Lessons from two years in prison

It all started on a Saturday. Saturday, December 5th, 2015. Two years ago, today, I entered prison for the first time. I remember being surrounded by chain-link fences topped with razor wire, walking through the electrified fence that kills on contact. As the gate clanged closed behind me, I had the oddest feeling: I felt at home. Though I had never been to, seen and barely thought of prison, it felt oddly familiar.

Since this first day, I have spent over 800 hours behind bars. And while I would never wish a bunk there on anyone, I have been transformed by my interactions and experiences with Donovan’s residents.

Here are three of the myriad lessons the Donovan men have taught me:

1) Hurt people hurt people. All of these men have committed crimes; no one is here to deny the hurt created or to deny the need to separate dangerous people from society. What is also true is that we hurt others when we ourselves are hurt. Think about it. When you yell at your spouse, how are you feeling right before you yell? Peaceful and loving? Or angry, resentful and frustrated? The same goes with these men at a massively greater degree. They often had tortuous childhoods. Imagine being sexually abused by your father and uncles on a weekly basis. How loved would you feel? How much pain would you be carrying? I’ve developed a whole new relationship with my own anger and resentment. Anytime I lash out on someone, I recognize that it’s an expression of my own pain. And, incidentally, I’ve also learned that the pain felt when I lash out was rarely created by the person receiving the lashing.

2) The main difference between them and me is that I grew up with loving mentors and role models. My parents, my teachers, the adults in my childhood wished my wellbeing. They created a safe environment in which I could learn and grow. They encouraged me when I felt down. They taught me the lessons of respect, responsibility and love. Many Donovan residents had no – like zero – positive role models. Their families taught them that “violence IS the solution.” They pulled out a gun when someone brushed by them. For some, my team and I are their first mentors… ever! Who was there for you, just at the right time, to provide lessons and guidance you would have never imagined, to “love you back to life,” to help you make the right choice? Where would you be today without that person?

3) Most importantly, we all have brilliance inside and, when given opportunity to cultivate it, people do. My life experiences through the world’s boardrooms and slums had already taught me that everyone carries a seed of brilliance, those gifts which make us truly unique. I’m amazed at the transformation possible when I create a safe space in which the men cultivate their brilliance.   Our world becomes brighter, safer and more peaceful.

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