Katherine Tingley's lifelong dedication to social action included a commitment to prison reform. What claims can we make to have lifted the standards of life when we evaluate our prisons and the penal system, she wondered? "What is there in the law that is corrective, even in the least degree? Nothing" (The Gods Await, p. 78). "How easy it is to make a criminal," she noted: a little poverty, some hereditary weakness of character, lack of kindness or love, disharmony at home. If we consider the power of thought — of angry, revengeful, or deceitful thoughts in particular — wickedness and corruption are closer to us than we care to think. Thoughts have force, she taught; who can withstand their accumulated power? All in all, after examining the penal system, she concluded "we are manufacturing criminals — the regime we tolerate is doing it" (p. 87).
Her life was a response to these kinds of concerns. She believed that we "must put aside every thought of condemnation and speak to the men, not of their mistakes and errors, but with utter conviction of their latent godlike qualities" (pp. 88-9). In addition to speaking up and speaking out, she wished to demonstrate to prisoners that there were people who had "faith in their possibilities, and who wish to inspire them with the same confidence in their ability to regain their self-respect." Flowers and uplifting literature were taken regularly to the county jail in San Diego for distribution to the inmates and often musical programs were performed by Point Loma students.
In November 1911, shortly after a deeply moving visit to San Quentin Prison, KT began publishing The New Way, an eight-page newsletter designed to speak directly to prisoners. Edited for many years by Dr. Herbert Coryn, its masthead declared it was published by "The International Theosophical League of Humanity for Gratuitous Distribution in Prisons." This league had seven objects:
1. To help men and women to realize the nobility of their calling and their true position in life.
2. To aid children of all nations in obtaining the highest moral education, and to protect them from all forms of cruelty and injustice.
3. To assist those who are, or have been, in prison, to establish themselves in honorable positions in life.
4. To abolish capital punishment.
5. To abolish vivisection and all other forms of cruelty to animals.
6. To bring about a better understanding between so-called savage and civilized races, by promoting a closer and more sympathetic relationship between them, and to encourage Peace.
7. To relieve human suffering resulting from flood, famine, war, and other calamities; and, generally, to extend aid, help, and comfort to suffering humanity throughout the world.
These objects are not only of temporary application but aim at bringing about a better state of society, and the development of a nobler, higher humanity.
An all volunteer staff worked for eighteen years to put out the monthly publication which helped cheer prisoners, educate them, and give them hope. Most features were printed over the author's initials; some, however, were signed variously as Student, Reporter, The Wayfarer, or The Listener.
Filled with short essays, stories, poems, jokes, quotes, and quips, at first The New Way was distributed freely only to inmates throughout federal, state, and county prisons, but over the years it picked up many subscribers outside the penal system. Later, during the First World War, readership was enlarged to include soldiers and sailors, and from January 1918 till December 1921, the masthead explained how a reader could help send the publication on: "When you finish reading this magazine place a one-cent stamp on this notice, hand same to any postal employee and it will be placed in the hands of our soldiers or sailors at the front. No wrapping — no address." This was by order of the Postmaster-General, A. S. Burleson. There is no telling how many thousands of New Ways found their way to our GIs, whose military lifestyle was not so different from those for whom the publication was originally intended. All were separated from their families and friends, sleeping, eating, and working communally with strangers in less than ideal circumstances.
How important the magazine's message of hope must have been, particularly during those war years. Encouraging stories, both folksy and philosophical, examined every aspect of life with an air of optimism and assurance that one always had the opportunity to help make things better and that no one was ever truly lost. KT's belief that "life is joy" may have been a hard sell for some readers, but it is clear through their letters of appreciation that many others were deeply nourished by it.
The message of universal brotherhood sang out from each of its pages, sometimes in verse, sometimes in story, often in images. Photos of every kind, taken on every continent, reproduced by the Lomaland Photo and Engraving Department, accompanied articles in each issue. There were many essays on the nature of peace as well as the causes of war, and in the October 1915 issue a photo of the Raja-Yoga College band leading the Lomaland Peace Pageant graced the cover. From Maori natives to busts of ancient philosophers to live American politicians, the remarkable variety of photos was impressive and no doubt designed to underscore the message of unity running throughout the publication. It is as if the photos were saying to the reader, "if even these dissimilar folks are family, surely you too are included."
KT lectured widely, and many of her addresses were reprinted in The New Way. In one, she urged parents to approach home and family life as a sacred obligation, for that is where children need to learn the divine laws. She saw unlimited and "superb possibilities" within each human soul and encouraged each reader to "study the laws governing your own nature. . . . Remember that the confusion of ideas and unrest in your minds, the doubts and fears, do not come from your higher self, the immortal part. . . . There is within the soul of man an indescribable power that is ever ready to give strength" (Sept. 1914, p. 2).
KT campaigned passionately against capital punishment, lecturing to and corresponding with prisoners, prison officials, and politicians. On Dec. 31, 1911, she gave an address to a large audience in the Isis Theater in San Diego, California, appealing to the audience for their support in abolishing the barbaric custom. She asked for and received hundreds of signatures petitioning for its abolition. Some of her comments were reprinted in The New Way:
How can we expect to build up humanity if we can allow the thoughts that come from the disposition to kill to remain in our minds? . . . Realize that the mind is the instrument that is played upon by good and evil, and that if the mind can turn away from the soul urge, and the soul knowledge, which every man should have, and permit the thought, the desire to have a man killed, there is a beginning of currents of thought on planes that we cannot see — currents that cannot be caught up with. — January 1912, p. 7
Many issues carried letters of appreciation from inmates and their families for her efforts. She saw Arizona outlaw capital punishment in 1914 in no small part due to her efforts, and her campaign made enough of an impact on the Governor of California that in 1912 he suspended the death sentence until, urged by the electorate, it had to be reinstated.
Where possible, theosophical students visited and taught at the prisons. According to one article, theosophy and the doctrines of universal brotherhood were taught at the State Colony at Salem, Oregon, "almost since the establishment of the prison" (May 1912). The February 1912 issue carried a story told by KT, about a man condemned to life imprisonment in State Colony for murder.
It seems that in order to save this man's life his father-in-law had mortgaged his house and used all his money, and the family was left destitute. When this condemned man heard of it his grief was very great — he had murdered, that was true, but his soul was speaking, his conscience, and when he found that while he, although wretched and miserable, was cared for to a degree in prison, outside his family was suffering, and an old man who had sacrificed his all for him. And what do you suppose he did? He asked Governor West to let him out on his word of honor. Think of that. A few years ago the people of Oregon would have said Governor West was mad, crazy, unfit to take charge of the prisons, to think of such nonsense as letting him free even for an hour, a menace to the public. Well, Governor West let him out and he went away and worked six months and cleared the mortgage and walked back into the prison to take up his life sentence and the routine of the prison. . . .
Do you not believe that the psychological influence of the members of the Theosophical Society who went there day in and day out . . . [that] their teachings touched that man and brought his conscience to the front, and that then was born the honor which he may never have known anything about before? — pp. 6-7
Such soul-stirring stories must have cheered readers enormously. In addition to exploring philosophical and metaphysical themes, first person accounts explored such subjects as getting along with cell-mates, the importance of physical and mental exercise, diet and nutrition, and even carried reactions to weekly sermons. Honor, respect, mercy, inner strength: these were the substance of many of the stories in The New Way. The Christos spirit was an oft-repeated theme, while teachings about the soul, karma, reincarnation, and the after-death states were often hinted at through myths and tales from other cultures. Whether fantasy or biography, the focus was on the continuity of life and the power of the inner spirit — this must have been especially poignant to readers waiting on Death Row.
The February 1912 story of how theosophists began to meet regularly at San Quentin is a wonderful one. The San Francisco Center of the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society began sending theosophical literature to San Quentin Prison prior to 1890. Sometime after that, upon the death of one inmate who had been studying theosophy, the Warden invited members of the UB & TS to conduct funeral services within the prison.
On entering the prison Chapel the members saw a rough, unpainted coffin . . . Immediately back of the coffin were seated twelve or fifteen inmates in prison garb, friends of the deceased who had been permitted to attend the services. After a brief appropriate reading . . . on man's essential nature and future growth as an immortal soul, an address on the meaning and promise of life and its divine possibilities through brotherhood was given.
Later the group accompanied the coffin to an open mound, a nameless grave in the prison cemetery where a numbered wooden cross stood at the head. A short invocation was given which must have touched all participants deeply. After that day, under KT's direction, members began working directly with the men in the prison.
Many of the articles in the publication originated with the staff or the readership, but some were reprints from other sources. These included one about Robert Wilson McClaughry, head of a prison for 39 years, who spoke of the need for prison reform (July 1913), and an interview with a fellow known only as Berry (perhaps because he was once the official executioner in England), who also spoke out against killing criminals (June 1920). After all his years of hanging convicts, he had seen the senselessness of it and had come to believe in the necessity of "the infliction of a less severe punishment." He suggested instead "useful employment amid human surroundings."
It was KT's hope that inmates and prison officials would cooperate in fashioning more humane treatment within the prisons. She wasn't asking to open prison doors but rather for prison officials to treat inmates as invalids who needed help improving. She understood this need, so some articles were instructive and some inspirational, but when she turned her attention to the cruelty of the penal system, she was not gentle in her condemnation: "Human society is morally bankrupt" she charged, and called the way prisoners were treated "savagery" — "brutality" — "a great disgrace to the human race."
In August 1929 The New Way became incorporated into The Theosophical Path. While today the scope of the Theosophical Society's prison activities is not as encompassing, correspondence courses are offered to prisoners wishing to learn more about theosophical ideals and when feasible, books are donated to prison libraries. These activities, now as always, are financially supported by members and friends of the Society.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1998. Copyright © 1998 by Theosophical University Press)