What I Learned About
Belonging In Prison
I had to go to prison to learn how important the value of belonging is to mental health.
In 2005, I began volunteering in a therapeutic group for men in a medium-security prison. It's an encounter-type group where about 20-30 inmates and volunteers sit in a circle for about 16 hours over two days. The group provides an opportunity for individuals to share personal life experiences and work through the pain they are experiencing.
The first day I attended, I was extremely nervous. I came in with the volunteers, created a name card for myself put it on the floor in front of me, and quietly sat down. A few minutes later a chaplain came by with her clipboard and asked, "What range are you in, young man? I don't believe I see your name on the list." Terrified I stammered back, "I...I'm not an inmate, I am a volunteer." She grinned knowingly.
Community wellbeing is about feeling safe, connected and having a sense of belonging where you live and work in. Volunteering in prison was one of the few times in my life I felt unsafe in a community. My fears didn't last long.
We are more alike than different
Many men in prison grew up in families that were unsafe. Most were mistreated, abused or neglected as children. While many were troubled, few were actually dangerous to us.
I quickly realized the men highly valued the volunteers and were extremely protective of us. They cherished visitors from "the outside." They craved conversation with someone that wasn't overlooking them or potentially manipulating them. Most struggled to understand why we as volunteers would leave our families and our freedom to spend two days each month in prison with them.
The truth was, I often learned as much about myself as they did. Dr. Charles Taylor, the founder of the group coined the phrase, "We are all more alike than we are different."
Many of the men in the group felt even less safe than we volunteers did. While we might have at first felt physically vulnerable, the inmates themselves were extremely emotionally vulnerable. By sharing their fears, weaknesses, and life stories they could be putting themselves at great risk.
In a prison, you learn some important things about belonging and community.
You can't escape the consequences of your actions.
While the men in our groups had committed serious crimes, it wasn't the jail time or the punishment itself that troubled them most. It was a deep shame they felt toward themselves as a result of the crimes they had committed.
Sure, many struggled to take responsibility for their actions, often blaming others or their circumstances. But below the surface, each was trapped with his own painful feelings about himself. Their fear of never being forgiven, understood or accepted was far worse than the punishment they received.
While your actions can impact others, it's the unintended consequences on your sense of self that has a more lasting affect. The damage you do also affects your sense of belonging, your belief that others will ever trust you, and your faith that others will treat you fairly that has an even more lasting affect.
You can't belong when you feel alone.
The shame the men felt about themselves was always far bigger than the punishment they had received. They might complain that their sentence was too long, a judge was unfair or the guards didn't treat them well. But deep inside, it was how they felt about themselves that made their time in prison most difficult and put them at risk of making bad choices.
Isolation can drive people mad. But it's not the isolation itself, it's the lack of someone to talk to, connect and interact with that will break a person. Knowing that we matter, that someone is there for us, that we are valued, believed in and trusted is essential to wellbeing. Some of the most powerful moments were when the men, after sharing their deep shame and regrets, were embraced in spite of their mistakes.
Knowing they were still valued as human beings allowed the men to free themselves of the pain and self-stigma. It provided them with a model of how a healthy relationship felt. They didn't have to make a deal or give anything in return. Knowing they were valued allowed them to be more compassionate with themselves, and ultimately with their victims.
Without a healthy community, without healthy people to model yourself after, and without the sense of belonging others provide, you don't realize your potential.
Strong communities need strong leaders.
The first thing you notice when you walk into a prison is that there is a clear hierarchy of power. That power structure is seen in both the guards and the inmates. There were years when the group had inmates who were strong, compassionate and wise. In those years, the group functioned well. The values of the group were always upheld.
But in the absence of strong leadership, no matter how strong the volunteers were, the group struggled. People didn't pay attention. Rules weren't followed and good people stopped taking risks. It started to feel unsafe.
When leadership is strong, systems run well and without corruption. There is nowhere good leadership is more obviously needed than in prison. Without it, power rules and chaos follows. The same is true of organizations and government. A lack of leadership can be dysfunctional at best, but at worst it can be devastating to the safety and belonging of a community and the individuals in it.
Belonging is Essential to Wellbeing Wellbeing and Mental Health
It's easy to underestimate the role belonging has on your mental health.
When someone is suffering with anxiety, depression, substance abuse or some other mental health problem, often the first instinct is to withdraw from community. As a therapist, I encourage people to find a way to get involved in the community.
Volunteering in prison increased my sense of belonging. I learned that I was missed and that people looked forward to seeing me. They cared about how I was doing. I started to miss them too, and wondered how they were doing when they didn't show up to our group. Volunteering is now suspended due to the pandemic, and I wonder how how the men on the inside are doing.
Volunteering helps your sense of connection to people that care about similar things. It a way to build skills and confidence. Unfortunately, volunteering has steeply declined in Canada over the last two decades. But there is no shortage of need.
Consider what you have to offer, and what you have to gain. Consider the possibilities; art, culture, sport and recreation, environmental activism, government, education or a spiritual community. It may even be in your own organization. Community involvement will give you an a deeper understanding of yourself, your capacity, skills and just how much you are needed.
It will also help you know that no matter what you are struggling with, you are not alone.
This week, consider all you have to offer and what you might receive from being more involved in your local or work community.
There is a place you are needed, and where you belong.
Take good care,
Your wellbeing matters. Take five minutes to learn if you are suffering, surviving or thriving in five essential areas of life and what you can do to improve your wellbeing. Try it now.
About the Author:
Derrick McEachern is a Registered Counselling Therapist (RCT) in Nova Scotia, and a Canadian Certified Counsellor. He specializes in providing mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in the areas of addiction, healthy relationships, grief and loss, and career and life transitions. He offers workshops and webinars and consults with businesses on ways to improve employee wellbeing and mental health.