LOCKED UP FREEDOM AT EVERGLADES CORRECTIONAL
As time ticked faster and Everglades Correctional Institution flagged on my GPS, I made a wrong turn and ended up speeding on a dirt road through a quarry, flying over an invisible speed bump and realizing how hard it would be for the inmates to escape through this terrain. I was willingly headed towards the buildings within the barbed and electrified fence! The railroad tracks made it clear that it would be impossible to get over to the other side from here. My detour cost me fifteen minutes and I arrived at the correctional concerned that I would not be admitted.
After beeping through the metal scanner multiple times, I was sent back to my car to leave the iphone and my purse. I had more than the minimum forty dollars allowed. My background check had been processed the previous time and my request for this visit was accepted. The modest business suit and hi-tops were approved; handing over my ID and providing a signature were the last requirements. The male security guard handed me a black plastic remote with a single button on it; this was for my protection in case I needed to call for backup. Placing it in my left coat pocket, I padded it to verify that it was in fact within reach.
Stepping into the grassy prison grounds, the sky was infinitely expansive and it gave me a sense of bearable confinement. The last rays of sun were blessing the sky and it would be night very soon. I shared with the guard that the first time I walked in I was acclimatized with gun shots. He nodded laughing and explained that they have practice drills on the other side of the building. We entered another single story building and a female guard sitting on a chair looked to her left and signaled someone to approach. As I rounded the bend I saw a familiar smile, he bent his left arm and let me loop mine into his to escort me to the room. We had talked in July for about five minutes and looking at me steadily had stated I was dangerous. Examining his light blue penitentiary uniform with a white strip running down the side of both legs, I smiled at him and suggested others might think someone else was the dangerous one. His eyes twinkled then and now he still remembered me.
The door opened and thirty something men in uniform stood up and cheered my arrival. I was concerned about being late? Their worn out bodies reminded me that they have been incarcerated on life convictions from somewhere between twenty-five to thirty-five years. Their faces felt strangely familiar and vivid in my mind even though I had seen them only once five months ago. The Toastmasters session had already started and the first speaker was being presented. I was there as a volunteer to help with their public speaking, a tremendous asset to be better prepared to face the world if they went back ‘out there’. The room looked like a school classroom, full of chairs with tables attached to them. On the center board an American flag had been taped; the right chalk board shared a phrase by Eckhart Tolle in “The Power of Now” stating that in prisons the alternatives are resistance or surrender. Another board listed all the functionaries for the day. I walked over to sit by Jacob at the front of the room (he was visiting for the first time) and opposite us sat Chris Wolfe, President and founder of the Voices of Time Gavel Club in this Correctional. The three of us are members of the Miracle Mile Toastmasters Club.
The first speaker was a vigorous black man talking about freedom. He asked himself, “Am I free or playing a game with myself?”. He told us freedom starts NOW. Can there be anyone more powerful than an incarcerated man to convince us that freedom is a state of mind? An icebreaker followed… a white man shared his life story with everyone in his first ever speech at the club. He ended explaining that his step dad at the end of his life finally told him that he loved him. The third speech was given by a man who was brought up in Hollywood and his father (who won two Oscar’s) always told him: “It’s what you do with what you have left that’s important.” He closed by sharing how his father would have been inspired by his colleagues at the prison. It was beautiful and inspiring.
When the Table Topics Master approached the lectern I couldn’t help noticing the sleeves of his penitentiary coat were rolled up in a seemly fashionable way. In this section, members without functions are randomly called on to respond to questions that they are just being presented with. Fellow inmates created these questions: “What would you take out of the world?”. The convict stood up and explained why violence was his answer. “What steps do you need to take to be ready to leave the Correctional?”. Be mindful of the world and carefully take one step at a time, was the gist of that other man’s answer. “If you wrote a book, what subject would you write about?”. The room suddenly turned into a comedy show as he explained it would be on how to stay out of prison. “Who is a role model in your life?”. A white man overwhelmed by emotion stood there choking, remembering the love for his wife who has helped him grow so much.
In the last section of the meeting the speeches are evaluated one by one. Each evaluator followed the manual closely giving feedback on all the areas the questionnaire invites to observe. Their respect and encouragement for each of the speakers was palpable and inspiring. The timer/joker of the meeting was succinctly successful at making us laugh. “How do you make Holy water?… I looked at Chris and read his face of concern that this man stick to decent language. “By boiling the Hell out of it!”. It was so simple and funny he made us all shake in our seats.
Finally, when the core of the meeting was over, the president introduced the volunteers, Jacob and myself, and invited us to the lectern to continue with table topics. I started by sharing the story of my wild ride to get there and I could see the amusement in their eyes and hear their laughter. The questions we ask them can be meaningful because they can trigger awareness about their lives and their future. With that in mind I started with “When you close your eyes, what do you see?”. The inmate gently turned his head up and went deep into his soul. Then he dropped his hands and said, I see my house! I see my family… His expression softened and tenderness took over. Jacob asked someone, “Why are woman the superior sex?”. The whole room was howling and I laughed along, then playfully hid my head inside my jacket. The man expressed his gratitude for his mother and Dr Sherman who runs the correctional program. “What would the perfect cell-mate be like?”. Non! was the unapologetic answer. He gave examples of waking up to a certain colleague drooling, or staring at him, having to share the bathroom. Finally he admitted that a cellmate could be the greatest teacher. “What would you teach your ten year old self?” asked Jacob. He would suggest never to drink. Never to smoke that first joint that would eventually lead him to heavy drugs. “If you haven’t forgiven yourself for something, what do you need to do to be able to do that?”, I asked. A silence fell over the room as they digested it as a personal question. The man who stepped up said he would need more prayer and contemplation. “Valentine’s is approaching soon, what would you tell someone you love?”. Some of them have partners, but all of them have someone their heart cares for.
When every single member of the club had participated, we wrapped up giving our feedback. I congratulated them for their professionalism at conducting the meeting, for their mutual support and the wonderful energy in the room. I invited them to consider that this special relationship with their colleagues could expand to the week. It wasn’t necessary to keep it confined to their Toastmasters session. I saw heads nodding as they processed the idea of being less judgmental and encouraging their fellow inmates. Jacob expressed how proud he was off these members. Then Chris introduced Dr. Sherman, a delightful older woman who is in charge of the Correctional program and they welcomed her with deep respect and admiration. This woman dedicates herself to their well being. When someone cares so much and believes in another, that unconditional love can be transformative.
With a thud of the gavel, Chris finished the meeting. All this was possible thanks to him for founding the club and for his continued support and dedication. Recently he shared that a paroled inmate was offered to make a speech at a University and was remunerated for it. The value of giving these segregated humans their dignity and self-worth back is incalculable.
The gate with the barbed wire and electrified fence stood firmly closed in front of me… beyond that I saw freedom. Physical freedom. A buzz and I spread my wings. But was my mind free? A yogi in a cave can be absolutely free of the chains that enslave the mind. I recovered my ID and returned the unused HELP button. I understood that to free my soul I must do the opposite… loose my identity and attachment to labels and ask for guidance. Simply with that awareness, a few loops of the chain fell off.