Going to prison made a profound impact on my life. Here’s why.

But it’s not what you’re thinking!

I was at church (Unitarian, of course) and one Sunday morning a friend of mine told me she was planning to use her brand new life coaching skills volunteering at the women’s prison. She asked me “you want a piece of that?” She knew I was a writer. She knows I love odd, strange, and outlandish experiences. She knows me only too well. “Of course!” I said.

So then I found out that I’d need to have some training first. That was fine with me. I didn’t want to make those women’s lives worse.

That was my introduction to life coaching.

A cuckoo's egg

So about six months later I had an informal 1-day life coaching course. I was utterly intrigued. I could do that. And it helps people? Huh.

So a few months after that (I had still not yet been to prison) the same friend from paragraph #1 above called out of the blue. “So my department (at the local university) has decided to train 25 employees in life coaching. There are two empty slots. You want one? It’s a $10,000 course and it’s already paid for. It would be free to you.”

Yeah, she knows how to get me. I love learning new and strange things, especially for cheap or free. “Absolutely!” I said. When I got all the paperwork for it I spent some time being deeply annoyed that it was going to take two 8-hour days per month for 5 months. It seems like nothing to me now, but then it seemed like a giant time commitment.

At this time I had been retired for a few years. I looked like (and was) an Aging Hippie. This was a college class. I have been to a large number of those in my time. I turned up in ragged jeans, flip-flops that exposed the tattoos on my feet, and a shirt made in a Bangladeshi sweatshop. Everyone else was in three-piece suits. Big gold watches. High heels and sensible straight wool skirts. I looked like the cleaning lady had wandered in.

The first day was pretty awkward. Apparently, the others had mostly been “volun-told” for the class and were resentful. And, of course, I felt like a guttersnipe. My friend took the edge off for me. She was chipper and perky and was actually going to help teach the class.

That first day turned nearly all of us around. One of the most resentful middle-managers had taken off his tie and his shoes. I dove in with both feet!

At the end of the 5 months, we got our certificates. The last day was pretty hard. We had become close. Very close. We knew that we’d never all be in the same room all at once ever again. We had become friends — more than friends. Many drifted away after that but several of us still meet up once a month. They drink beer, I drink coffee and we gossip and catch up.

On that last day, they asked us to sum up how we received the coaching experience. I said “It’s like finding a cuckoo’s egg in your nest. It’s a surprise completely out of the blue. It’s something that I never thought I’d be the slightest bit interested in. But the chick is cute and I think I’m going to keep it!”

Off to prison with you!

Then about 3 months after that I finally went to prison for the first time. It’s way out in the country. You go from freeway to highway to small town street to … well, it was a road, but full of potholes and washed out places. Apparently, maintaining the road to the prison is soft on crime or something.

It was a gray day. So the sky was gray and the prison buildings were gray cinderblock. The prison uniform was gray. It was extremely disorienting. When I got patted down by a guard I said “thank you” reflexively, which got me an odd look.

There are seven gates and doors from the parking lot to the yard. You punch a button and either say who you are or get seen in the surveillance camera and the door or gate pops open. The doors weighed hundreds of pounds and made a sound like the crack of doom when they slammed shut behind you.

All ye who enter here …

As I said it was a cloudy, gray day and all the buildings were gray. And the prison uniforms were gray. There was not a speck of color anywhere to relieve the eye.

All the color was contained in the women themselves.

Of course, they can spot a volunteer from a thousand yards away. Some greeted us with a cheerful “good morning!” A few watched us in wary silence. Many ignored us and chatted animatedly with friends. My friend, in an attempt to reassure me that the prison was neither scary or dangerous, had told me that it was like a really lousy summer camp for girls…where you weren’t allowed to leave.

The description was spot-on. The first thing that hits you is how every ordinary they all look. And how young. Most of them were in their early 20s and some of them are as young as 15 years old. By the time we crossed the yard and got to our classroom I loved them all and wanted to save them all.

But what about the danger!

Now don’t get me wrong. Some of those women would scare the living hell out of you. They are dangerous sociopaths and must, absolutely must, be segregated from the rest of us. But they are very rare. There were (are) 1,500 women in that prison and in the years I worked there I met three that should never leave. There are certainly a lot more than three — dangerous sociopaths usually aren’t interested in taking classes on how to live a better life — but they are very far from the majority.

The most horrible side effect of hard drugs …

is prison. Nearly half of the women were victims of the Drug War. They had 3 grams of cocaine (about enough to cover your pinkie finger) and didn’t realize that constituted “trafficking.” They were selling pot to feed their children. They were writing hot checks to pay for their heroin addiction.

They needed treatment, they needed help, not prison. Most need mental health treatment far beyond what a life coach can offer. I can help you learn how to cope with stress but not how to recover from being raped and beaten by your father at the age of 10. I can hug you and hold your hand. I can tell you that you absolutely didn’t deserve for that to happen (which you most likely won’t believe) but your pain is far more than I have the skills to heal.

About 80 percent of women in prison have been abused sexually or physically prior to incarceration. There are billions to pay for their prison, but pennies to pay for their treatment.

Yeah, it makes me mad enough to spit.

So it changed my life.

These days I work with people re-entering society from prison. Coming out of prison can be as traumatizing as going in and the obstacles put in front of them by the criminal “justice” system are daunting. I want to reduce as much suffering as I can.

I wrestle with our state legislature to stop locking people up who don’t deserve it and to ease the re-entry of those leaving prison. I write letters to get as many out as I can.

I’m a writer and an artist, a life coach and a Buddhist. I’m not the person I was 10 years ago and I’m grateful I went to prison.

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