthroposophy so seriously that he has become the first member of the First Class of the School of Spiritual Science living behind bars. We would like to conclude with his offering:
Out of the Soul
Imagine being an anthroposophist
And going –
Through a murder trial.
Something from twenty years ago.
The Soviet Union still existed then.
So long ago.
Yet it happened.
Something happened. Something –
Something you did.
You wish you could undo it.
You see it now, like the pain –
In everyone’s faces.
So much pain.
You wish you could fix it.
The harm. Irreparable harm.
You harmed them so badly.
Everyone. And you think:
My God, what have I done?
You deserve to die.
You want to live.
Such a contrast, like the judge’s young voice
Sentencing you to death –
Mark, Livingston, TX
You can learn more about Anthroposophical Prison Outreach here: