Written by Katy Goshtasbi
Posted on: October 8, 2018
I belong to a fantastic national organization out to make America the best it can be. We are a couple hundred people, mostly successful entrepreneurs, spread out across the country focused on a few areas that we believe make a huge impact. As a result, we visited Donovan State Penitentiary recently. Our purpose was to get to know a group of inmates that had been part of a Ted Talk series from inside the prison. Even before I became a lawyer, I had the opportunity to visit a prison many times. I worked for an attorney whose clientele were all incarcerated. That meant, I got to do the jailhouse visits to clients.
So, given I had the experience of visiting a prison many times in the past, why was I so apprehensive about going to visit Donovan? I thought it was because I was afraid of the actual prisoners harming me. After all, Donovan is a level 4/maximum security prison. So I sucked it up, as I always do, knowing that courageous brands win in the end. I figured I would go and share a bit of my brilliant wisdom with folks who “had done wrong”.
Boy was I wrong. I was not prepared for what I learned.
The day was magical. I got to sit down and really get to know many of the prisoners. Sure, there were a TON of rules, designed for our safety. However, the human bond can surpass safety rules. As we talked and shared what we had learned in life, through a series of brilliantly well-facilitated exercises meant to bring each of us out in earnest, my world changed right before my eyes.
The inmates spoke enthusiastically about getting educated formally in prison. They spoke of having quality time to spend reflecting on their life and choices and choosing to act differently by changing their minds about who they wanted to be in life going forward. They spoke of love and kindness and hope. They thanked me for interacting with them as humans.
WHAT DID I LEARN?
I learned that anyone can make bad choices in life that can end in situations that put us in prison.
I learned that many of us are prisoners of our own lives even if we are not in an actual prison. Why?
As I connected to more and more prisoners, hearing their stories and learning what they have learned from years and years on the inside, I realized what Nelson Mandela had said so long ago about how he got through all those years of being imprisoned. When asked how he lived all those years in prison, Mandela simply answered that he chose to be there every day. Yes, even in prison we can decide to shift our mentality and choose to see things differently. We can choose to be in prison. To me this meant that many of us on the “outside” go through our days begrudgingly, scared of losing the jobs we hate, angry at the world for our full plates and our overflowing inboxes. On many days, this described me pretty darn well.
So in essence, we don’t have a choice and are in a form of prison, too. We just don’t have walls up around us to keep us in. We don’t need walls. We are masters at staying angry and blaming others for our misery and our circumstances. That’s enough to keep us a prisoner in our own life- forever.
I learned that faith and hope are truly a gift we give ourselves. Without faith and hope, our world is dark and we are very much in our own prisons. Even inmates with life sentences without the opportunity of parole expressed a desire to be better people. Maybe the actions they took to be better people didn’t shave enough years off their sentence to ensure they ever got out of prison. However, they had hope and faith for other reasons. These prisoners clearly understood and relayed to me that by being better people they positively impacted so many others around them: other inmates, their loved ones who came to visit, the prison staff and guards.
I learned that I wasn’t afraid of visiting Donovan prison because of the inmates. I was afraid of learning something about myself and having to make a choice of being a better person. I was blown away. I walked out of that prison with a new-found appreciation for my own life and actual freedom. I also walked away realizing I needed to do a better job of seeing my world differently and being different. This experience had made me realize we are all the same at our core, regardless of the label that’s on us.
Here’s a result of how my perception is different, thus leading me to a change in behavior. This week in Chicago when I came across the myriad of homeless people, I stopped and acknowledged them just like I would a colleague or family member. I looked them in the eye and respectfully said hello. They were seen and heard just like my prisoner friends.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR YOU? STOP AND CONSIDER:
1) Where in your life do you operate from a place of being a prisoner? What’s one thing you can do to shift your mentality and break free?
2) How do you go around seeing others in your life? Do you respect others for their differences or do you ignore others if they are not like you? How can you choose to see things differently?
I realize what I’m asking you to think about is a very big and heavy deal. However, I also know that you are up for it. Growth is about transformation. Transformation is not always easy. Courage gets us far. One step at a time.
Call or email with comments about this post. You got this.