On Monday, March 3, 2014, I spent the afternoon to early evening with 12 "men in blue" whoparticipate in the Restorative Justice group at the Oregon State Penitentiary. I was a guest of Corrine Fletcher, a dear friend and sister of a colleague of mine at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I have never visited a maximum security prison. In 8th Grade, I went to the Miami Dade County Jail as part of the Civics Club. I remembered the smell of urine and cigarette smoke. I remembered that I never wanted to enter a place like that again.
What are the fears that creep up as one prepares to enter a state penitentiary to work with a group of convicted felons? One is awash with images of TV shows like Oz, Prison Break, or those reality TV shows that pin officers against prisoners. What type of fears were awakened in me? Fear of seeing evil. Fear of violence. Fear of being attacked. Fear of showing fear. Fear of not having compassion. I quieted all the judgements and prejudices. I quieted the fear.
I was struck with the number of gates you had to pass through, the guards, the security check points. I was struck by the color grey. I was struck by the concrete and the bars. I was struck by the artificial lighting. I was struck by the four flights of stairs that one has to take to the education floor. I was struck by the lack of anything natural . . . that which we take for granted, especially natural light.
I decided along with Corrine to lead an icebreaker activity- a fusion of my Fearless Project and Crystal Clear. What was supposed to last 15 minutes, lasted 2 hours. The men entered the room, shook my hand. They took a seat around the tables. Corrine introduced me and we started a conversation about what it means to be FEARLESS. Once we distinguished FEARLESS as not meaning the absence of FEAR, but standing powerfully in the face of what you FEAR, we then started a conversation about SIGNATURE STRENGTHS. Because they do not have access to the internet, they are unable to take the VIA Character Strength Survey, but I was able to print out a list of the strengths, along with the definitions so that they could choose which ones they identified. https://www.viacharacter.org/VIAINSTITUTE/Classification.aspx
The men then chose the strengths that they identified with and made FEARLESS signs to express their most POSITIVE STRENGTH. The men were then asked to identify three things they could do every day to express that positive signature strength, and a way to hold each other accountable for that expression. At the end of the workshop we each went around the room and once again shared our name and our signature strength. We all repeated the signature strength back to each person.
I was clear when I entered the space to work with these men that I could not bring any fear, resentment, or judgement into the room. I chose to look at these men purely as the human beings standing in front of me. When we went around the room and they were able to name their Positive Strength I was not only present to a room beaming with humanity, but also the embodiment of Compassion, Love, Generosity, Gratitude, and Hope.
Almost one month after the workshop, I received several letters from the "men in blue". They have been recorded here by fellow actors at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to give voice to the effect this workshop had on these men.