Desperate Housewives, Etc. Find Hope! by John Seeley
Recently I went to prison. The feeling as I relinquished the valuables I carried, my shoes, my belt, anything metal was out first taste of what prison life means. As I was processed I felt as if every eye from the CO’s (Correctional Officers) was upon me. Proceeding through the metal detector, the electronic doors, past the electrified fence and the razor wire, I felt the first level of isolation that the inmates felt entering the compound.
As I walked into the “yard” I had new eyes upon me. They brought us in a group. Elements of the population were waiting for us. Amazingly a number of them were smiling. Some were eyes of recognition of those of us who were making a return trip. Soon some “greetings” were exchanged as we were led to our destination, the gym at Chowchilla woman’s correctional facility, the largest woman’s prison in the country.
As we entered the gym we found chairs, and some miscellaneous gym equipment sporadically distributed around the floor. The feelings were of hesitation, dread and even some excitement. Many of us were “first timers”. This meant we only heard “stories” of prison life. Most of us hadn’t even ever met a prisoner. Now we were about to meet a bunch of them. We gathered our courage and joined hands to ask for God’s help and blessings as we proceeded through this process. What lay ahead I didn’t expect.
We organized as best we could to await the “special” group of inmates we were about to meet. The doors were opened and about fifty inmates came rushing through the doors. To my surprise many of them were smiling. Some inmates greeted individuals the recognized from previous trips there. Other inmates just seemed happy to see fresh faces. We were the “new kids on the block.” Soon we would find out exactly what that meant.
Now the dynamics were changing, this was a sign of what was to come. The inmates intermingled with us as we formed a circle. Now holding hands as a group we again asked God to bless and assist us through this process for the highest good of all concerned. Some of us were expecting this type of behavior, but it was new to me. I was seeing a new picture of “prisoners.”
Some were “lifers,” some were “short-termers.” Either way it didn’t seem to matter. There were white, black and Hispanic faces. The faces were like your mother’s, your sister’s, your grand-mother’s. They looked like you and me. Some of them had been housewives. The only difference was that their desperation was too much for them and now some of them were serving terms for up to life without the possibility of parole.
Organization needed to be maintained if we were going to make this work. We assigned tasks and began to set up for the days ahead. We began to set up the chairs in special rows, and then test the mics and sound equipment. There were no special decorations, everything was barebones. Nothing we did went un-noticed by the CO’s. Some of them no doubt had their own special concerns about what was happening.
This was the third trip for some of us, for others like me, the first. I really didn’t know what to expect, I was just hoping for the best and trusting God would take care of things. There was a little uneasiness at first, but we soon began to interact more. As we did we found a new feeling of calmness. We were asked to sit and prepare for the day ahead. They purposely split us up evenly amongst the inmates, so the all had one of us in their trios. To them we were “fresh air.” For some of us, this was another step on our journey, and we relinquished the fears and doubts and dove right in.
Introductions were exchanged and small talk was made. “Hi I’m so and so. Is this your first time?” Some like me said yes, and tried not to look it. I asked how they were doing and if they were looking forward to the next few days. They seemed to beam with excitement, surprisingly, something I would feel myself as the days unfolded.
The basic instructions were given and the agreement for confidentiality was acknowledged. The stage was set for the days ahead. Now the work began. We started by reviewing some “basic skills”. They included, “Prizing, Finding the Blessings and Ideal Scenes.” Prizing is to genuinely and positively compliment someone for something about them or their behavior. Finding the blessing is to look for the “silver lining” of a situation. Ideal Scenes are a vision of what is the best possible situation for a specific goal, and what exactly that would look like. These might not seem like something you’d learn in prison, but certainly these make being there better.
We formed groups of threes. Our trios each had a “sharer”, a “facilitator” and a “neutral observer.” Each of us began as the sharer. We offered an example of what was going on for us, and the facilitator assisted us with Prizing, something you don’t hear much of in prison. When we finished, we rotated to the neutral observer’s position, and began again, then to the facilitator’s position till we were complete. Then we took time for group sharing. Anyone that felt compelled to share something they just learned or experienced took turns to stand and speak into the microphone for all to hear. For some, just to stand and talk in front of everyone was a win. For others some new awareness, or healing had taken place. This was unlike any prison I had ever imagined.
We took our turns doing the different positions for each of the processes, then had out time to share. Throughout the experience we were interrupted with announcements, like “Code 1 in D4, Code 1 in D4” This usually meant a fight in building D, section 4. Sometime we heard a Code 1 medical in D4, which meant that they needed medical attention in D4. Often times one announcement followed the other. Each time this happened we were reminded where we were. We took our “bathroom breaks”, although for some it was really a “smoke break.” The CO’s were constantly keeping us under surveillance. We had lunch, a PB&J(peanut butter and jelly sandwich), chips, and an apple with some water to wash it down. We sat outside on the grass in the sunshine, talking to the participants, as they liked to be called. For some of them who had come to these meetings before, they were happy to re-kindle friendships, and refresh themselves on the basic skills. For the new ones, they were happy to have something different to look forward to, and they heard that this experience was something special.
Throughout the day we practiced skills that make life, whether inside or out of prison better for all involved. How many times each day are we “prized?” How many times do we look for the blessing in our daily lives? Who takes the time to create an ideal scene of what we want in our lives? After each skill practiced we took time to share what we had learned or experienced.. Even for those of us who knew these skills, we often get too busy in our lives to take the time to renew ourselves daily with skills like this. At the end we circled up and gave thanks for the blessings we received and said our goodbyes till tomorrow. We weren’t inmates, but volunteers, psychology grads, bringing life skills to the prisoners. Unlike the participants, we got to leave the prison and go back to our hotel.
The next day we went through the same process of screening to re-enter the prison, and make our way to the gym. Not long after we assembled, we had eager participants lining up outside the doors. This time we had new faces. Not only did the returning participants come, but the next 2 days was open for the other inmates to participate. So to our original 50, another 50 new inmates joined us to begin the process again. The returning participants were called mentors, and were there to assist the others in finding the courage to address their fears and wounds from their past and present. For the next two days we were awed by the depth and wisdom coming forth from the participants. It was truly an amazing process to see.
We didn’t know it at the time, but Dan Rather and some Senators were also visiting the prison while we were there. Too bad they didn’t witness this amazing sight. This has given me a completely different picture of who is there, and what today’s prisons are like. The concept of prison as a place of reformation is not new, but it seems to be losing popularity with the government. Many of the prisoners will be released back to society, and without programs like this to assist them to heal and readjust, more problems will likely follow.
At the end we all had a chance to share what our experience had been and how it had changed us. To me, I was inspired by the courage, wisdom and love the women had met. We were nurtured as much as we nurtured them. We found wisdom, as much or more than we brought. We found love, the love that we each have and sometimes need reminding is there. We took a little of each of them with us, as we each left a little of ourselves there. One participant said when we were there, she wasn’t “in prison.” It reminds me of a quote by Viktor Frankl… “everything can be taken away from a man but one thing; the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” These women chose to take responsibility for their lives and choose to have hope for something better to come from their lessons in this life.