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3 Things I Learned From a Women’s Prison

And what you can learn too

The sun was rising as I locked my front door, and got into the back of a waiting car. We were headed to the airport. I took a deep breath, and looked down at my bare hands. My left ring finger, where my wedding band usually was, had a little tan line. I smiled and touched it. I was on my way to a woman’s prison, where there was no jewelry allowed.

As an empowerment coach for the last 15 years, I’ve worked with almost every type of client. I’ve helped women start companies, fast-track careers, revitalize marriages, navigate divorces, resolve family conflicts, and create healthy lifestyles. I’d never worked with a female prisoner before, but that was about to change. I had a date with 35 soon-to-be-released inmates from Flowood Prison, and we had some training to do.

I was travelling and training on behalf of Thrive Global. Founded by Arianna Huffington, Thrive’s mission is to end the epidemic of stress and burnout in our culture. (It’s about time someone takes that on, don’t you think?)

What you probably know about Thrive (since you’re reading these words) is that it offers tons of practical and powerful advice on well-being. (I check in for my daily dose of wisdom every morning.) What you might not know is that it also offers training programs to corporations and non-profits based on Arianna Huffington’s book, Thrive. I’d become a super fan of the practical, science based training, and had recently joined their facilitator team, which is what had me flying from my Silicon Valley bubble to Jackson, Mississippi.

I was to meet Deborah Jiang-Stein when I arrived. Deborah is the author of the memoir Prison Baby, and the Founder of the unPrison Project, which works to build literacy, mentoring, and life skills for women in prison. Deborah is also a 2017 L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth honoree. In fact, Arianna presented Deborah with her award last year, which is where they met and decided to collaborate and bring Thrive Global training to women in prisons.

As we headed to the facility the morning of our workshop my intention was to give these ladies my all. I wanted to teach them the valuable skills I’d come to offer them. Little did I know, they were the ones who would be teaching me. I learned three things at Flowood that day. I thought I’d share them with you here.


Lesson One: We’re more alike than we’re different.

The prison was a non-descript set of administrative buildings. (Certainly nothing like the barbed-wired, high-security facility of my fearful fantasies.) We entered the lobby, signed in, and checked our personal belongings (including our mobile devices) with a no nonsense security guard.

As we entered the inner yard, I remember thinking that if it weren’t for the prison uniforms, we could have been in any school quad. A few women sat talking at lunch tables, while others others stood in a large group laughing and telling jokes.

Several prisoners were assigned to help us set up. While I’d been afraid the inmates might be aggressive I found quite the opposite to be true. These women weren’t any different than I was. They were just ordinary people who’d met with extraordinarily difficult challenges.

As we waited for our class to assemble, Deborah helped me understand the life experience of some of the women I was about to meet. A misconception about women in prison (and one I’d shared) was that female prisoners are dangerous. Actually most female inmates are incarcerated because of substance abuse, domestic violence, or mental health issues.

What I found as I interacted with these courageous women was that they were like any other group I’d led in workshops before. They shared their dreams along with their stories of self doubt, low self-esteem, wrong choices, self-defeating habits, and bad men. They talked about the love they had for their children and their hopes for the future. I found myself wondering how different their lives might have been had they been born into different circumstances.

Before visiting Flowood I’d assumed I had nothing in common with female prisoners, but that’s not true. As women we share the desire for our kids to be safe and happy. We all want to matter, and we all want to be seen. We’re more alike than we’re different, and it’s what we have in common that can help us build bridges over the things that divide us.

I’m looking for what’s common when I meet new people now, and I’m seeking more opportunities to get outside of my bubble. There is so much perspective to be found from looking at the world through another person’s eyes.


Lesson Two: You feel confident when you focus on your strengths.

Part of the day’s training asked participants to identify their strengths. It thrills me to watch a woman’s eyes light up as she claims what she’s good at out loud. It’s self validation and a little personal triumph.

Watching the inmates name their strengths and talk about the ways they could use those skills to help them build a life in the outside world was powerful. At the end of that training section, everyone was sitting up straight with a bit of a smile.

Why don’t you try a smile of your own right now? Name your strengths. These are your natural abilities or the skills you’ve developed over the course of your life. How could you use those abilities to move yourself forward?


Lesson Three: You behave into your labels, so it’s important to reframe the negative ones.

We all use labels to define ourselves. We collect them as we make our way through life. (Let’s say you’re great at gym, so you call yourself an athlete, or you’re bad at art, so decide you’re not creative.) We also adopt the voices of influential people around us. (If someone tells you bad stuff about yourself often enough, you eventually start to believe what’s being said.)

The ladies of Flowood were working with some pretty disempowering tags. (Think loser, addict, inmate, prisoner, stupid, worthless, and criminal.) It’s important to take a look at your labels, because they can hold you back. Can you see, for example, how wearing a label like prisoner or criminal could hold our Flowood sister back as she attempts to re-integrate into her community?

How about you? Are you wearing disempowering labels? Could you use a little reframing? To reframe something just means you put it in a more empowering context (very much like taking an existing photo and putting it in a nice new picture frame).

We reframed a lot of labels that fine afternoon in Jackson, Mississippi. As we brought the workshop to a close, the women shared what they’d learned. Their responses filled my heart. I thought I’d leave you with a few of my favorites.

“I’m excited to go out in the world to become the woman I know I can be. This has taught me that I am 
worthy and the brain has more power than we know if we know how to use it.” 


“The Thrive and unPrison workshop gave us as inmates a brief moment of reprieve behind these walls. 
One in which we could let down our guard, share our hopes and dreams, strengths and weaknesses 
and encourage hope in a dark time.” 


“This workshop invited and brought unity among us and we will be forever grateful for this.” 


Deborah Jiang-Stein calls incarcerated women the hidden and silent part of our population. I hope this blog takes a step down the path of giving them a voice and helping them to be seen. If you’re interested in supporting the work of the unPrison Project, please visit http://www.unprisonproject.org.

Together, We’ve Got This!

Kim

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