I've been to prison more times than I can count. I've kicked it with murderers, drug dealers, gang members and more than a couple of prostitutes and heroin junkies behind bars.
You're probably thinking, "Wait a minute. What did you get caught doing, girlie?" It's likely not what you're thinking. You can now turn off "Bad Girls" by Donna Summer, if it was playing in your head. I wasn't doing time for any crime. I went there willingly and, quite surprisingly, I also found it made me blissfully happy to do!
It all started after an initial desire to do a concert in prison was expressed by a few of the band members I managed at the time. One time behind bars, and I was hooked. I ended up forming a non-profit project to support regular visits behind bars for the next five years, because I saw the positive impact we could make if we developed something beyond a concert. I worked with the lead singer to create a program that included music and teaching mantra, meditation and yoga among other transformational tools. We also added in the occasional community leader or interfaith minister to give inspirational talks. It was a killer program, if I do say so myself.
Highly intelligent and well-spoken to the illiterate and mentally disadvantaged in some way, they were funny, scared, full of bravado, legit scary, messed up, painfully insecure, straight up lost, mouthy, silent, brooding, tattooed up with "prison ink," tall, short, thin, fat, chiseled with muscles... I discovered "everyone" represented in prison and let go of my preconceived notions that prisoners are bad people.
After we'd hustle to get set up in what facilities called the "chapel" (they were mostly big bleak rooms with rows of chairs that often smelled of cafeteria gunk and cleaning solution), groups of inmates would shuffle in, take seats and silently stare at us. After a few times behind bars, I realized something. Inmates have almost everything taken away from them physically and psychologically, but one thing that can't be taken away is their ability to give respect. Respect is a valuable currency in prison. Those inmates, whether or not they liked us, gave us a certain level of respect for willingly going through all of the hoops necessary to get in and give them our attention. That was a big deal, because it's damn hard to get into prison when you haven't committed a crime. In fact, most prisons made volunteering near impossible. Even the ones that did, often had guards that made it known they didn't want us there. There's a belief system among prison staff that convicted criminals don't deserve anything good while serving their time. They are in prison to be punished. Period. I had more than a couple of guards say things like "you are wasting your time" and that we "were nothing but a security risk." Lovely, no?
Inmates knew the "anti-volunteer/anti-reward" stance, so gave us props for getting in and treating them with dignity. While I was told every single time about the potential for those inmates to attack us, I knew they never would because of that respect factor. And they never did. They were on the whole, wonderful fun. Most of them would drop their emotional walls within minutes and sing, laugh, cry, comfort each other and raise their hands to answer questions. Truthfully, they were some of the most enthusiastic audiences that band ever had.
There are so many things I want people to consider about the prison system. Things that directly impact those of us on the outside. One that stands out is:
Given the fact that almost all prisoners are going to be released into the wild world where you and I live, how does it help us and our communities if all that happens during incarceration is punishment? How can we expect those people to return to society without any new life skills or tools and expect them to be productive citizens? We shouldn't, but we do. It is crazy unfair on all of us, as far as I'm concerned.
I used to say that if you weren't broken when you arrived in prison, prison would be handling that in fairly short order for you.
With little exception, prison creates, keeps and releases broken people.
Pause and re-read that last sentence, because it's super important.
When someone is broken, how do you think that impacts all of us that aren't? When someone truly believes they do not matter--who they are, what they do and how they do it bears nothing worthwhile or positive, how do you think they will behave? For those of us who come with an almost innate sense that we deeply matter--others care about us, and what we do, say, think and share is meaningful to our friends, family, co-workers, even strangers--how do you think that impacts our choices, actions and deeds? We are our own "police" in a sense--we don't steal, kill, cheat or lie because that would be "wrong," "bad" and "harmful" to ourselves and everyone in the chain of consequences.
When you don't believe you matter, you don't care about consequences.
When I understood this, going into prison became largely about instilling into every person that they mattered. To remind them that they were not mistakes, not their choices, nor their crimes, and we all have a uniquely positive gift to give the world. And you know what? I saw, too many times to count, the lights go on in inmates eyes when they "got it." That "Aha!" moment that let me know it was a revolutionary concept. Here so many of them were in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s--even some in their 60s, and that was the first time they'd considered they truly mattered. Tragic and wonderful all at the same time. Those tools of transformation we taught them were all designed to hopefully cement that new mental "I matter" hardware long after we left, and they'd served their sentences.
We were usually with a group of 100-250 inmates for about two hours. When we arrived, those people all wore their "inmate" identities on their sleeves, often giving off a dejected vibe. When we left, most of those inmates were transformed into humans with something to feel good about. They were visibly "lit up" from the inside out from connecting to their own worth. Some would contact me later via email or send an occasional handwritten letter to tell me how we positively impacted them. I even had a couple of the higher ups at a some facilities reveal that they liked us coming in, as it made everybody nicer for weeks after we left. Inmates and guards alike changed.
Those prisoners gave me way more than I ever gave them. They taught me something so pivotal.
We become what we believe.
Believe you don't matter, your life reflects that in all its sad, bad emptiness. Believe you matter--even on your worst days, your life is a wide open field of possible goodness and connection.
I've got SO much more to say about what I learned from visiting prisons. Stay tuned for Part Deux on this topic. Go here now to sign up for my Bliss Reports. Then go here to listen to some very blissful music for free.
Thanks so much for joining my bubble, Bliss Chaser. You are a rockstar.