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Visiting Jon Andreas
Observations from John Van Dyk — 2013

Introductory remarks:

On Saturday, April 13, 2013, I was privileged to visit Jon Andreas at the Chino prison in southern California. Jon’s mother, Kay Pech, expertly guided me through the usual bureaucratic procedures required to gain entrance. My clearance, obtained four years ago when I visited Jon at Avenal, was still valid. The guards were friendly and helpful. Shortly after Jon appeared, Kay left for duties as a music evaluation coordinator.

Jon looked older—no surprise—but appeared in general good health. Thanks to improved medical care at Chino, the skin cancer on his head had been virtually eliminated. In total, I spent four and a half hours with Jon.

Our time together was devoted to two general areas: (1) his situation as an inmate at Chino, and (2) plans for continued study and writing. The second of these topics divided naturally into two: (a) possibilities for pursuing doctoral studies while incarcerated, and (b) worldview and philosophical issues. Other than a brief break to obtain lunch in the visitors’ hall, our conversations took place at one of the tables located under shade trees in a grassy field, a pleasant picnic or retreat-like situation, providing a relatively serene environment. Our discussions were absorbing to the extent that we unintentionally neglected to take time to be photographed.

In what follows, I highlight some of the key points we addressed. Since I was not allowed to take notes inside the prison, shortly after my departure I stopped at a nearby restaurant where I jotted down my recollections.

Life in prison:

Jon came to this meeting after a tough week. The main problem is his current housing situation. The inmates are lodged at four levels: Levels 4 and 3 provide cells for individuals, and are under strict rules. At Levels 2 and 1 the inmates live more or less dormitory style, under more relaxed conditions. The relaxed rules create serious problems, such as, e.g., a tendency on the part of fellow-inmates to ignore quiet hours. Hence there is no privacy, and no opportunity to block out noise. Jon’s quarters are confined to an open top bunk in one of the barracks. There is no escape from the incessant turmoil around him. The best he can do is to put on ear muffs and wrap a towel around his head. As a result, Jon, sensitive as he is, suffers from panic attacks. He has been on medication for depression for some time. Three months ago he added another drug to control the panic. This seemed to work for a while. But when he tried to get off the medication, the attacks returned. He has considered attempts to move up to Level 3, where he might have access to a cell. But doing so would require misbehavior, such as being discovered with cigarettes. A cruel irony here: in order to improve conditions he would need to steal. He could also try to be moved to a lower bunk, which offers slightly more privacy, but then he would have to lie (by pretending to have a bad back). Neither stealing nor lying are acceptable options for Jon. The conclusion is clear: the concept "rehabilitation" is entirely foreign to the California prison system.

In spite of the deplorable situation at Chino—overcrowding, for example, has not let up, and, as in Avenal, an active drug trade goes on in the prison—Jon does feel that his overall situation has improved somewhat compared to Avenal (cynically but not inaccurately called “Avon-hell”). He identified several positive factors. First, the guards are friendlier and more humane. At Avenal, the guards felt abandoned, sent off as they were to an uninhabited place in the desert. They didn’t really want to be there. Thus their morale was well below par, to say the least. In Chino relations between guards and inmates are much more civil, at least at Level 2. Secondly, the medical care is better. But it still strikes me as heartless when I learned how inmates are transported to the medical facility, quite some distance away in this vast prison complex. They are handcuffed and chained, dressed in orange, and stuffed in a cage.

Another improvement is that the inmates are able to see the “real world”: greenery, birds singing in the trees, and the mountains in the distance. Further, the prisoners relate well to Jon. While at the table in the “picnic area,” I met a number of inmates who stopped by to chat. They uniformly spoke highly of Jon. Several shared their lunches with him!

Jon continues to benefit from meetings with psychologists. The counselors are regularly shuffled around, to prevent too strong a bonding with the inmates or dependency. Jon’s sessions with the psychologists generally focus on two issues: (a) how to cope with confinement devoid of privacy, and (b) wrestling with the question: Why did he do what he did to get himself incarcerated? As he put it: What was I thinking? These meetings he finds generally helpful.

Jon has a job as janitor. He has moved up the ladder a bit, from scrubbing toilets to mopping floors. Actually, he enjoys mopping floors. There is something aesthetic and soothing, he says, about the rhythmic sweeping back and forth of the mop. He is part of a small musical band (I neglected to get the details), and spends most of his “free” time reading and writing.

Desire to continue formal study:

Jon is a voracious reader and a gifted writer. But what he really needs, he tells me, is a structured program with deadlines and articulated goals. Unlike in former years, for him the quality of a degree-granting institution is not all that important anymore. He just wants to study, write a supervised dissertation, and obtain a doctorate. Is it possible that he might enroll in a doctoral program somewhere? Problem: Most doctoral programs include residency requirements. Jon had contacted the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, for example. He received a sympathetic response, but rules are rules: you must spend some of the time on the degree-granting campus.

Jon does have considerable “residency” experience. He earned an M.A. at Pepperdine University, spent a year at Westminster West Seminary in Escondido, another year at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, and a year in the philosophy of education program at the University of Chicago.

I suggested that we might look at Edinburg Theological Seminary (ETS) in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where I hold a chair as a visiting professor and dissertation supervisor. This institution, somewhat modeled after the ICS in Toronto, serves numerous non-traditional students, many from Mexico. It is a growing, evolving institution, where the rules are not yet ossified. I promised Jon I would discuss the possibilities with the ETS administration.

Another problem: Would a dissertation at ETS, a Christian institution, require that the student must write a dissertation from a Christian perspective (as Jon was about to do with Danie Strauss in Bloemfontein, South Africa)? It so happens that one of my current assignments is to construct guidelines for acceptable ETS dissertations. My sense is that we should not immutably insist that students toe a predetermined line. If a student disagrees with the institution’s philosophy, he or she should engage the issue and be free to argue for an alternative position, as long as the dissertation displays a thorough understanding of the nature and role of worldviews. So, we will see.

Worldview, religious and philosophical issues:

At Avenal (or possibly earlier at San Luis Obispo) Jon lost his traditional Protestant Christian faith and became a Jew by completing the requirements for the bar mitzvah. But when he connected with a Jewish rabbi at Chino, he experienced deep disappointment. The rabbi apparently was an ultra-orthodox teacher who thought little of Jon’s Avenal conversion and dismissed him out of hand. By hindsight Jon realizes that his attraction to Judaism was not prompted by Jewish doctrine as much as by the presence of a small Jewish community at Avenal. No such Jewish community exists at Chino. So he has left both traditional Protestant Christianity and Judaism behind, and considers himself a “humanist.” Currently he is gravitating towards what he calls “ancient British paganism,” as exemplified by Wicci and the Druids. For the past year he has taken a correspondence course in Druidism. In addition, in the Chino prison there appears to be a small community of Wicci followers. Characteristic of this group is their reverence for (even worship of) nature.

At this point our conversation took on an interesting and fruitful turn. To summarize: I shared with Jon my own approach to nature. In the botanical work I now do in a National Wildlife Refuge in Illinois, I increasingly experience the sacramental nature of grasses and sedges (my favorite plants), flowers and trees. I see divine thumbprints everywhere. At the same time, as I grow older, the universe and all that it contains turns out to be an ever-expanding mystery. What once I thought to know with absolute certainty, I now view with considerable doubt and tentativity. Jon related well to this perspective. We agreed that we commonly encounter two types of reductionism: (1) reality reduced to scientific precision, and (2) reality experienced in an entirely naïve way without any concern to deepen insight into the wonderful intricacies we can see if only we take notice. Jon elaborated this point by referring to his experience as an elementary school teacher. At the grade 3 level, for example, children lose their innate curiosity and begin to dislike school learning. The “scientific reductionism,” accompanied by abstractions and a concomitant irrelevance, sets in at that level, and is not adequately compensated for by effectively building on the children’s “naïve experience.”

Jon retains his deep interest in philosophy. He corresponds with, among others, Roy Clouser about the “nature of things.” Clearly, he continues to search for meaning in what often appears to be a meaningless world. I grieve to see a man endowed with multiple gifts stuck in a situation where opportunities to flourish are cut down at every turn. But I remain hopeful— and optimistic—that in spite of debilitating circumstances, he will prevail, eventually find what he is looking for, and be given a context allowing him to contribute in ways that will further shalom.

John Van Dyk
April 20, 2013

© 2013 Jon Andreas. All rights reserved.
Permission granted by Dr. Van Dyk for this report.