How a Suburban Dad went on a crazy fucking retreat inside Folsom Prison, faced killers and came out with his confidence.

By Scott Holstein Wilmette, IL

Mandela once said: “courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”

This past June, I had the unique opportunity to explore Mandela’s insight in depth during my personal attempt at helping to repair the world. I voluntarily spent four twelve hour blistering hot summer days inside the walls of California’s Folsom Maximum Security prison. I was one of 30 “men from the street”, as we were called, participating in an unusual workshop along with approximately 70 male inmates…90% of whom were serving life sentences for committing some of the most heinous crimes you can imagine.

You might now be asking yourself “why?” Why would I do this? Unless, of course it was my job, which it is not. Nor was I involved in prison reform in any way. So, why would I voluntarily spend these four summer days locked inside a maximum security prison instead of inside the safety and security of my suburban home with my family.

How did I get to this point? Well, for five years straight I had been offered this opportunity by my friend James, one of the founders of the Inside Circle Foundation whose organization runs this unusual workshop. And each year I would respectfully decline with “no way and what do I have I to offer the prisoners anyway.” Honestly, I was just simply scared. Afraid of the horrible monsters that society had deemed unfit to live their lives on the outside. Yes, there was real danger… and personally, I had grown up as a small kid, with constant fear of beatings from older siblings or neighborhood bullies.

I was afraid of a myriad of possible scenarios including being caught inside a prison riot, being taken hostage or worse. These were all possible scenarios that my friend James told me were real. He was not just creating drama, he was telling me the truth. You see, these inmates that I was going to be joined with for four days, were not your regular everyday murderers. They were specifically picked out for their gang leadership positions. Each one of these men are high up in the leadership of their respective gangs separated by the racial divides the gangs represent…the Crypts, the Bloods, the Arian Nation. Outside the workshop, they cannot even risk talking to each other in the “prison yard” for fear of losing their lives by retribution from their own gang members. These specific inmates are in positions to rule their gangs around the country and are even capable of directing hits inside the walls of other prisons. And they would all be locked in a room with me for four days.

What finally motivated me to go? Well, it was not until I was ultimately promised by my friend, the following…

that if I trusted him, and went on this journey with him, that I would be getting something Spiritually fulfilling for myself, yes the simple and powerful promise of a fulfilling spiritual experience.

What I did not realize at the time, was that I would be heading straight into the heart of a vicious beast who would eventually teach me a lesson of true redemption, not through biting force, but through caring love.

First, a little background on the genesis of this workshop. The event is run by the Inside Circle Foundation. This foundation was started 10 years ago by two poets, a Stanford University Poet and a Folsom prison poet. The two had struck up an unusual pen pal relationship. At the time, the Stanford poet was involved in a men’s organization called the ManKind project, which was founded here in the MidWest. The Mankind project’s primary purpose is to run weekend men’s workshops for everyday men who are typically in transition and revaluating their lives. On these weekends, each man has the opportunity to explore uncomfortable emotions such as rage, sadness, shame and fear inside a circle of supportive men who are able to model healthy boundaries and create a loving environment. Typically through a given weekend, these men are able to reach a point of self forgiveness and forgiveness of others in their lives.

So, it was within this context, that the two individuals, the two poets set out on a mission to bring these powerful workshops to our societies’ human garbage dump, we call our U.S.Prison System. I do not use this analogy lightly, at least for Folsom Prison, which is what I know standing here today. These men are locked away to rot in their own evil. Like animals, 2 men inside a 6x10 foot cement cell, 22 hours a day.

So, these prison workshops began with the theory that instead of human garbage, these men were human beings who did some very bad things, but who should according to all spiritual and religious rights, be given the opportunity for redemption. Now I admit, having been asked a few months ago to share this story I have struggled with how to bring up the idea of Redemption for murderers, the worst of our criminals. I struggled, up until last week, when a definition was offered up to me in a personal reflection in which redemption was defined as “not making a bad man good, but instead making a dead man come alive .” And spiritually these prisoners were dead.

During these four days, I witnessed some of the most horrible and heartbreaking accounts of human treatment and torture I had ever heard in person…not committed by these inmates, but honestly committed to these men in their past. On multiple occasions, I cried with them on hearing the stories of how some were raised with no parents, abusive parents, multiple abusive foster families, and drug addicted parents…. where most often… gang membership seemed their only option for mentorship and escape from the chaos and hell that was their family life.

One story that especially touched me was that of a leader of one L.A. gang, his prison name is Snaps. He is 35 years old and a master tattoo artist and due for release in 9 years, having served 15. He has a teenage son who has already taken part in gang activity, and during the workshop, Snaps shared his devastation over his son’s chosen path. He hurt deeply. Hurt that he was such a failed father. Knew there was a better way to show is son. He asked me for forgiveness for having been such a bad father. I gave it to him. He then offered his gift of forgiveness to each man in our circle who also felt a failure in their life as a father or brother or spouse… or as a man.

This scenario was played out over and over again throughout the four days…men looking to find healing and redemption for their own human failings.

It was not about forgiving them for their crimes. It was about these prisoners looking at their lives and getting a taste of true acceptance, forgiveness and human nurturing most never knew existed…certainly never from a white man from the street. I was helping to breathe life into their dead souls.

So, it is with this in mind that I need to recount the most important and profound aspect of my experience. Weeks before going to this workshop, I was asked by the leaders to come to the prison with an understanding of what kept me imprisoned in my own life. I admit, that before leaving for California I could not answer this question. I had never really thought about what imprisoned me…and did not have an answer until the first day of the workshop when I stood in front of 70 maximum security inmates, inside the sweltering cement block prison chapel.

It was then that the prison inmates were asked to evaluate me to determine whether or not I was trustworthy enough to stay inside the circle or be asked to leave the workshop and go back to Chicago.

Now, I do not know how many of you have stood in front of 70 convicted killers asking if you could be trusted, but let me tell you now…it is an extremely scary experience.

One inmate, a native American Navaho Indian, who was fully tattooed head to toe, scrambled up to me stood inches from my face and exclaimed “you can’t even look me in the eyes! How can I trust you?!” I struggled to answer his questions and tried to hide my fear. They all wanted to know if I would be trust worthy enough, strong enough, to hear their deepest and darkest vulnerabilities and fears… the same vulnerabilities that they would kill to protect in the prison yard. And at that moment, with great anguish, I realized…I did not feel worthy. I had been found out. Seen as a fake. And in this realization, I cracked.

It was then that I knew…this was the gate to my own personal prison…I was trapped by my own fear and sense worthlessness…afraid of being seen as weak. In this moment, I became aware that for my whole life I had learned to listen too attentively to my own self doubt and self judgment. And now here I was, being asked quite reasonably by another human being if I could be trusted, and I could not even look him in the eyes. And I was being called on it. I was being shown my own personal prison cell in my mind and the lights were being turned on to reveal the walls that held me.

As my lips quivered in front of these 100 men in total, something then happened…a 65 year old African American man named Roundtree, who had been in Folsom for 30 years on a life sentence, stood up… walked across the circle, opened his arms and embraced me. I wept like a child. This shared human moment proved my trustworthiness and served to set the tone for the next four days…

Standing here today, I can tell you that I no longer turn my eyes with self doubt. The voices of self criticism are muffled quiet in my head. I am able to look anyone in the eyes, even thru my fear. I have begun to find a way out of my own personal incarceration — ironically enough, straight through the gates of the American Made Hell that is our maximum security prison system…where I found my own personal redemption.

And as for the prisoners, all I can say for them is what they can say for themselves…as one of the inmates named Mean Gene wrote to me after the workshop:

“Thank you for giving me the will and reason to live a meaning full life. A human Life”

And in my opinion, a human life is a life that can help to repair the world, even from inside the gates of Folsom State Prison.

My experience was filmed during the making of a new documentary called The Work which was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW 2017 for Best Documentary. Not sure if I made in the final edit.