Prison weekend

My life changing weekend with male inmates:

After speaking to my father about my experience with the male inmates last weekend at Valley State Prison, he asked me to write about it so he could publish in his news letter (Dow Theory Letters.) I told him I didn’t know if I could put into words the profound way these 150 men changed my life forever. I avoided my computer, the task too big the emotions still lingering. How could I explain a feeling so deep and a connection with murderers so strong… How could I explain that after last weekend I knew for sure we all are the same. Only circumstances and choices separate us. It could have been my father in there, my son or my brother. I couldn’t let the opportunity escape me. Father knows best and I needed to find the words and write.

When I began my education at the University of Santa Monica in Spiritual Psychology in 2007 I could sense my life was on an uphill swing and my new skills would serve me well. I knew in recent years I could even help others find their “tool box for happiness” but I never really understood until working with these beautiful men how profound an impact I could make on their lives and more so the effect they would have on mine. There were 80 of us and 150 of them who were ready and willing to make a change. To be seen to be heard to be loved. The Freedom to Choose Volunteers had gone to Valley State Prison three times before (to do these workshops) some of the men had done all of the workshops. One man said he was angry when the volunteers left last time. He blamed God for “giving him a taste of what love felt like and then yanking it back leaving him feeling worse off then before.” I asked him what he had done to get past the anger at God. “I went to the therapist here, “ he said. “She taught me that I could get that good feeling back by continuing to study the hand- outs and do the work the volunteers taught me. I learned it’s in my power to be happy and I can create peace inside all on my own.” Another young man came up to me after the first day and told me I reminded him of a girlfriend he had when he was 17. He said he had been in prison since he was 18 and hadn’t felt anything in all these years until he saw me. “I’m 38 now, I’m getting out in 4 years. I’m happy I’m feeling again!” He asked if he could write me and I told him I didn’t think I would be reading or writing letters. (because I’m an actress and have had fear in the past that things could go wrong having a pen pal in prison.) The following day, after we treo’d (the process of teaching a skill such as letting go of judgment for example) I heard his story. He said everyone in his family, his parents, his grand parents his brother and recently his sister had passed away. He felt so alone in the world and worthless. He had been in solitary confinement for many years until he learned through the prison programs how to interact with people. Suddenly I whispered in his ear “you can write to me, I want to help you.” He said he had thought that this may be the only time we would ever meet and he wanted me to remember it so he brought me a picture of him . My heart fell out of my chest. My friend and I had lunch the first day with 2 men. I told one of them he reminded me of my son. He beamed. The other man said he had been incarcerated since he was 17 for murdering the rapist of his 5 year old daughter. He also told us he was so nervous to speak to us and was wondering why. I said it was probably because it was something new and he wanted to make a good impression on us. The next day the first man came up to me and said “remember you told me I remind you of your son?” I smiled, “Of course I do!” “Well I want to make you proud and I want to make something of myself now.” He gave me a poem he wrote and I told him I think he found his calling as a poet and asked him to read it to the group which he bravely did. One man shared that he hadn’t had a visit in 38 years of being in prison. He considered this a visit and he cried, we all did. Another man thanked us for treating them like human beings and not forgetting they were in there. Another man said he heard the weekend would be amazing and that a transformation was going to happen and everyone was going to leave feeling incredible. He never imagined we would be sitting next to them. He was surprised and happy.

I’m so grateful I got the opportunity to do this work and make a difference to people who deserve another chance. If I were given their circumstances, their environment or their parents, (maybe lack there of) Would I be in prison now? I’m going to remember last weekend forever. I’m going to hold each of them in my prayers as I know all of the Freedom to Choose Volunteers are in theirs.

Betsy Russell