Why I Love Working with the Incarcerated Population
Many people ask me some version of the following: “Why would you want to work with people who are incarcerated?”
The answer is simple: “I love it.”
For those of you who don’t know, I have spent the last six years working with people entangled if I’m being honest, there were days I loved it, days I was exhausted by it, and days I seriously considered quitting. But the truth is, the clients were always the best part about my job.
I always wanted to help the people who needed it most. As a therapist and growth junkie, I’m drawn to the shadow, to the places of pain where the healing is needed. And believe me, incarcerated human beings are among the most wounded population on the planet.
And many people seem to think: “So what - don’t they deserve it?”
Let me be very careful here - I am not saying that most of the people incarcerated aren’t absolutely accountable for their actions. I know that the population I’m speaking about includes murderers, rapists, sex offenders, thieves, and drug dealers. These people have done harm, and there needs to be a way to address that harm. The problem is, if we want to correct people, we know conclusively that incarceration only makes matters worse. Incarceration is a path to making more violent people, people with more mental health issues, and people who have worse problems with substances. To put it simply: when we send people to hell, upon release, hell comes with them.
What we do know is that interventions are the only viable option. By offering people real connection, I have gotten to see who these people really are underneath their actions. And in my years of working with incarcerated people - I’ve never met one that was truly bad. Take that in. I’ve met with thousands of individuals, and I’d guess that about three-quarters of them burst forth with tears when someone shows up and asks them “how are you actually doing?”
I wanted to offer something to you all who asked for a glimpse into my world. I have some pictures I’d like to share with you all from my last job. Rather than take my word for it, I want you to see for yourself a few of the human beings I have had the privilege of knowing and connecting with….
This is this a mugshot picture of one of my former program participants. It’s taken within an hour or so after arriving in jail. He’s angry, sad, confused, and probably so much more. This is the picture that’s used in court. It’s the picture the judge looks at before he’s seen while he reads his file. It’s the picture a community corrections board will look at when they’re voting on whether or not to release him. As you look into his eyes, you might be feeling a little scared. A lot comes up for me when I look at this snapshot of a young man on a really bad day. What comes up for you? Would you vote to allow him into your community?
Here is a picture I took of him. He’d been a participant in the jail program. We’d sat down together many times. Here is a man who is in connection with me as he looks at the camera. Perhaps you notice just how young he is, he’s in his early twenties. Do you notice something different as you look into his eyes this time? Can you see the aliveness there? Does your vote to allow this young man into your community change by seeing him healthier, and happier?
Here’s another mugshot. That suit he’s wearing is called a smock, a padded suit designed to keep him from hurting himself. In person, the back barely covers your butt making it perhaps a safe outfit but also quite shaming and vulnerable. To me, he looks sad and scared here. What do you see?
Here he is about 6 months later. Can you tell we have a connection as he looks at the camera? Can you tell that he’s stable, healthy, and doing much better? What do you see when you look into this man’s eyes?
How about these guys?
What do you feel when you look at these pictures? All of them were all-star participants in my program. All of them went above and beyond in groups, therapy, and completing independent studies. All of them cried with me, some of them many times. Half of them have kids. One of them was released. The rest got sentences of five, ten, or fifteen years.
Why do I love doing this work? Because these human beings change when I offer them connection and some basic skills. Because when you reach someone who hasn’t had much help in life, there is a light that fills their eyes. People who climb from the bottom and grab a hold of some possibility in their life - change before your eyes. And I love that every time.
**All pictures of former program participants were released to me with their signed permission.**