The end of March marks my 8th time in prison. Even though I go there regularly, I am still surprised by how much the experience moves me. This year, I also brought my boyfriend Martin, which gave me additional, unexpected insights into the program.
In case you haven’t read my previous post, I travel to California to volunteer with the Freedom to Choose Project. You can read more about it here.
This weekend was the biggest group of prison participants that I remember – around 350+ inmates and about 70 volunteers. This growth is due to the word of mouth spreading within the prison about Freedomtochooseproject.org and how it transforms these women’s lives. More and more women are bringing their cellmates and friends to the workshops.
The first day began with many of the women standing up to share about their experience and awareness since the last time we were there, which was 6 months ago. We learned what makes this project so important to them.
One woman shared, “I was very resistant to change. I wasn’t open to anything. But, I heard the stories of others and so I came to check it out. I am a lifer, I’ve been here 11 years, [but since doing the last workshop] I have never felt so spiritually free. So, I began to share these tools with my family, and even though they haven’t been here, they use this stuff…and I can tell you, it’s broken a cycle hostility that has existed for generations.”
Another woman added, “Thank you so much for what you are doing. There is no way to adequately articulate what this means to us. This has an impact on us that you wouldn’t even believe. Even our own families don’t do what you guys do for us.” This comment made me realize how powerful just the act of showing up can be for these women – and for everyone in our lives.
I learned that just by showing up with the intention of really listening, I am a healing force. When a person is given the space to really express what is true for them and when they are given the space to be really heard, they often come to an experience of themselves they may never have had before.
I found it interesting how many of these offenders have been victims in their own lives.
One of the correctional officers pointed out that maybe as many as 95% of the women in the room had a history of some kind of abuse. Abuse creates shame, which is highly associated with violent and criminal behavior.
This isn’t about excuses for how these women ended up in jail. This work supports the women in understanding that they are in prison because of the choices they have already made, but it also supports them in really confronting themselves and their feelings. It supports self-responsibility, the reduction of shame, and it supports them in making different, more positive choices for themselves and those around them. And the amazing thing is that this all happens through giving someone the experience of really being heard rather than telling them what to do or how to be.
Periodically during the weekend, I would look across the gym and see Martin’s 6’4” blond frame rise about a full head taller than everyone else in the room. I could see how engaged he was and how engaged the women he was talking to were. I recognized that for some, this may have been their first experience of being able to sit safely with a man and have an honest conversation.
Quite frankly, I wasn’t really sure how his volunteering with me was going to work out. I knew that his reason for doing this was mostly because he knew how important this work is to me and not because he had a lifelong quest to spend his weekend in a cement block gymnasium, filled with 350 maximum security inmates.
By both career and personality Martin is a “problem solver.” When not accompanying me to prison, he is a Director of Customer Success and project manager for a software company. And quite frankly, I wasn’t really sure how:
- He was going to take to the experience of just listening without giving advice to the women. 2. He was going to allow himself to be vulnerable enough to share freely and from the heart with the women he met there.
At the end, I asked Martin what he learned:
He shared, “No one I met, grew up saying I want to be a gangster, or a murderer, or do drugs. Many of the women had been left to their own devices in their lives to deal with the outside influences and issues…their only experience of “problem solving” may have been through violence.”
When we clear the negative beliefs, judgements and blocks that perpetuate negativity and imbalance, our natural impulse is towards healing, growth, and learning. This work powerfully honors and promotes that innate tendency.