Teaching prisoners to be counselors proved to be a perspective-changing experience for Dan Griffin.
Last month, I had the honor of being able to train groups of men sentenced to life in the California State Prison, Solano (SOL). For two days, with a co-author of a treatment curriculum we have developed, we got to know these men and helped train them to become addiction counselors. That’s right. I said lifers training to become addiction counselors. Given that almost 90 percent of those in prisons across our country were under the influence of alcohol and/or other drugs at the time of their crime and over 60 percent of all prison inmates meet the criteria for substance dependence, it makes complete sense to do this.
Who better to reach the guys in prison than the ones who have really been there? These are not guys playing criminals on TV; they are men who have committed criminal acts and who have lost their freedom as a result. But they are still men. And, as Tom Matlack found when he first began the efforts of The Good Men Project at Sing-Sing Prison, they are men trying to figure out what it means to be a good man, despite their circumstances and the number of voices out there who would say they have forfeited their opportunity to be good men and to just live in the community. And I could not shake this question in my mind: How do the men at SOL—and men everywhere—heal and change when they have compromised their humanity in order to survive, or do what they thought was surviving?
I first encountered prisoners in real life—as opposed to those in the countless, mostly horrible, movies and shows about prison I have seen over the past four decades of my life—when I taught a college course on alcohol and other drugs at a close-security prison in Minnesota. The majority of the men in my class had been addicted to alcohol and/or other drugs. Early in the class, many of the men talked about what got them into prison. As I listened to their crimes, after several of them had spoken, I realized that could have been me.
The drunk driver? How many times did I drive drunk, in a blackout, only to nervously laugh about it the next morning wondering where the car might be? Involuntary homicide? How many times did I drive 60, 70, 80, even 90 mph down residential streets while I was drunk, damn lucky that nobody was caught in my path? Felony. What about the hit and runs? What about those very questionable interactions with women and alcohol in college? I could go on, but you get my point. I learned that the dividing line I—and society—had drawn between me and these men in prison was not nearly as stark as I had assumed it to be. I carried this learning with me into this training.
After going through security at SOL and surrendering everything on my person, we waited for our host to walk us to the training facility. As we walked through the prison yard, I thought of movies like Stir Crazy and Escape from Alcatraz, and it looked exactly the same. The prisoners were huddled into their cliques. Some were walking around the track, others were smoking or exercising. The ominous towers and the officers with rifles, ready to respond, stood over the men, interspersed throughout the prison grounds and around the perimeter.
I could feel the eyes of the prisoners on us as we walked through one security entrance after another until we arrived at our destination: a free-standing concrete building with a security guard posted out front. More than anything, the predominately African-American and Latino inmates saw three white, free people walking through their world. I felt some comfort knowing that I was there to talk to the men, as best as we could, not at them.
As we prepared to start the training, the men came into the room. They wore the standard prison uniforms. Aside from those uniforms, it could have been any other training. We covered some very heavy topics over the course of those two days—anger and violence, abuse and trauma, relationships with our mothers and fathers, homophobia and misogyny, being of service, privilege and entitlement—and the men ate it up, hungry for as much as they could learn about how to be better counselors.
They genuinely cared and saw this training as an opportunity for them to continue some of their own healing in addition to facilitating the healing of their brothers. They asked great questions and had amazing insight into the topics we presented. We left there with a better understanding of some of the key concepts of our curriculum with help from them. They shared vulnerable parts of who they were as they continued to explore their own recovery and understanding the impact of their behavior on others. And the impact of others’ behavior on them. The majority of the time I forgot I was in a prison—other than when I stepped outside of the classroom and was hit with the numerous messages and signs reminding me exactly where I was.
The beauty of the work these men are doing is that it is peers working with their peers. It is not someone asking, “What is it like to have this?” It is men, peers, saying, “I know what it is like. I have walked where you walk, and I know what it is like to be in prison, both physically and spiritually.” Think about that for one moment: imprisoned. What would that do to you and your spirit? Only being able to get out of your tiny little home when someone else decided it was okay—while spending the rest of that time powerless to do anything other than to decide in each moment of that prison cell which wolf you will feed: the one of the self-pitying victim or the responsible and humble man dedicated to changing his life.
Each day I left the prison, I could not help but notice that I was leaving the prison. I got to visit there just as if it were a movie, and then I could turn that movie off and go back to my comfortable life with my high-class problems. Yet, these men seemed to be amazingly at peace understanding that they were in prison for a reason, but were open to the possibility that they might experience freedom again. They had decided to feed the wolf of responsibility and change.
I never learned any of the crimes the men had committed. It was not important to the training —or at all, really. What I did learn was that we, men, are amazingly complex, and if we take on the labels society gives us and believe that is all we can be, then we have already lost. That is the power of recovery from addiction: it tells us that we are not our past. We can be transformed. Our greatest deficits can become our greatest assets.
The worst experiences of our lives become the building blocks of a new life dedicated to love and service. As we take this very imperfect and bumpy journey, we rest knowing that every new day is another opportunity to move one step closer to the man we were always meant to be. That is what I saw in these men—the most profound kind of redemption and transformation. While we may get a lot of enjoyment out of watching TV shows and movies about prison life from the safety and comfort of our middle-class existence, it is important to remember that the millions of men out there are much more than a character on TV, and they have to live in the smoldering ash of the fires they set.