Tag Archives: incarceration

Innate Potential for Joy

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One of the many programs that I love at Lipscomb is the LIFE Program (a program that received global attention in the story of Cyntoia Brown Long). The LIFE Program holds classes inside the Tennessee Prison for Women and the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, and I shared before how the opportunity to lead a class session in the LIFE Program impacted me, not to mention the soul-cleansing experience of a graduation ceremony that came later on.

Statistics of incarceration in the United States are troubling. Our country has 25% of the world’s prison population but only 5% of the overall population. You may be surprised to learn that women represent the fastest-growing demographic going to prison in the United States. The mass incarceration of Black men is particularly egregious—statistically, Black boys have a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in their lifetimes compared to White boys whose chances are 1 in 17. I am glad to be a part of a university program that has at least engaged and invested in shifting such troubling narratives.

Unable to hold in-person classes due to COVID-19 or allowed to communicate with its “inside” students by phone, the LIFE Program deftly shifted to writing letters. If not for COVID-19, I would have had my first opportunity to teach a class session at Riverbend this week, the facility that holds most of Tennessee’s fifty-one death row residents (of which over 50% are Black, compared to 17% of Tennessee’s population). This summer, Dr. Kate Watkins has initiated a “common read” to connect with the residents. I was honored to be invited to read The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky and exchange letters with three men at Riverbend.

I should say that my admiration for the work of Bryan Stevenson knows no bounds, and I agree with his statement “that each person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done,” but I learned too late that it is not the best idea to Google the names of your prison pen pals. And yet, that made the choice of book and the thoughts it had generated in me even more profound.

I confess that The How of Happiness would not have been my natural book choice. I have benefited greatly from several self-help books in my life, but that is not the section of the bookstore that I gravitate toward. However, it has turned out to be exactly the book that I needed to read, and I devoured it. (Thanks, Kate!)

So, consider: The book is based on scientific research, and the underlying premise is that a full half of our happiness is basically genetic—i.e., some of us are simply hard-wired to be and feel more cheerful than others—another 10% is based on our circumstances, and the remaining 40% is within our power to change. As the back book cover describes, we each have an “innate potential for joy.”

So here’s the deal: I am exchanging letters with men who live in a prison that houses not only them but also the State of Tennessee’s electric chair and lethal injection facility. And we are reading a book that argues from science that despite any possible circumstance that we face, we all have within ourselves four times the power to experience (are you ready for this?) happiness.

It is unquestioned that 2020 will be unforgettable, but in the middle of it all I will be checking my mailbox for letters from men who are considering how to find happiness and joy while in prison. Talk about unforgettable. I love that we are providing education for people who are incarcerated, but as is often the case, I suspect that I will be learning from them.

 

 

 

 

 

Invisible Places

jailLike any good American, I went to jail the day after Christmas.  Well, maybe it was a strange thing to do.  My youngest daughter, a college sophomore, crawled out of bed on a Monday morning to join me because she just might share my unconventional approach to interesting holiday activities.  But you have to give us the “interesting” at least.  When our host asked his colleague at the beginning of our tour if an older gentleman escorted past us was the murder suspect, we were pretty sure we weren’t returning gifts to Macy’s.

The Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine Law has conducted conflict resolution trainings for the LAPD over the past couple of years—a most important work to be sure.  As a result, several officers have enrolled as students in our Master of Dispute Resolution program, including the officer that commands the particular LAPD jail that we visited.  In our interactions at Pepperdine, he offered to give me a tour, and I jumped at the opportunity.

The jail we visited is one of several that process and hold arrestees for a couple of days until their court appearances, which means that all manner of folks pass through, from benign offenders to death row convicts.  We saw everything.  On the lighter side, we played with the equipment, tried on riot gear, held a Taser, and posed for smiling pictures behind bars knowing we were free to leave.  On the sobering side, we saw the padded cells and the strip search rooms, but more poignantly the prisoners who were not free to leave: the voices yelling for attention; the disembodied hands sticking out from behind the bars, one my daughter saw mimicking a gun; faces behind the glass that embarrassingly felt like zoo exhibits, including the bloodied face of a man booked for assault with a weapon who looked like he lost the assault.

I didn’t feel like saying Happy Holidays very often.  I was impressed by the professionalism of the staff.  I felt, almost surprisingly, a measure of pride in being an American, what with the processed turkey dinner served on Christmas as opposed to the regular fare, the prominent posting of prisoner rights throughout the complex, the attention to cleaning the facility (despite the horrid smell by the shower in the men’s block), and the detailed cataloging of the personal items of the prisoners.  Gary Haugen taught me that the developing world rarely needs better laws, just (non-corrupt) law enforcement, and I was pleased to see a place led by an officer dedicated to enforcing the law with integrity.  But, still.  A jail is intentionally not a happy place to be, which was psychologically jarring on the day after Christmas.

Our world is full of unsettling, invisible places.  There are things we would rather not see, but we don’t have to travel far to find them.  We just don’t hang out in jails very often.  We rarely visit hospitals or nursing homes.  We avoid the homeless and hungry and lonely and stay away from poverty-stricken parts of town.  Heck, there are parts of ourselves we choose to ignore.  If we don’t look, I guess we can pretend these places don’t exist, which I’m fairly positive is a less than healthy approach.

In the women’s block of the jail, we met a young female correctional officer completing the probationary portion of her new job.  She was impressive in uniform, professionalism, and personality.  We instantly liked her.  She is also twenty years old, basically the same age as my daughter.  This young officer sees (and does) things in her work every day that I would rather not think about very often, if at all.  We learned that the LAPD desperately needs more female officers like this, and it struck me that the world must need lots of public servants in lots of invisible places.

I am humbled by those already there.

In 2017, I intend to spend more time in invisible places.  The tourist spots are just too crowded anyway.