“It’s hard to hate up close — move closer.” - Brene Brown
I spent the last three days on a Prison vacation.
A group of 5 of us, working with Authentic Relating International, road tripped down to Pueblo, Colorado to facilitate a 2 day workshop at La Vista Women’s Correctional Facility. Our aim was to teach offenders how to more deeply connect with themselves and others to hopefully have greater ease with reentry or their time inside. It would be my first time volunteering in ARI’s Prison program and as the time drew near, I was sitting with a mix of fear, curiosity and excitement.
My fear was mostly irrational, I had the sense that once behind the many layers of security checkpoints and barbed wire fences, I would be found out (maybe for an outstanding parking ticket?) and kept inside indefinitely. We left on a Monday night and as we drove, I noticed that I was still rattled from the 8hr Basic Volunteer Training I attended that Saturday at a Prison in Denver. During the training, I got the impression that they were trying to “scare us straight”, telling us all the ways the inmates would try to manipulate or con us, how to identify sex offenders and then rounded out the day with a little power point on how to survive a hostage situation — delightful!
A little background about me, my father had been in and out of Prison on drug charges before I was born, having been in over 15 facilities (jails & prisons), put behind bars every place that he ever lived. By the time I was in grade school, he turned towards a cleaner way of living, fixing up and flipping used cars and creating businesses within various multi-level marketing companies. He was not the type who could have a boss and was addicted to the idea of the “Get Rich Quick” scheme. My father was one of the most enchanting storytellers I had ever met, he always had me on the edge of my seat with stories of the goings-on in prison, his travels and near misses with the law. He was full of excitement and charism that painted a light, exciting story on his dark times.
He was a confusing role model. Rules never applied to him and he seemed to have no guilt or conscience about doing things his own way. I am definitely a byproduct of both of my parents, although my father passed on his grey area way of thinking, creativity, and business savvy, I also have my mother’s kindness, generosity and Catholic guilt of doing something I know is wrong. I have a strong value around Freedom and know deep in my heart that prison is not a place for me.
My jitters carried over into the morning of, I put on my outfit with confidence and then minutes later, was advised to wear my backup to adhere to their strict dress code. I felt tense on the ride over and begin to relax as we shared our intentions for the day and our “why”s for being there. As I held my breath, opening the front door to the facility, I was struck by the kindness and warmth of the guard. She joked with our team, didn’t hassle anyone about their clothes and escorted us right through, giving us our badges for the day.
That surprising and much appreciated warmth carried over to the overseeing guard in the visitors hall that we were teaching in. Before we were able to set the space in a circle of chairs, a door behind me opened and a stream of inmates began pouring in. The first woman to catch my attention was a beautiful, petite woman with blond hair and blue eyes who did not seem to fit the profile and my expectations in the least. I was instantly intrigued and wanted to know her story.
Very quickly I saw the gentle kindness in the women. Under their thick protective layer is a desire to connect, to be seen as human and to grow, reform, or learn to be different than the person who landed them in prison. Some signs of trauma begin to surface: immature behavior, underdeveloped confidence and simple language are usual signs, as people tend to stop maturing or get “stuck” at the age when they were traumatized.
The stronger voices find their way into the space first and yet with the nature of these welcoming practices, we begin to hear from some of the shy ones as the day goes on. It is beautiful to witness their shares, their lightbulb moments when they find a practice that really works for them, and see them begin to open up. Before the day is up, I am paired up with a woman who has had some really insightful shares. We are partnered for the empathy game and by the end of it, we are both in tears, as I really feel seen for my passion to help and she feels acknowledged and valued for her insight and wisdom. At the end of the first day, most of them say they are leaving with confidence in the ability to be an active listener and wanting to practice it more.
We leave the facility just as seamlessly as we had arrived, head home for a little downtime (although in my discomfort with the vast emotions of the day I throw myself into work) and then head out for dinner at a riverside restaurant. At dinner we share how the experience was for each of us and give feedback to the leaders. I can’t help but bring up the blond inmate that I was struck by at the beginning of the day. Despite having a desire to talk to her, it didn’t manifest that way. One of the guys on our team mentions that she told him she had already served 5 years so it must have been a rather serious crime.
Day Two I arrive with much more confidence and slight nerves about being given the chance to lead a small segment. Different than Authentic Relating workshops I have been a part of in the past, the group seems closed off and keeps to themselves when we regroup. I also notice that some women seem different today, which makes me wonder if they changed or decided to medicate today.
I get paired up with one of the women who I have labeled as an Alpha for a game around setting context. I decide that we are explorers and all of a sudden, the visitors lounge is transformed into an undiscovered world. We play divers, soldiers, and copycat other groups, all while giggling like children before our time is up. Later on I finally get my chance to pair up with the delicate-looking, petite blue-eyed woman in an appropriate exercise: the Curiosity game. In this game we are encouraged to bring the edgy questions that we have been holding back so I feel invited to ask what her crime was. I express my story about her from the beginning and confusion as she does not match the idea I had of what a female inmate would look like. She dodges the question, just saying that it was a “serious crime” and shares that she has a 9 year sentence that has been reduced from a longer one because of good behavior. We continue to talk about the lessons she’s learned, how she has changed in the last 5 years and what she wishes to share with her children about her experience being incarcerated.
During the last game of the evening which we use for navigating conflict, a common story gets unveiled about how the women often have to depend on men on the outside to house them during parole and use the promise of sex as a bartering tool. It broke my heart to hear a woman share that she did not have other family and felt like that was her only option. It saddened me further to see the nods of recognition around the group of an all too familiar story of someone not wanting to end up in a homeless shelter or at a motel where people are using drugs.
That evening I walk out of the facility with a heaviness of leaving these wonderful beings behind. Of falling in love with their hearts and feeling like it is inappropriate or too confusing to express. With desiring to give them hugs, but only being able to exchange handshakes. I feel exhausted and tired of connecting, hoping to just melt away in the backseat, hiding in work emails as we make the journey home.
The other first time volunteer, who shared the same interest and confusion in the blond, blue-eyed, youthful inmate, says that he had also hoped to play the Curiousity game with her and wanted to know if I found out her crime. I share that I had not but that I found out about her longer sentence. As the conversation in the car turns to other things, he goes quiet and heavy with realization. He announces that he decided to look her up, as she had a unique name and had told him which city she was from. He finds out that her sentence was originally 31 years and for one of the most gruesome crimes there are — murder of a child. I am floored and we all decide to never look up an inmate again, as we prefer to know them as they are today, as they are hoping to be, and what they want to transform into as that is what is real and true in the moment.
The work Authentic Relating International is doing is truly life changing, both for the offenders and for us volunteers who are lucky enough to be a part of it. If you would like to make a tax deductible donation to allow this non-profit to offer more courses in prisons throughout Colorado, please do so here.
To get a taste of the experience with these beautiful women, watch the video from a previous visit to this prison: