FIVE LESSONS FROM KERN PRISON
Last week I learnt a new acronym: LWoP. Life Without Parole. That’s the sentence that 32 year old Mike* has been serving since he was 15. Mike is incarcerated at Kern Valley maximum security prison in California and I had the privilege of meeting him there whilst observing The Ground – an extraordinary programme devised and largely delivered by the equally extraordinary Emily Procter. Some of the most insightful, inspiring and moving conversations I have had this year took place in the prison chapel turned classroom that afternoon. I am still reflecting on everything I saw and what I learnt about mindset, choice and creating change whilst at Kern but for the time being, here are the five most immediate lessons that come to mind:
I’m a 10
As part of the introductions, the 25 participants in the programme are asked to stand, state their name, say where they are on a scale of 1-10 and explain why. About halfway through these introductions, Carl* stood up. Carl’s sentence is LWoP. He has been imprisoned since 1985. His crime was theft. He said ‘I am a 10…because I choose to be.’ This man who has spent the past 34 years in a maximum security prison; this man who will in all likelihood die behind bars; this man whose childhood friends are now playing with their grandchildren: this man is a 10 because he chooses to be. We all have the choice to be a ‘10’ or not. To choose to see the good, the beauty, the possibility in each moment. Or not. To elect to focus on the light. Or not. Never think that this is anything other than a choice. I never will again.
I did not ask the men I met what their crimes or sentences were. It was not my business. In a place where privacy and self-determination are rare commodities, I wanted to give each man the choice to share with me or not. I was surprised by how many of the men I spoke to volunteered this information. As they spoke, it struck me how often we allow a single moment or aspect of our lives to become our identity. I am a professor; a mother; a fireman; a musician; a criminal. And yet, these singular elements of our lives do not define us any more than the single moment of James’* crime – a brawl in a bar – defines him. It is easy, in the abstract, to write inmates off as ‘criminals’ and yet we are more than the acts that determine our status in life. We – in the outside world – are all multi-faceted human beings. So are the men at Kern.
Gratitude is contagious
During the introductions, almost every single man expressed his thanks to Emily for the programme and to Tracey (that day’s speaker). At the end of the session, every person that came to speak to me, shook my hand and said thank you – thank you for being here, thank you for coming, thank you for listening, thank you for seeing me.
I had done nothing. I’d not delivered content. I had travelled a long way but I was spending a few days in California – not exactly a great hardship. And yet their gratitude was overwhelming and it was contagious. I left that prison filled with gratitude: for the opportunity to meet these people, to witness this programme in action and yes – for the fact that at the end of the afternoon, I could leave freely.
I try every day to find something to be grateful for. In the midst of even the busiest days, I try to find a moment to give thanks. But there are days when that is hard. When I struggle to think of a single thing that I have to be grateful for. I’m pretty sure that won’t ever happen again!
Once a month, The Ground invites a speaker to come in and talk to the participants in the programme. This month the speaker was Tracey Ivanyshyn – an incredible woman I met whilst on Necker Island. As a senior leader with Tony Robbins, Tracey shared his ‘triad model’ explaining how our physiology, focus and language shape our experience of the world and the meaning we ascribe to our experiences. She explained that if we want to experience peace then by recreating the physiology of peace, using the language of peace and focussing on peace we can begin to experience peace. Where your focus goes, your energy flows. You can choose to focus on joy and peace and love. Or on stress and anger and worry. Be careful which choice you make.
Change is possible
As I left, a softly spoken man called John* asked me to help him. With some trepidation, I said I would if I could. He asked if I could spread the word that change is possible. That people change. That he is not the same person he was nearly 30 years ago when he was sentenced. That he is not a ‘criminal’ but a human being. A person. Capable of kindness, compassion, learning and redemption. ‘Tell them that we are people, not just statistics, not just ‘criminals’. Tell them that change is possible…for everyone.’
I will try John. I promise I will try.
Let’s ACTUALLY change the world!
*The names of prisoners at Kern have been changed to protect their privacy.
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