A magical human transformation

•December 13, 2017 • 2 Comments

As mentioned in my two-years-in-prison anniversary post, I’m amazed at the transformation possible when we create a safe space in which the men cultivate their brilliance, those gifts that make them truly unique.

Here’s one such magical transformation…

When last February David first became part of the Core Team organizing the first TEDxDonovanCorrectional, he was a very broken human being: unexpressive and completely hidden. Here’s this kid, hidden behind his sunglasses, hair in front of his face down to his chest and with his guitar as a permanent crutch. No one saw his eyes for our first three months together. He would barely participate in conversations, not engage in the decisions. He sat there, holding his guitar.

Instead of writing him off, we showed David – like all the men – unconditional love. We first met him where he was at and honored and celebrated even the minuscule ways he could show up, like strumming his guitar as we planned the TEDx event. We gave him a safe space where he was allowed to be himself – something that he may have never received before. Little by little over the summer, we saw him open up.

He dropped his guitar, and then his glasses and then cut his hair. But it did not stop there. Today, David is unrecognizable. He now is in almost constant eye contact, speaks up in our meetings, constructs well articulately arguments for his opinion and we’ve even discovered a phenomenal writer who wrote the intricate theme description of the next TEDx event. Just a couple weeks ago, we identified, from 45 applications, 18 Donovan residents we invited to interview, from which the inside Core Team selected 10 speakers-in-training for next March’s TEDx event. David was not only selected to be one of the 10 speakers-in-training; he received the highest score of all interviewees!!!!

This success from a man who a few months ago stayed hidden and voiceless!

* All names changed.



Lessons from two years in prison

•December 5, 2017 • Leave a Comment

It all started on a Saturday. Saturday, December 5th, 2015. Two years ago, today, I entered prison for the first time. I remember being surrounded by chain-link fences topped with razor wire, walking through the electrified fence that kills on contact. As the gate clanged closed behind me, I had the oddest feeling: I felt at home. Though I had never been to, seen and barely thought of prison, it felt oddly familiar.

Since this first day, I have spent over 800 hours behind bars. And while I would never wish a bunk there on anyone, I have been transformed by my interactions and experiences with Donovan’s residents.

Here are three of the myriad lessons the Donovan men have taught me:

1) Hurt people hurt people. All of these men have committed crimes; no one is here to deny the hurt created or to deny the need to separate dangerous people from society. What is also true is that we hurt others when we ourselves are hurt. Think about it. When you yell at your spouse, how are you feeling right before you yell? Peaceful and loving? Or angry, resentful and frustrated? The same goes with these men at a massively greater degree. They often had tortuous childhoods. Imagine being sexually abused by your father and uncles on a weekly basis. How loved would you feel? How much pain would you be carrying? I’ve developed a whole new relationship with my own anger and resentment. Anytime I lash out on someone, I recognize that it’s an expression of my own pain. And, incidentally, I’ve also learned that the pain felt when I lash out was rarely created by the person receiving the lashing.

2) The main difference between them and me is that I grew up with loving mentors and role models. My parents, my teachers, the adults in my childhood wished my wellbeing. They created a safe environment in which I could learn and grow. They encouraged me when I felt down. They taught me the lessons of respect, responsibility and love. Many Donovan residents had no – like zero – positive role models. Their families taught them that “violence IS the solution.” They pulled out a gun when someone brushed by them. For some, my team and I are their first mentors… ever! Who was there for you, just at the right time, to provide lessons and guidance you would have never imagined, to “love you back to life,” to help you make the right choice? Where would you be today without that person?

3) Most importantly, we all have brilliance inside and, when given opportunity to cultivate it, people do. My life experiences through the world’s boardrooms and slums had already taught me that everyone carries a seed of brilliance, those gifts which make us truly unique. I’m amazed at the transformation possible when I create a safe space in which the men cultivate their brilliance.   Our world becomes brighter, safer and more peaceful.

Am I “there” yet?

•November 22, 2017 • Leave a Comment

I was coming home from work yesterday and the only thing on my mind was the next thing I had to do when I got home. I was almost angry about being on the road. Why could I not be home already? I have shit to do and people to see! Does the universe not know that??!?! I was agitated, frustrated, acting like I was in the worse place on the planet (after having JUST driven out of prison; the dichotomy is striking).

I wished to be “there” already. To have arrived. To be able to celebrate what has been accomplished.

There exists such a parallel with the frustration I can feel about the creation of my 6-week-old nonprofit. I wish to be “there” already. “There” is having raised awareness about the dramatic life change I’ve created. “There” is having the financial funds to support the upcoming year of activities. “There” is speaking about the magical lessons I learn in prison to professional organizations and church groups. “There” is knowing and engaging with my community of support in this new foreign land of prison reform. “There” is being recognized for the awesome impact my programs are having on the prison residents and the prison culture.

Yet, here’s the secret: Yesterday’s drive home offered a TON to celebrate!!!

  • On the medium-security yard that morning, the men invited me to be the speaker at their Christmas celebration
  • On the high-security yard, our TEDx team spent 20 minutes in thanks giving. While they may not spend the holidays with their families, we can all experience gratitude for the gifts in our lives. PLUS, yesterday was also our first meeting with our newly selected ten speakers-in-training for our 2018 TEDxDonovanCorrectional
  • My drive to and from Donovan is a predictable and consistent 30 minutes. I travel reverse traffic, zipping by at 70 mph while others are crawling forward at 20
  • I drive along the US-Mexico border for the first 15ish minutes, which reminds me how little my life is impacted by the borders we’ve created
  • I head towards the ocean, which always offers a sunset on my drive home. Its beauty varies but it’s always magical to witness a sunset
  • These 30 minutes can be a gift of stillness – in a car moving 70 mph – after facilitating 5 hours of workshops with 50 prison inmates

Yesterday, I was so busy being frustrated that I was not “there” that I lost sight of these moments of celebration. Of course, the frustration didn’t disappear when I got home and therefore, the evening’s productivity, relaxation and prep for the next day, all happened with more struggle than was necessary.

As I now sit on the plane, heading to another “there” – this time, my Thanksgiving celebration – I take a moment to be right here, right now, to enjoy the scenery out the window (I flew over Donovan!), to write a reflection piece and to breath and greet this moment.

Compassion in Prison

•November 5, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Compassion in prison??? Yes people! And it was a roaring success!!!!!! Yesterday marked the end of the 30-day Compassion It Challenge that Sara and I put on at Donovan. And we celebrated in big prison style: with music performed by resident bands (they are so awesome that Hollywood producers are producing a CD of their music!), stories of compassion (wait until you hear some of these below!) and with cake (you gotta see the residents eat cake, it’s magical!). Every day in October, the Donovan men were encouraged to perform acts of compassion to their friends and family, themselves and all. And we heard two in particular that rocked our world.

Story 1: A few days ago, John asked to recognize a man who performed amazing compassion. So, during yesterday’s celebration, John shared with the 80 men present: why are we so afraid of death? The greatest compassion comes when we do something others are afraid of. In prison also, people grow old and die of old age. The decline can be difficult. Over the past weeks, John has been witness to a man giving of himself selflessly to a dying man: “cleaning him, washing him, dressing him, feeding him, talking to him and treating him as though he still matters. It was compassion in its purest form, not for the attention or the recognition of doing it but pure love for humanity and compassion for another person.” When John called this man out, the fellow residents gave him a spontaneous standing ovation!!!! A small and meaningful acknowledgement for the amazing selfless commitment he’s shown to a fellow resident…

Story 2: Keith shared a marvelous story of the ripple effect of kindness. During one of our weekly compassion classes (attended by 17 residents), Ben told the class about secretly slipping soups into his cellie’s pantry when he noticed that the cellie’s pantry was low. (That cellie turned out to be Keith.) Inspired by this story, Mark one day spontaneously asked Keith what he wanted from the store. Keith was incredibly taken aback: He knew who Mark was but they had never spoken. (They are different races.) And he wondered what could be behind the offer. (It’s prison after all.) Keith refused but Mark insisted. So Keith asked for coffee. Folgers. And Mark returned from the store with Folgers and a pack of soups! Keith was so moved by these acts of kindness that he felt compelled to share them with all celebration attendees.

There were more amazing stories throughout the month and during the day, including one of a man making amends with a man he had sworn to hurt. Oh, the power of these men’s stories!!!! It literally changes and saves lives.

* All names have been changed.

Gratitude for firefighters…inmate firefighters

•October 21, 2017 • Leave a Comment

As the Napa and Sonoma fires become contained, we survey the destruction and count our blessings, with gratitude for the countless people who have supported us in this ordeal. Top of mind come the thousands of firefighters who risk their lives to ensure we lose minimal lives, homes and businesses.

Did you know that you have prison inmates to thank for the same thing? Yes, 14% of California’s firefighting power is prison inmates, trained in 33 Conservation Camps across the state. They cut lines. They are the line of defense. They do some of the heavy lifting of firefighting.

Inmate firefighters put in 3 million firefighting hours per year. So, as you count your blessings and express gratitude with those who helped save homes and lives, please include in your blessings the thousands of inmate firefighters who, as they are saving our homes, are also rebuilding their lives.

Learn more about them and watch the video at http://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/The-Female-Inmates-Fighting-Fires-in-California-450438783.html

Wisdom from a man in a cage

•September 24, 2017 • Leave a Comment

When a prison resident becomes a danger to themselves or others, he/she can be placed in Administrative Segregation, also called AdSeg for short or, familiarly, “the hole.” A few weeks ago, I visited, for the first time, a Donovan resident recently sent to AdSeg. And it definitely created a new experience.

I walked into a familiar-looking housing unit to step into the unfamiliar world of AdSeg, which started with being given a protective vest to wear. The cement walls and metal doors made every movement in the corridor a very noisy one. I waited in a clinician’s office until Bernard (name changed) was escorted in, locked into a metal cage they call a module and then de-handcuffed. Just a few days prior, he and I had been sitting side-by-side exchanging stories and insights. Now, for the first time, I was speaking to another human locked up in a metal cage.

I looked past the metal cage to connect to this human being who has been a creative, loving, dynamic and genuine member of one of my teams. And despite the cage and the incident, the human being was still strongly present. Bernard instantly acknowledged his regret for having lost his cool. “I’m upset at myself. I know better now. It’s shown me that I still have rage I have to release.” (Like so many men inside, that rage was the response modeled to him his entire childhood.) And then, unprompted and unsolicited, Bernard moved into articulating: “And I’m ready to do the work. Being in AdSeg is a blessing. There are here the resources to help me and I’m going to use them to address this rage. This is the last time I am in AdSeg.”

Too good to be true? Only time will tell. Here’s what I know. First, many men enter AdSeg angry, rageful and with zero interest in uncovering the “causative factors” to their actions, seeing in their rage their advocate. Second, many other men speak of AdSeg as the start of their transformation towards positive change. Therefore, clearly, AdSeg can be either a blessing or a curse. And the outcome depends entirely on the men’s decision to create the blessing or the curse.

Seeing a man in a cage is not a pleasant experience. Hearing him committed to using this “punishment” as an opportunity to grow and change transforms the circumstances into beauty. It turns out, this is the only thing we can ask of each other. Growth comes with its ups and downs (as stated in this post for last spring). Can we have the patience to hold people with love during the downs so that the downs can become the bottom that creates a new up?

Inspiration to claim your big bold wild dream

•September 8, 2017 • Leave a Comment

We start our weekly team meetings at Donovan prison with a circle in which everyone shares what’s happened over the past week. Ups, downs, visits, classes, programs, trials, successes…

Some Tuesdays are cause for celebration, like a few weeks ago. As we went around our circle of 15 men, we learned that

  • One had his sentence reduced significantly with prop 57 as well as all of the programming and education with which he’s fills his days
  • For another, a judge ruled that it was physically impossible for him to be at the scene of the crime for which he was convicted. If he was not at the crime scene, it becomes difficult to argue he committed the crime. Next steps TBD
  • Another sees a new path to clemency on which his family is embarking
  • Another received a new release date of next spring and will likely be heading to a rehabilitation camp before then
  • And the kicker of them all: one guy had been away from Donovan for several weeks for a retrial. He left us with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. He came back to our team with that sentence reduced to life with parole and, with his decades of incarceration, is now up for parole. If found suitable, he could be walking out of prison within a year!!!!!!

All of these are MASSIVE news for each of the men concerned. All but one of these men has spent more than two decades in prison. Can you imagine being sentenced as a juvenile to spend the rest of your life in prison, being told that you’re going to die in prison, and then, just like that, with a few words pronounced by a jury, being told that you have a possibility of seeing the streets again?

When I asked the last guy how he felt, he said he was still floating, having not fully processed the whirlwind of the previous weeks. He’s still pinching himself, wondering if this is but a dream.

For most people in prison, their wildest dream is to see the streets again.   They have made the difficult decision to change their ways and place all of their determination, dedication and constant efforts every day to transform their lives. The above celebrations acknowledge them moving one step closer to this dream of walking out of those prison gates.

What is your wildest dream? How can you increase your dedication and commitment? What small steps are you taking every day towards your big bold wild dream? Let these men’s stories be a source of inspiration. If they can do it, so can you.