Lessons from prison

Last week I was in prison! No I wasn’t sentenced and I am not writing from prison. I was there for work. To talk with them about sobriety and how they can use peer education effectively to reduce the use of alcohol and drugs in the prison setting. The information I’d got was that we’d be talking to prison officers. Turned out it was a mix of inmates and officers and the sessions were to be held inside the prison walls.

My heart started to pound as we walked into the prison, accompanied by two unarmed officers. This was my first time to visit a prison let alone a maximum facility – where inmates serve a minimum of about 6 years to life sentences.  As we walked through it didn’t escape me that we were being watched curiously by the more than 2000 male inmates. Fear raced through me as my mind went wild imagining all the possibilities of a not-so-happy ending (mostly from crazy prison movies).

The training room was in the education center where inmates attend class from nursery all the way to high school. 60 inmates in their striped white and black uniforms clambered into the room excitedly. They introduced themselves with such pride, some even mentioning their nicknames. Slowly I started to relax as the tension in me eased. It ended up being one of the best training experiences I have had in a long time.

This got me thinking about how often we deny ourselves or miss great opportunities because we write people off so easily and so fast. Our mouths sometimes say “don’t judge a book by its cover” but then our actions often contradict that. We classify people, put people in boxes or pedestals, decide who is worthy of our company, product or attention simply by the way they look or the first words that come out of their mouth. As we do this we forget how much it irks us when people do the same to us.

It is one of the “tricks” of the classes where some are considered too uppity to understand those from neighborhoods with less trees and no gated communities. Others create the ridge based on job group/grade and therefore would not be caught dead having conversations with those of lower grades beyond the cursory of every day work life. Whilst others wouldn’t know how to begin a conversation with their boss. After all what could we possibly have in common we ask ourselves.

But that is the thing, we have so much in common as human beings but we are too often blind to it because we choose to focus on the differences. Every one of us has fears and dreams, no matter how lowly they may seem in comparison. Every one of us needs to love and feel unconditionally loved. We all need to make a difference in the world (or in someone’s world) and know that our life counted for something. This we have in common no matter how high the fence around our house is or in the absence of one. No matter how many zeros are on our paycheck these needs exist in the depths of our souls.

As we discussed stress and coping in the confines of the prison walls I was never more alive to the fact that even in their striped uniforms we were cut from the same cloth. We are woven from the same thread. Everyone has something to offer but we won’t see it unless we’re open to receiving from them. In order to receive we have to choose to focus on the similarities rather than the differences; remember that there are always commonalities for it is upon these that we can build relationships with others. My challenge this week is to strike up a conversation with someone I would ordinarily not consider chatting up for whatever reason. Want to join me? Instead of writing off someone let’s get to know them. It doesn’t have to be a lifetime commitment, just a momentary commitment to be interested in another person.

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