We tend to think of prisons as dark, angry, violent places. These are all true, and I've also seen some of the most profound caring and compassion in a men's prison.
When I first volunteered for the Freedom To Choose Foundation several years ago, I was afraid of going into a prison, of being around people who had committed murder, of the correctional officers, the watch towers and metal fences everywhere. The "no bargaining for hostages" policy was sobering. My fear lasted for all of three minutes as the inmates greeted me with gratitude, smiles, and hugs. What really struck me was how much people in prison were yearning for connection, for someone to care.
"You can literally be anywhere in the world on this Sunday, and you're choosing to be here with us in prison," said one of the male inmates to me the first time I met him.
When I share about this with other people, I'm often asked, "Why do you go and spend your time doing this?"
I continue to volunteer for FTC because I get to be the best version of myself, as my friend Ray said to me once. I can sit across from someone serving a life sentence, look past their behavior and instead see the goodness that lies within them. (Everyone has this by the way -- the soul that's untouched by our human experiences.) If I can do that and listen with empathy, I've been able to access my deepest care and compassion -- I've been able to access my best self in a setting that doesn't often encourage that state of awareness.
How do I put into words what it feels like watching someone who has felt worthless their entire life, and has made decisions based on that feeling, finally start to see that there actually is good inside of them, of watching their heart open to loving and care for the first time in years? Or perhaps the first time ever? To watch someone realize that they can make different choices and that they are worthy of love and kindness and can give that back to others. To hear a lifer say that even though she's in prison she can start to be a better person to herself and those around her. One man said to me, "I come from the projects, and I always thought that's where I belonged. I'm realizing that I have other choices and that this is my designed community of caring people."
And another, "I was reintroduced to my humanity ... My love is not just for me; it's for everyone." If you sit with these statements for a little while, the significance of them will sink in.
Sometimes people ask me if the inmates deserve it. Do they deserve the attention we give them and skills that we teach them. The bigger question they are asking is do people in prison deserve us to treat them with caring, respect, and kindness. My short answer is yes. They're already doing their time, and, as one inmate put it, prison is hell. Some are paying reparations for their convictions. I met one woman who has been in prison for more years than I've been alive. Most of these prisoners will be paroled one day, and if they want to learn how to be better people and better citizens of our society, let's help them do that.
If people feel loved, if they feel good about themselves, they will make different choices with their lives. Doesn't it make sense to give them tools that they can actually use to make their lives better when they're out in the free world?
I hear their stories of repeated physical and sexual abuse, forced prostitution, neglect, betrayal and I understand why they wound up in prison. I'm not making excuses for them, and I'm not advocating emptying the prison system. My message here is one of understanding and empathy and second chances. The Freedom to Choose Foundation is proving that people in prison can make positive, lasting changes in their lives. And while participating in this amazing work, I get to practice living from my best self.