notes from inside a prison

I had the good fortune and privilege of spending a day inside the walls of a state prison this week. 

I was there to help several corrections officers learn Motivational Interviewing (MI), which is a style of interaction that has been proven to facilitate lasting change. It involves calling forth people's internal motivation to change rather than "scaring them straight."

MI techniques help us ask thought provoking questions and listen deeply to the response.  We learn how to effectively acknowledge our client's perspective, as well as their desire and ability to decide when, how, and what they want to change about themselves. We are curious about what is important to them -- why they want to change.  We help them figure out what's in the way of making those changes, and when they are ready, we support them in making concrete plans to overcome those obstacles.

MI been used successfully in medical settings, for example, to help diabetics to modify their diet and lifestyle to promote better health. It's also been very effective in addictions treatment. And it is now making its way into the criminal justice system, with excellent results so far.

I'm not sure I'll be able to articulate exactly what I learned behind the barbed wire, but I think the gist of it is this:  There are angels among us. 


They wear many disguises, including blue uniforms with guns and green jumpsuits with tattoos.

I was deeply humbled by the kindness and awareness I witnessed there.  Granted, the officers I was working with were the cream of the crop, and had been hand-picked to learn Motivational Interviewing  because of their open minds and excellent communication skills. And the inmates they were "practicing" on had been invited to participate because they, too, were the cream of the crop; responsible and cooperative. 

It's probably obvious that MI is quite a radical shift from business as usual in the corrections system.  I won't get into the details, because that's not my point today.  My point is that I saw earnest, kind, open-minded, courageous people on both sides of the bars.  People taking risks in order to better themselves.  People connecting on a human-to-human level, regardless of their stations in life, or the choices they've made. 

I saw officers listening to inmates' concerns and offering to help resolve them.  I heard inmates who were in for life volunteering to mentor newcomers, to teach music, and to use their influence to keep things calm. 

I saw how important it was to the inmates to feel like they had something valuable to contribute -- how much pride they took in doing their jobs well or getting their degrees.  I saw in there the same thing I see out here:  people longing to matter in some significant way.  People hungry for acknowledgment and acceptance.  People wanting to make some kind of difference.   

It was deeply touching, and I want to salute the officers who have been instrumental in introducing this paradigm shift.  They are breaking new ground, and putting their reputations on the line to do it.  As Abraham says, "There is never a crowd on the leading edge."

I left feeling tremendously optimistic about the future of our society.  Even behind bars, there are people want to better themselves, and others who want to help them do it.  The human spirit is indomitable - just a little bit of kindness and attention can fuel a tiny spark of inherent goodness into a bonfire that can bring warmth and light to the darkest of situations.  


Anonymous said...

Awesome, Karen...thanks for sharing your experience! I'm passing this on to my sister in St. Paul. It was great seeing you yesterday. -Mark

karen alonge said...

thanks, mark. it's always great to see your smiling face! I'll look forward to connecting with your sister someday. I love what a small world this is...