Saturday, July 6, 2013

What I Did in Prison

            I spent much of my time over the last thirty years in prison working with convicted felons, some of whom were seriously mentally ill. Every so often I’m asked, “What was I doing there?” The answer tends to be multifaceted, shifting its focus depending on what was occurring in my life. Occasionally I can say that I don’t know what I was doing there aside from earning a salary. It can be frustrating work.

            Prison is a real place not a Hollywood image. It is highly structured toward uniformity and intended to disempower its community members. It is a unique environment and its residents can be as foreign to me almost as if they were a separate species of their own kind and making. The rules of conduct that apply in civil life generally do not work well in prison. Kindness, civility, decency, and concern for others are considered weakness. Inmates and unwary staff who express these qualities are quickly consumed by this dark, predatory beast.

            The community that I served was comprised of approximately 2400 men of all ages, serving both short and lengthy sentences for crimes ranging from theft to kidnapping, rape, and murder. Some are leaving soon to return to civilian life, some are never leaving and will die within those walls.

            Some of these men were so broken and psychologically misshapen that they were beyond the reach of any human agency and yet those are the men with whom I worked. They functioned poorly, will likely always function poorly, and if released will continue to be a threat to person and property in their community. They tend to be lacking in education and are under-socialized. Many have numerous associates and relatives in prison. Their lives will be spent going in and out of various institutions. Many of them were comfortable with this kind of future. They need not worry about food, clothing, and shelter. There were no concerns about paying bills on time or working a forty hour week. Many didn’t miss women because even when they were on the outside they related poorly to others and viewed women more as objects to be sanctified or abused.

            Demographics between myself and my clients radically differed. I am not from a broken home, I was never severely abused, I am not uneducated, I do not have a serious history of substance abuse, and I do not engage in violence to solve my problems. I do not have a string of unsuccessful relationships, nor sporadic employment. I do not lack impulse control or the ability to delay gratification, and most importantly, I do not behave as a victim in this world.

            But behind these appearances, within a deeper perspective, is where these men and I touched, where common threads are woven into our lives. Each and every one of them, like myself, has sought pleasure while trying to avoid pain, has experienced a wide range of emotion, has faced a variety of challenges, and someday will move on to a great Unknown.

            The image of the prisoner provides an appropriate metaphor and a concise embodiment of what it means to be human. When we find ourselves locked in by our fears, restrained in unhealthy relationships, kept down by family obligations, stuck in meaningless occupations, or held captive by our own inadequacies, then we’re all doing time in prisons of our own making and it’s terribly hard to break out to freedom.

            These prisoners were both my clients and my therapists. There seemed something to learn in each encounter. Through them I saw my own darkness, I was forced to confront my own projections, becoming aware of my own craziness, my fears, my uncaringness, my own capacity for evil, and I was constantly humbled. In the same manner that playing with a child keeps us tethered to our own innocence, prison nourishes the dark intensity in our soul.

            I do not believe that it is possible for one person to heal another. That is something which occurs within each of us if we can open to it. There is a great resistance to healing due to ignorance, habit, and fear of change. When we are ready, healing arises in its own time. Healing  doesn’t of necessity mean that the client improves or makes progress, sometimes it means that clients are simply able to begin the process of learning to embrace and accept themselves, their marvelous quirks, eccentricities, and twisted deformities. Their lives are enriched and deepened though not necessarily better. Consequently, I viewed my task as coaxing into being an environment within which healing might occur, to catch that moment when the client was ripe for change. That at its best is what I was doing in prison.

Visit me at

No comments:

Post a Comment