How Service In Prison Brings Forgiveness And Healing

E-mail Print PDF

"Prison isn't a place... It's a state of mind."

Freedom To Choose is a 22 minute documentary based on the 7th workshop conducted at Valley State Prison for Women at Chowchilla California in 2007. This film won the award in the Documentary category, Emerging Filmmaker Showcase at the American Pavilion at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

In 2004, responding to a request for help from an inmate of Valley State Prison, a group of 30 volunteers from the University of Santa Monica in California took a 2 day workshop into the prison for 60 of the inmates. Valley State Prison is a high security correctional institution, housing some 4,000 women. These people are deemed dangerous.

The workshop consisted of processes, including counselling, used by students in their graduate courses. Such an initiative had never before been undertaken by a university. Would it work?

When you make a mistake, do you punish yourself? Do you criticize, judge and condemn? When others make a mistake, do you want to "punish" them, to get back or get even? A child, spouse, boss, a parent?

What if, as one workshop volunteer did, you threw a picture frame at your partner. It missed and crashed against the wall. Or what if, as an inmate, you had a loaded gun, fired at your partner, resulting in their death and your imprisonment. The outcome may be different. The emotion is the same. These two people were part of a counseling group of three, examining what led up to their choices.

"Between stimulus and response, there is a space.
In the space is the power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

Victor Frankl

There is a division in the correctional system. A significant number of people within it view prison as a place of rehabilitation, while others focus on punishment. The division is about 50/50. Does punishment serve to correct? What can be learnt such that rehabilitation takes place?

Could prisons become places of education and healing, in which inmates discover that they are not victims? That they are responsible for inappropriate choices they have made. That no matter the consequences of former choices, they may nevertheless retain the most fundamental human choice, as did Victor Frankl when a prisoner of war: that of attitude.

The inmate could choose to use her circumstances for her learning, growth and development; to own and be responsible for her choices; to forgive herself. Does this work?

A prison culture breeds hopelessness, low self-esteem and conflict. Workshop participants have reported a change of attitude: viewing their prison experience as an opportunity. Many have attended several workshops. They learn how not to get involved in altercations, to stay out of fights, to not take sides. Their human dignity is restored. So far, over 1,000 people have been involved in the project. One woman declared: "I am free inside - the prison does not know it yet."

"The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity."
Leo Tolstoy

The benefit to the University volunteers is deeply transformational. Many have assisted at workshops more than once, donating their time and expenses. They take in with them a consciousness of loving acceptance. It is this loving that heals ancient hurts, both within themselves and those they serve. Volunteers return to their normal lives in profound silence, as if they had been on a sacred retreat.

"The high destiny of the individual is to serve rather than to rule..."
Albert Einstein

On June 22nd, President and Michelle Obama launched a summer initiative going through to September 11th and beyond: United We Serve. Whether or not you live in America, it is a call worth responding to.

Give yourself a few minutes to write down and spontaneously complete the following statements:

1. One way I could be of greater Service to myself is . . . . .
2. One way I could be of greater Service in my family is . . . . .
3. One way I could be of greater Service in my community is . . . . .
4. One way I could be of greater Service in the world is . . . .

You might read over what you have written and then, if you were inspired by it, go out and do the thing you recognized you could do. You will be glad that you did.

"The purpose of human life is to serve,
and to show compassion and the will to help others."

Albert Schweitzer

The University of Santa Monica embraces a culture of giving. Students learn the skill of "prizing" - to appreciate and celebrate each other's innate essence, independent of beliefs or behavior. It is in this light that they learn to meet the world, and any part of it, with a compassionate heart.

Have you ever made choices that hurt you, or someone else?
How do you think that serving others might help you to heal?
How could you best enrich yourself in this summer of service?


Huffington Post

Contact Anne

You are invited to get in touch for an initial, no obligation, call to explore how I may assist you.