I still remember the feeling of trepidation the first time I stepped foot inside a prison. As the gate clanked shut behind me I was on edge. Because prison is, you know, full of prisoners. Scary, right?
And yet, after five years of coaching in prisons, as I finally hang up my keys, most of what I take away from the experience is a variation on the following theme:
Prison isn’t full of prisoners.
(It’s certainly not what you expect from the telly.)
Everyone is there.
Solicitors. Doctors. Nurses. Some of whom get to go home at night. Some who don’t.
Bankers. CEO’s. Addicts. Dealers. Entrepreneurial in their own ways.
Bewildered older people. Those who have scammed bewildered older people.
Women who have been trafficked. Women who have trafficked women.
Prison isn’t full of prisoners. Everyone is there.
And it can be hard to tell the difference.
I’ve shared many cheery good mornings with officers inside the gates. And I’ve also been mistaken for an inmate. Yelled at. Teeth bared.
It can be hard to tell the difference…because prison isn’t full of ‘prisoners’. Everyone is there.
Prison is, however, full of labels.
Officer. Lifer. Miss. Grass. Addict. Victim. Bully.
Labels denote position, hierarchy, your place in the pecking order. Labels are how we sort and categorise and most importantly, other. They’re the way into a game of, I might be ‘this’ but at least I’m not ‘that’.
It’s played inside, and we’re also playing it from home, whenever we think of a prisoner in anything other than a literal sense (i.e. someone resident in prison). But when you think of the word…don’t you attach some judgement to it? Because it can be so easy, sat at home, to paint a picture of ‘a prisoner’ as this other-than-me person.
But I’ve come to discover how easy it is to end up inside. One poor decision. A momentary lack of judgement. Some misplaced trust. Saying yes because you really couldn’t work out how to say no.
Having too much to drink one night before getting in the car the next morning and taking someone’s life before you reach the office. Lives destroyed in a moment.
Prison isn’t full of prisoners. It’s full of people.
People who display qualities of warmth, compassion, kindness and empathy. Some of whom are staff, some not.
People who display behaviours that are rude, belittling, threatening and disrespectful. Some of whom are staff, some not.
Over the five years I worked as a coach inside prison, I learned so much about dropping the labels in a bid to sit across the table from someone as an equal. Just two people, thinking together, working something out.
The biggest challenge for me personally was dropping the label ‘coach’ in order to show up as myself first and foremost – someone who may be trained as a coach but who is there in my full presence as a human being, someone non-judgemental, empathic, interested. Willing, ready and able to really hear someone’s story.
And it’s been the greatest privilege of my life to do the work I have done, listening to those stories and then unpicking them to help someone transform previously unhelpful trajectories. Countless times people have told me, “I’ve never said this before,” and I honour the courage of any client who’s able to be more honest with themselves, out loud, in front of another human being, than they ever have been before. It really is transformative. And it takes balls. Honking great big balls.
The very last client I worked with finished her last session by saying to me, “I’ve tried other counselling and things in the past but I could never get beyond facing the pain. With you, I’ve been able to face it and work through it. I feel so free now.”
This is why I’m so passionate about coaching. It bloody works! Clients move from pain to ease, from confusion to clarity, from anxiety to lightness. And I’m constantly learning and growing through experiencing their courageous transformations. Win win.
I’ll end by remembering a 65-year-old client I worked with who’d come to open prison after spending 30 years in ‘bang-up’ only to discover he was terminally ill. Our sessions comprised his search for meaning, sense making. A place for him to experience himself. I offered him some feedback in our final session on the impact he had had on me. He sat quietly for a moment, slowly, almost distractedly stroking his beard. He then looked straight up at me and as his eyes met mine he said, “That’s the first time anyone has ever expressed an appreciation of me.” He then quickly left the room, as choked as I was.
Prison isn’t full of prisoners, to be feared or judged or other-ed. It’s full of people. Flawed, fucked up, courageous, incredible, resourceful, thoughtful, talented people. People who have not given up on themselves, who have a will to change. And I give my thanks to all of the incredible clients who have taught me so much over my five glorious years behind the prison gates. I'm a better coach and person because of each of you.