About three months ago, a student who likes to go by the name Mary Swanson, asked me if I’d speak at a prison for her. Everyone who is involved in this program in this class she was in had to arrange two guest speakers. She asked if I’d be one of hers. I cleared my afternoon schedule for the engagement.
The multiple times when I asked Mary what I’d be speaking about she reported I didn’t need to prepare anything, and could just answer questions. With my teaching and client schedule the way it is, this was a relief; at least up until the date grew closer.
The only information I had received from Mary was that these inmates were lifers. Later she also informed me many are incarcerated because they had killed someone. I began to wonder what I would speak to prison lifers about. I had received a gift card for a local bookstore, and being an Existential Therapist, I decided I’d read up on some Existentialism. I bought a book long overdue for my bookshelf, “Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. I’ll probably discuss this book in other blogs in the future. But for now, suffice it to say I thought I’d use it as a fall back if I wasn’t asked enough questions. I finished the book during the weekend before my speaking engagement.
After waiting some time to be escorted into the facility (Everglades Correctional Facility is a Close Custody Prison, one grade below Maximum Security) we were placed in a lecture room / cafeteria. As I wandered around the room waiting for the inmates to join me, I looked at the pictures painted on the wall. It was reminiscent of an elementary school cafeteria. There was the alphabet, in cursive letters, with an animal representing each letter. I have to admit, although it represented elementary school to me, there were animals on the wall I was unaware of and some I was unsure of the pronunciation for. What struck me as most disdainful though were the pictures of Dora the Explorer and the Blues Clues dog. Although it was explained to me that there are parenting classes in that room, I still feel that placing children’s characters on the walls of an adult male prison is somewhat distasteful and likely disrespectful.
So as I wait to speak, I wonder what to expect. I’ve worked with clients with pending charges, on probation, and on parole. Many of these groups seemed to degenerate into male posturing. Combine those memories with the images of Blues Clues and Dora and I’m wondering if I’m going to have to speak in monosymbolic language. As we waited, Mary informed me that these lifers were eligible for parole, and might be released soon. She suggested some discussion of drug and alcohol might be appropriate.
As the inmates came in, they introduced themselves and took seats. Most were older than me, likely in their late forties and fifties, some even older. Some had sleeve tattoos, some jailhouse looking green tats from the old days. Most had missing teeth. Many have been incarcerated for decades. After assuring them they did not know me, that I had not been there before, (I often seem to remind people of someone they know. I think it’s being bald with a goatee) I began the discussion.
I started with an introduction of myself, how I started in the counseling field, what I do know, and how I am an Existential therapist. I discussed some of the tenets of Existential Theory, including taking responsibility for your actions and embracing your life. I mentioned the book I had recently read, and to my surprise the majority of those in attendance had also read it.
I was amazed when these folks started discussing stories from the book, like Death in Tehran, Frankl’s experience when released form the concentration camp and a peer trampled oats, and when they began quoting Nietzsche. The next hour and a half was an intellectual discussion of responsibility, freedom to make choices, grasping the effects of societal influence on one’s persona, identifying and challenging negative thinking, and of course theories of addiction and recovery.
Many of the inmates engaged in the discussion, and many did not. Some were clock watchers, waiting until their next opportunity to do whatever it is inmates do to pass the time. But many wanted to learn, discuss, explore, and otherwise participate in an intellectual discussion. Is this much different than everyday experience? When I teach a psychology class there are always those students that can’t wait until class is over, and others who engage in the discussion, whether vocally or through active listening. There are also those who ask seemingly unrelated questions. The most bizarre question I was asked at the prison: “What do I think of Michael Jackson’s Death? Do I think it was the drugs, or something more?” My response was in line with his being an unhappy person and seeking external things (like too much plastic surgery) to make him feel better. But it was a pleasure to have these inmates engage in such a stimulating and inspiring a discussion.
I did not accept the invitation to speak out of altruism, a sense of duty, or to meet the criteria of volunteer work that we therapists must contribute. I did it because I try to embrace experiences. And this experience was surprisingly positive, likely more for me than the inmates. They engaged me in intellectual dialogue, were interested on my take on these different theories. They shared their theories about responsibility and addiction, and for the most part, were engaging and engaged.
As they left they shook my hand and thanked me for coming. I’m sure some of it was out of training, either from their parents long ago, or from their being incarcerated and encouraged to do so. But I’m also sure some was genuine appreciation: Appreciation for being treated like men rather than children, and appreciation for the opportunity for intellectual discourse about what meaning they can create for their lives.