Healing work trauma – as learned in prison

Regularly, I receive a phone call or email from a person mesmerized by a powerful insight or transformational healing enabled by an experience with the prison residents.  Yes, as counterintuitive as it sounds, the residents’ journeys through violence have the potential to heal.  If we allow it.  Here’s one such story…

“Hurt people hurt people.” I first heard these words spoken by a “man in blue” incarcerated at Donovan Correctional Facility while visiting with Brilliance Inside. These words stuck with me because they felt so simple yet so profound. The man who spoke them had clearly done some terrible things to land him at Donovan. Yet, he also seemed wise beyond his circumstances and years.

Four years ago, my career took a painful detour. For over a decade prior, I had been blessed with a job, boss and team that I loved. I never wanted to leave that job but my personal life needed to come first. The birth of my second child and my spouse’s career opportunity meant that I needed to move on. So, I quit. And I cried.

I needed to find another job but all I could find was something at a small consulting firm. I wasn’t excited by the opportunity, but I took it. Six months after starting the job, I got fired. While I now know that this was the best possible outcome for me, it took me three years to fully realize and appreciate it. The CEO was awful, making the six months in consulting the worst months of my entire career. Even so, I didn’t realize just how deep the trauma went.

Last month, I ran into the CEO three times at a large conference with thousands of attendees. Each encounter created such an intense physically negative reaction in my body. My body temperature rose, and I started sweating. I felt stress and anxiety envelop my being. I couldn’t think straight. I was consumed with negativity. While I never spoke with the CEO, seeing her in person reignited my trauma. Despite over three years passing since she fired me, I had not healed.

The CEO was toxic, cruel and demeaning, among many other negative adjectives. But after my time at Donovan, I realized that more than anything else, she was hurt. I don’t believe she had been trying to inflict personal trauma on me. She was just so hurt that she didn’t know any other way to operate. I knew I needed to forgive her if I wanted to fully heal. And it was during this reflection after seeing her at the conference, when I realized her hurt wasn’t personal or intentional, that I was able to forgive. This realization – which a gentleman in blue from Donovan helped to spawn – was the key to my healing.

The men of Donovan probably have some of the most intense and difficult healing processes to bare. Yet, their experiences can help us through our own. Through each of our own journeys of self-discovery and reconciliation – however big or small – we are creating a world filled with more love and forgiveness. A world where hurt people can be set free from the shackles of their wounds and begin to love themselves and those around them.

Note:  The author chooses to remain anonymous.

Volunteer Highlight: Jen

Jen is one of Brilliance Inside’s most dedicated volunteers, coming into prison almost every week for the past two years as well as keeping many activities “on the outside” running.  She’s a light to the men who trust her deeply.  Now’s your chance to discover her light: 

Jen Myers.PNG

Every Tuesday at Donovan begins the same way: After being processed by an officer, I push open the heavy door that separates us from the first walkway of the prison—one of many—and the A Yard. I look up. Shiny metal fencing towers everywhere and casts diamond shadows across the concrete we walk on. Razor wire glistens in the sun with thorny arms wrapped and rolling for miles, an end I can’t see. The sky looks wider than before I’d stepped inside prison—like it always does, as if this dense world of prison somehow widens my world…and in many ways, it always does.

In March, I celebrated two years of volunteering to help run the TEDx program. The description above is a scene I’ve come to regard as normal, even beautiful, if not a bit haunting—as if the razor wire surrounding this prison contains more than people, but also everything that makes us human—the men’s pain and sorrow, their bittersweet joy, their loneliness…the separation, and ours; everything about prison affects me to my core. Yet, the men in blue locked up inside Donovan with whom I have the honor to work are the reason I keep coming in.

Once we hit the A Yard, we begin our walk with handshakes instead of hugs. Some men meet us at the top of the track.  We walk together into the space in which we’ll meet for the next three hours in the safe, confidential circle:  Sharing stories, catching up, working on logistics, creating visions, discussing current news.  No matter the conversation or our work a spectacular moment always creeps in, until, suddenly, my heart is touched, again. Is it the men’s innocence, some from being locked up since they were 16…that creates such beauty? Or is it their wisdom from being incarcerated, some for over 30 years? Maybe it’s both. There’s just something precious I can’t touch but can feel when I’m with the men in blue; their unique perspective from transforming themselves inside this tough container, their nonjudgment, their open minds and gentle hearts.

Every Tuesday, when it’s time to leave, we stop at the top of the track. The men can’t go any further. There we say our last goodbyes, as we shake hand…after hand…after hand. My heart feels heavy, as it always does, leaving the men behind, but not as heavy as it used to. I know it’s only one more week before I’ll be in again. How could I ever stop?


Plus: Listen to Jen’s TEDx Talk “Don’t Tell Me What You Did Wrong, Tell Me What You Do Right” from TEDxWilmingtonWomen.

Prison residents become part of solution

Ripple effects are amazing. I’ll let Liz Sheahan, Vice President of Development, San Diego Food Bank, who attended the first TEDx event at Donovan, take it from here:

SD Food Bank letter.jpg“We received a $10 donation from an inmate at Donovan – SO touching. He said he used to be part of the problem, and now he chooses to be part of the solution. He said that even though he couldn’t do much, he’d do what he could. As I do with many donors, I sent him a short personal note, letting him know that his $10 donation provided 50 meals – that he’d made a big difference in the lives of many. In a follow-up note, he stated he was beginning to wonder what could he possibly contribute – but when my note came, he was thankful and happy that he was able to help others. He remembered what it was like to be hungry as a child. He stated understanding the impact he was having helped him appreciate even more what he has – even in prison. He’s now encouraging other inmates to give as well (even though they make 65 cents/hour) – we’ve already received $5 from another inmate.

Warms my heart – and I feel like the work you’re doing at Donovan is causing some really great ripple effects.”

Christmas in prison (And New Year’s too!!)

We spent both Christmas and New Year’s Days inside prison! They both fell on Tuesday this year, the day we meet with the TEDx and Spiritual Disciplines teams. Several of us stepped away from our family holiday engagements to spend our usual three hours per program.

Christmas is the toughest time of year inside prison. While families come together, celebrate, share in food and drink and watch in glee as kids rip open wrapping paper from Santa’s gifts, the Donovan residents face their separation from this joy, their remorse, their abandonment…

Many residents showed up to the program long faced. One expressed what many were feeling: depressed. Knowing that he let down his family, that he destroyed the joy of Christmas for his victim’s family, and that he will never have a Christmas “on the streets” again. Some know their kids are having Christmas without a father. Others struggle remembering their last Christmas outside prison as 20 or 30+ years of incarceration separate them from those memories. They spoke of wishing to pull the covers high above their heads in the morning and let the day wash over them while they pretended to not be living it.

And then came the realization that it was Christmas Day and we had shown up. For them. Because we care about them. Because they matter. Because they are valuable in our eyes. Because our “family in blue” holds a deep place in our hearts.

Some did not really know how to take that in. That they matter enough that we choose to be with them instead of our families… Their gratitude oozed out. And their self-worth grew. One resident said:  “Even our own families don’t come to visit us on Christmas! But you do.”  Another: “When I see you show up for me in this way – drive to Donovan, go through security, get all of us out of our cells… – it makes me want to show up for you, for us and for me in this way too.”

YES! Our commitment of the residents creates deeper self-worth. And this in turn, creates a commitment on their part to their transformation, to their journey to positivity, to the team, which then expands to their families, the yard, the greater community…

Show someone he matters and watch him light up. This is the gift we receive from this time away from our families.

Some specific moments of glorious light on the team. Many of these involve race, the greatest divider in prison. Plus, like most families, holidays often come with emotions, tension and disagreement. We have not been spared; the difference is how they handle this:

  • We discussed a moment of tension that had taken place the previous week. While what had been said had been hurtful, the team came back together and recognized the difference between the hurt and the person, saw the truth in what had been expressed and found their path to move forward together. It’s amazing to watch this happen, often among themselves with little involvement from our part
  • Even though certain Core Team members and all Speakers are very new to the team, the prison rules are breaking down for them. One Hispanic man (6 weeks on the team) already feels comfortable enough to go around the entire circle of team members and bear hug every “person in blue,” giving them love and merry Christmas wishes. And offering himself to support anyone who’s struggling
  • Another African-American man again referred to a white man as his brother and means it. The magic is that this extends beyond our TEDx room. We’ve heard stories of the brotherhood between races on the yard
  • Yet another person told us the vulnerable story of losing his mother on Christmas day two years ago. He went into his parents’ room on Christmas morning signing “Frosty the Snowman” and found his mother had passed away during the night
  • Another told his mom later that day that he got a visit for Christmas!! (Let’s be clear, a visit is from a family member or personal friend only.) His mom didn’t understand: No one lives close enough to visit her son. He clarifies that this visit was us. “Very dear friends came to spend Christmas with me.”

2019’s ambitious goals

TEDxDonCorr2018-646 Small.jpgThe Donovan residents are celebrating!!! After a year of strong progress shared with you in November, we’re looking to a powerful 2019.  And we’ve outlined ambitious goals for the year:

  • Continue running the existing 5 programs inside Donovan prison
  • Expand our TEDx rehabilitative program to the “Echo” yard, which means a doubling of resource needs and – yes! – TWO TEDx events in 2019
  • Launch the entrepreneurship incubation program on “Alpha” yard (the current TEDx yard)
  • Pilot the re-entry mentorship program, supporting reentrants to bring their cycle-of-violence-breaking ideas to reality
  • Hire facilitators and staff to strengthen the power we’re creating
  • Build sound back office with financial and operational management systems

Our vision is to break society’s cycle of violence.  And yes, as described in my TEDx talk, we believe that those who perpetuated this cycle are at the heart of its solution.  They have lived the cycle and, once they connect to their own brilliance, they become unstoppable to spread it.  Our programming embraces and enhances this power.  Together, we break the cycle of violence.