Recently, I got to go to prison. Willingly, of course. Actually, I have been trying to go there for over two months, but because of red tape from the Texas prison system, I had to wait patiently. Skills for Life which operates a prison outreach, based in Houston serving 10 prisons delivers a hybrid program of ToastMasters curriculum and principles of Servant Leadership. I wanted to see their efforts first hand.
I observed two groups of men who call themselves The Mighty Men of Valor, numbering about 30. They meet every Wednesday, choose to prepare and listen to timed speeches, build community and in a spirit of constructive criticism deliberately try to better themselves. In one group, the theme was IF I WAS and three men delivered short speeches that motivated, instructed and touched spectators lives. An “AH Counter” keeps track of how many times each speaker said, uh, ah, er, but or um. A “Listen Master” asks participants some things that were spoken about in the meeting that attempts to prove if in fact attendees are listening. And the Grammarian recaps mishaps and faux pauxs that each speaker may have communicated inadvertently. All dialogue is exchanged gently amid lots of laughter.
I was addressed as the distinguished guest all afternoon, aka, a person from the “free world” and a woman in civilian clothes – visiting mid-week…. a rarity. Truly, I was honored. One Mighty Man of Valor made me cry when he told me that he is sentenced to 26 years in prison because he got caught with 3 ounces of cocaine and how when he gets out he wants to start a nonprofit to help families of incarcerated people because they lose houses, stability, and go through a lot of suffering. He said, “even though I am in prison, my family is incarcerated too because of all the interruptions of normal life.” Another Mighty Man of Valor impressed me because he has obtained two Post Doctoral degrees while serving 27 years in the prison system (yes, our tax dollars at work). When he gets out he wants to bring volunteers to the prison where he hopes to help the inmates. All these Mighty Men of Valor made me hopeful and maybe even just a tad envious. Hopeful and envious because they are in a good place. They may not have their “freedom” as we may traditionally define it, but they have a clean, warm place to stay that is safe. They are fed daily. They are given all the time in the world to study and better themselves under no pressure whatsoever of keeping down two or even three jobs to make ends meet, fighting traffic or worrying about domestic pressures.
Here in the United States we love to incarcerate people. We have the highest prison population in the world. The U.S. incarcerates 704 people per 100k. The average for the world is 160 per 100k. Virginia Senator Jim Webb, said of our justice system and prison facts, “ We are either the most evil people in the world or there is something fundamentally wrong with our criminal justice system. I choose to believe the latter. “ Me too! Especially, since I have a client that focuses on Restorative Justice.
I didn’t get to meet every single Mighty Man of Valor that day, but of the dozen or so I met and was able to talk with they so impressed upon me that all people basically are the same. We have issues, we are imperfect, we make bad choices. And we want community, we want to improve – we want to see progress.