What I Learned From a Weekend in Prison

This post was first originally published on the Huffington Post on 4/20/16

This past weekend, I went to a maximum security women’s prison in central California to volunteer for a project called Freedom to Choose. We worked with over 250 female inmates throughout the weekend to help them find ways to choose freedom within themselves – for even if they may never reach parole and experience freedom outside of the prison walls, it is possible that they can still find it within themselves.

The experience was extraordinary. I went in thinking that I was going to teach the inmates tools about personal development and Spiritual Psychology, but really, as so often happens, I ended up learning so much from them.

Here is some of what I learned….

We were volunteering in one of the largest women’s prisons in the state of California. It has over 4,000 women residing there and is stuffed to the brim, with many cells having eight women to a room. There is a part of me that can’t even imagine what that must be like – having seven other roommates day in and day out for 20+ years – never having full privacy or silence. I realize that I’m super lucky and grateful that I’ve never had to experience life in prison before.

When I walked into the prison on the first day, I felt nervous, as I wasn’t sure what to expect. I waited in the gym with the other volunteers for the inmates to enter, and as soon as they did I became more comfortable. I watched these women come in, all dressed in a version of a blue jumpsuit, and they were smiling and laughing and were so incredibly friendly and polite that it put me at ease right away. Many people have asked me “what are the prisoners like?” and the best way I can see it is women in prison are just as human and divine as women who are not in prison. They look like people that you see in your everyday life – they look like your aunts, and neighbors and friends – they just made different choices than we did that had them end up in prison.

I learned that life in this prison is extremely tough. It isn’t a safe space to express your emotions or to speak openly about how you feel. Crying can get you beat up. Being too pretty can get you beat up, and in the case of one woman there, being too pretty can get your face slashed so that it is permanently scarred. Not following ranks within the inmates can get you beat up. Talking back to Correctional Officers, while one would hope it wouldn’t have violent repercussions, it too can get you beat up. Prison is tough and is definitely not a safe space, emotionally or physically.

Yet when these 250 women walked into the gym this weekend, it became a safe space for them. The workshop that we created in the gym was a space where we all found a common ground, and we could all openly express our emotions, where the inmates could talk and be heard and not have to worry about being interrupted, or getting hit if they cried. They were able to share their stories and bring compassion and loving into themselves and receive that from the other women around them. In many ways it was transformational.

But more importantly, I learned how the rehabilitation work that is happening within the prisons, such as the Freedom to Choose project and others, is helping these women to choose a new future for themselves. Many women are getting their GED’s, College Degrees, or training to be Addiction Counselors or Group Mentors.

I met many women who told me that they wake up each day with the intention to be a better person, to better their lives and the lives of the women around them. I thought to myself “dang, I don’t always wake up every day with that intention.” I was inspired, to say the least.

I met a woman who has been in prison for 15 years for a crime she didn’t commit, but her faith in God is so strong that she is trusting that God put her in prison for a certain reason and because of that she is trying to better other women’s lives while she is in there, all the while trusting that God will find a way for her to get parole and get out. I was inspired again.

I met mothers who had three children at home, and they are still trying to be the absolute best mom that they can be through limited phone conversations and visits. Their heart breaks knowing they can’t put their children to bed at night, but they still do whatever they can from behind bars to be the best mother they can be for their children. These mothers are doing everything they can to become a better person so they can go home and be with their families again, and because of that, I was once again inspired.

Many of these women who attend this workshop do more personal development work on a daily basis than I do, and let me tell you, as a Life Coach, I do a lot of personal development. And because of the Freedom to Choose project, many of these Mamas are getting second chances to go home to their families. Many who didn’t ever think that they would get parole are receiving it and getting to go home.

Freedom to Choose comes into both the men and women’s prisons twice a year and the inmates can come to the workshops as often as they would like, and because of that they create lasting transformational change within themselves. According to the Freedom to Choose Foundation, six months after taking the workshop, 98% of the women polled said that their lives have improved and 91% experience less conflict, because they are choosing to create a new freedom within themselves, even if they aren’t living in what they call the “free world” yet.

Viktor Frankl, who wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning was a Jewish Psychologist living in Austria during the Holocaust when he was taken to a concentration camp. When he got there, he noticed that everything can be taken from a person, except for one essential freedom that can’t be taken from anyone – and that is one’s freedom to choose one’s attitude about their circumstances.

Frankl says “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

So I ask you today – where can you choose a different response today? You never know, that new response may just bring you an incredible new freedom within your life….