For the last few weeks, Chris and I have been volunteering at the Denver Women’s Correctional facility along with our amazing mentors at Turning the Wheel. On the ride there the first night, I was told, “Make sure to be polite. We’re going to be dealing with policemen, so we need to just follow instructions, be polite, say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’” I thought to myself: Yeah, of course. I don’t need the reminder.
Then I'm told that DWCF has the highest rate of reported staff sexual assault. Immediately my rebel was like: Oh, if ANY of those cops so much as give me a LOOK, I swear! But then I was like: No, no. Take a breath. There is no way for me to know who has done what. Put your attention on the group we're serving - not the cops. And then my mind started playing out scenarios - very unlikely scenarios - like me finding out the cops who do this and somehow rescuing all the people who have been affected.
Shit. I don’t think I’m ready for this just yet.
It was raining hard that night - a kinda dark, gloomy time to be entering the unknown. Five of us TTW facilitators have been driving in horrendous traffic - which only seemed to let our fears go on longer and larger. Then we get a call from the head coordinator at the prison. Looks like the whole facility is on a lock down. So of course now my mind’s going: Wait, so if we had been there, would we have been on lock down until they found the contraband? I don’t even want the answer.
We end up turning around to go home. Apparently none of us were ready to go in there.
The next time, we go. I’m feeling totally ready.
As soon as we arrive at the building and park, Chris tells me he’s feeling some fear - especially about the fact that it’s a maximum security prison. He asks me: “Are you feeling anything this time?” “Well, NOW I am!” I kinda yell with a nervous laugh. “Fuck.” I realize, we’re gonna be locked in there like the rest of them - regardless of a “lock down.” Duh.
We walk in the door, greeted by a cop who doesn’t seem like he even knows how to smile, maybe he never has. First thing he says to me: “I’ll need you to take that piercing out of your nose.”
Aw shit. You’ve awakened the rebel inside me! And she was so calm this time!
I tell him it can’t come out tonight, I need a special tool. He says, “I’ll let you in this time, but next time it must be out.”
I’m fuming. I can hardly think straight. In the most 13-year-old-Kendra voice I can conjure, I say to Chris loud enough for the cop to hear: “Well, I guess I won’t be able to come next time.” Rule number one: Be polite to the cops. Oops.
I turn to go through the metal detector and see that Chris is preparing by taking off his shoes. I start laughing: “We’re not in the airport, Chris!” The cop looks at me - like a judgmental statue.
We’re then led back outside. Apparently that was just the warm, greeting area. Now we have to walk through 3 locked doors, 3 chain linked fences, passed 3 staring security cameras, and spirals and spirals of barbed wire. I stood for a moment allowing myself to fully take it all in. I wanted to experience the embodiment of being trapped. A tear started to form in my eye, and I thought about how I couldn’t wait to play with these people inside of this cage.
We get into the actual prison part. The doors open by intercom and camera validation. A smiling woman greets us to say: “How many offenders are you expecting in the group?” Offenders!?? Oh my god, they call these people offenders!!???
Breathe, Kendra. Mindfulness. Oh, look, a case with some trophies and a knitted scarf. Red brick. White tile, Metal door. I think, OK, the employees here are probably trained to use that word. But how could you work at a place that makes you use that word...why don’t they stand up to it!? Again my mind starts imagining myself getting a job there and being the first person to ever stand up to this word in a prison - "We shall call them 'people'!" I'd proclaim with poise and confident grace.
We’re led into the room. The woman and the man both say something about getting the “offenders” and they'll be right back. The group of us facilitator circle up, hold hands, get in touch with our hearts and our intention for being here.
We’re in a huge, open, bright room.. It’s gonna be perfect for all the games we have planned.
After several minutes, the “offenders” start streaming through the door. They’re smiling, quick footed, they seem fuckin’ ready and on fire!
For 2 hours we play games, we dance, we sing, we laugh. My smile is actually hurting at points. These people are taking risks and having so much fun with it all. At the end, a woman who has a 20-year sentence says with tears in her eyes, “We never get to do anything like this. This has been the best night ever.”
When our time was done, they blew kisses at us, sang the song we taught them as they walked back, some even skipped - going back to their cells.
The group of us facilitators made our way back through the scary doors that slammed and locked shut, back outside to walk through the three chain linked fences, the three locked chain doors, passed the three security cameras, and back into the entrance building.
We circled up again and said: “Well....that was easy!” We all just cracked up. I mean, it was way WAY easier than any of the schools we go into.
Needless to say, we came back to the prison for more fun. And though we just did a few sessions with them - each time was more joyful, deeper, more and more heart-opening and amazing. Last night - Thanksgiving Eve - was our last night. At least for a while, not sure how long until we do another program there.
So, these were some of the things they said in our closing circle:
“We’ve been singing the song you taught us every time you leave.”
“I actually talk to people in my pod who I never talked to before.”
“You gave us a break from the reality of prison.”
“I learned that I like to have fun.”
“I learned that I can be a leader.”
“I got a chance to be a goofball again.”
“Thank you for seeing us as people.”
“You’ve reminded me how to be happy. And happy people don’t go back to prison.”
“Our lives are changed forever.”
Well, ours are too. Only handshakes were allowed as they thanked us. Some of them had tears in their eyes - but mostly they just had the hugest smiles and a pure, pure light coming out of their eyes. I took each hand as they offered it to me, looked them in the eyes, took in their gratitude and oh, fed it right on back to them - like a big ol' plate of turkey, mashed potaters, gravy, and all the fixens'.
As they walked, skipped, and sang away - I held back the tears. Just hearing them say “Goodbye” felt like it could break me. Not knowing when we’ll do the program again, I took one last look before going through the loud metal door, took a snapshot in my mind, thought to myself: I may never see your beautiful faces again.
The door went BAM! behind us, we walked out through those layers of chains. I smiled and said “Thank you” to the police officer. Chris and I sat in the car and the tears started comin’. My mind flipped through images of each of their faces like an old rolodex. I let the tears stream. I leaned on Chris. I breathed.
During the drive I was mostly silent. My imagination swirled with images of seeing them out-n-about years from now. We’d be walking towards each other on a random street in Denver, looking at each other thinking: I know I know that person. And then it would hit us at the same time. We’d leap towards each other with arms outstretched, hugging for the first time. They’d tell me how well they were doing, how they’ve made a new life for themself, how they’ve been using the games in their workplace, singing the songs to their children, and putting a hand to their heart whenever they needed to remember their worth. I would smile and do a little happy dance, wish them well, and say “See ya later.”
Today I sit in my warm home with my laptop at our dinner table - which is soon to be covered in platters of food, surrounded by best friends, and a refreshed sense of freedom.
It’s Thanksgiving - and what a perfect way to spend the night before it...in a prison.
Not because I can compare my life to there’s and feel grateful that I’m not there. But because they and my whole experience at the prison has shed light on so many of my shadows. The shadows that keep me prisoner.
The cops taught me to look at my rebel, 13-year-old who sometimes wants to be snarky, rude, and disobeying.
The cops taught me to look with compassion at the part of me that doesn’t want to smile, become callused, and taken seriously.
The barbed wire, fences, and cameras taught me to see how my perception creates reality.
The loud doors allowed the skiddish part of me to come out of hiding.
The people using the word “offenders” allowed me to own the “following the rules” even if it’s against my values for a paycheck part of me. [You know, the part of me that got the flu shot for my hospital job.]
Each person in the group let me own so many parts of me. The parts of me that have ever wanted to or have the potential to take meth and lose all my teeth, follow a gang, tattoo my neck, cut every square inch of my arm, hurt a child, or kill someone.
By owning these parts of myself, I become more whole.
A lot of the parts of myself in the prison were parts I owned when I was first introduced to shadow work - but there are always more parts to be revealed. Especially my shadows around authority and being a follower.
Tough pills to swallow.
But there is a gift in each of these parts.
Ken Wilber says, “Projection on the Ego Level is very easily identified: if a person or thing in the environment informs us, we probably aren’t projecting; on the other hand, if it affects us, chances are that we are a victim of our own projections.”
To me, the ultimate freedom is being able to choose whomever I want to be in any moment. By owning these parts in myself - I don’t have to try to avoid being someone I judge. I can be all of it. I can be an addict, I can be insecure, I can hate myself, I can be a follower, I can be rude.
So, on this Thanksgiving after experiencing the prison, no...I am not grateful that I’m not a person who lives in that prison. I am grateful to see that those people in that prison live in ME.
My “challenge” to anyone reading would be to yes, consider the light you are grateful for...AND see what dark you are grateful for today. When you find it, try saying: “I am [whatever].” And then see if you can ask - what is the gift in this shadow part of myself?
All of it is needed. All of it is important. All of it is all of us. Thank you for all of you.
Special, special thanks to Turning the Wheel for literally changing my life a few years ago and continuing to do so with the work we bring. If anyone is looking for a way to share your financial abundance or gifted time - please consider this Boulder-based non-profit that teaches people of all ages and backgrounds how to have fun being more of yourself and impact the whole planet. By donating your money or time - you're helping me and the other facilitators at TTW to guide people, like those in the prison, to come out as contributing members of our world community. I can't wait to go back to prison.