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John Seeley
Volunteers Share by John Seeley

What is it like to bring spiritual psychology to the largest women’s prison in the world? The USM grads who volunteered for this project took four days out of their lives, and paid their own way to participate in this project. Here is what a couple of them have to share…

John Seeley, Class of 02

The feeling as we relinquished the valuables we carried, our shoes, our belts, anything metal was our first taste of what prison life means. Proceeding through the metal detector, the electronic doors, past the electrified fence and the razor wire, we felt the first level of isolation that the inmates felt entering the compound. As we walked into the “yard” we had new eyes upon us. Members of the population were waiting for us. Amazingly a number of them were smiling. Some recognized those of us who were making a return trip. Soon some hellos were exchanged as we were led to our destination: the gym at Valley State Prison for Women, the largest woman’s prison in the world.

As we entered the gym we found chairs, and some miscellaneous gym equipment spread in disarray across the floor. I felt hesitation, dread and even some excitement. Many of us were “first timers” and hadn’t ever met a prisoner. 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.

The doors were opened and about 35 inmates came rushing in. To my surprise many of them were smiling. Some inmates greeted USM volunteers they recognized from previous trips there. Other inmates just seemed happy to see fresh faces. 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” who would soon return to the “free world.” Either way it didn’t seem to matter. The faces were like your mother’s, your sister’s, your grandmother’s. They looked like you and me. The only difference was they were serving terms for up to life without the possibility of parole.

There was a little uneasiness at first, but we soon began to interact more. 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. When we took time for large group sharing, anyone that felt compelled to s. hare 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 courageous victory. For others, some new awareness or healing had taken place. This was unlike any prison I had ever imagined.

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. 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 that while we were there, she wasn’t “in prison.” It reminds me of the quote by Viktor Frankl that starts out the workshop, “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.