“Go change lives, mom.”
That’s what my kiddo said to me the other day as my husband and I left for Madera, CA, to spend three days in a women’s prison.
This was a service project with 80+ other volunteers for the Freedom to Choose Foundation led by Drs. David and Bonnie Paul. For three days we teach and practice communication skills with the women and these skills are life-changing for them. They share with us how much they learn and how they use the skills with their fellow inmates and their families. (You can learn more about this on the FTC website freedomtochosefoundation.org. And watch these videos!)
But I’ll tell you what the secret ingredient is for these experiential workshops. It’s not just communication skills the women are getting from us. They are also getting our open hearts and our care and our loving attention.
When I first volunteered for FTC 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 the women in prison were yearning for connection, for someone to care. And not just the women – we completed our first workshop in a men’s prison last year, which was amazingly successful, and I experienced the same thing: people wanting someone to care.
This recent workshop was my fifth time volunteering for FTC and as I share about this with other people, I’m often asked the question, “Why do you go and spend your time doing this?”
How do I put into words what it feels like watching someone who has felt worthless their whole life and has made decisions based on that 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. In the men’s prison, 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.” There are no words for how deeply moved I am to be part of this.
Sometimes people ask me if the inmates deserve it – the bigger question they are asking is do people in prison deserve us to treat them with loving, respect, and kindness and deserve to have a free self-improvement workshop given to them. That question is short-sighted. And my short answer is yes. They’re doing their time, and, as one inmate put it, prison is hell. Some are paying reparations for their convictions. I met one woman who had been in prison for more years than I’ve been alive. And if they want to learn a new way to be and learn how to be better people and better citizens of our society, let’s help them do that.
The bottom line is that if people feel loved, if they feel good about themselves they will make different choices with their lives. It’s likely that a lot of these women will be paroled sometime in the future. Doesn’t it just make sense to give them tools that they can actually use to make their lives better when they’re out?
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. The Freedom to Choose Foundation is proving that people in prison can make positive lasting changes in their lives.
This has easily been one of the most profound experiences of my life. If you’d like to help with real and lasting rehabilitation, check out the Freedom to Choose Foundation and donate or spread the word.