Annual training today at the prison. I’ve heard the presentation three times now, and it doesn’t change much. Though the woman leading the training today, I thought, did so in a manner that was more true to reality, as well as more sanity and compassionate based than the others I’ve attended.

The first two trainings I attended seemed mostly to focus on scaring the shit out of volunteers. Maybe that’s a necessary step in the initiation process. First you fear them, then you understand how to work with them. It never worked like that for me. I don’t worry about the men manipulating me (though some of the trainers would say that’s a sign you are being manipulated). I don’t have irrational fears about the men finding me on the outside or asking their family or friends to find me. I don’t have nightmares about prison riots (though when they said today that our emergency contact would be the person they would call in case I a) had a heart attack while inside or 2) if a riot broke out — and I thought, crap, don’t call my mom if a riot breaks out!).

At these trainings manipulation by inmates is typically the topic we spend the most time on. Trainers go through a lengthy list of all the ways the men will try to manipulate us. First by befriending us. Second by being a star student, so as to garner our attention and admiration. Third by asking for favors. Fourth by asking to correspond with us outside of the program. And so on and so on. All of these things do, of course, happen. It can be difficult to know if an inmate is simply a good student or is in the process of trying to manipulate you. You never know, unless something obvious does happen (such as a request to call a family member and relay a message). Even if the obvious happens though, there’s a part of me that has always thought–can you blame these guys?

The prison culture is one of manipulation, power and control. That’s how you survive. It’s also how you entertain yourself in an extremely myopic universe. Their world on the inside is small. They have an abundant amount of time to think about what they want and how to get it. I never assume that any attempt to manipulate me is malicious or ill intended. I always assume this is how they have learned to survive (probably before they even arrived in prison). Which means it’s up to me to be clear about my boundaries.

Sometimes I think this issue of boundaries is part of my reason for working on the inside. I often struggle with boundaries on the outside. Saying yes to too many people. Rescuing friends and family in that way therapists always tell you not to do. Having too much empathy for people I barely even know. But on the inside I have no choice but to maintain boundaries of all kinds. It’s the professional way to run a program and to manage a classroom. Boundaries keep expectations and roles clear. I have to be able to say no at times, otherwise the guys would have me taking home entire novel manuscripts to read and critique and I don’t have that sort of time to offer. Boundaries let them know what I can do for them and what I can’t do for them. If I’m clear, then no one’s feelings get hurt, including my own. So far, it’s worked.

I’ve never wanted to rescue the men in prison. Maybe being a part of a program other than a religious group or AA makes that easier. I’m not out to redeem anyone’s soul, or forgive them their sins or cure of them of an addiction. I’m there to help them look at their life story and write it down. The work is their own and they can choose to do with our program what they will. Right now, for example, we have a guy who on the first night told us he was only there to watch (which basically means he’s trying to pass time, but isn’t all that interested. It’s happened before, we don’t mind). At the last meeting though (our third visit with this group) he was silent for almost the entire meeting and then, as another inmate discussed his story idea, this “silent” man was suddenly participating. Something had touched him and there he was giving feedback. We don’t make a big deal out of it in the group, but we certainly notice. It just works best to let them decide what they want from our program. While I hope that what they want is to re-examine their life and choices, putting them in a new context and thus experience some growth or enlightment about who they are (and can be) as human beings. I haven’t found it difficult to let go of any attachment I might have to that outcome for each of them. We are all a work in progress, right? And we are each on a journey. It’s not my job to rescue them from what they need to experience.

What I most appreciated about the trainer today was that she kept reminding us that manipulation is not a phenomenon unique to prison. People on the outside manipulate. None of the previous trainers ever pointed out this obvious fact, but in doing so she reminds us that inmates are human, using reliable survival skills that we all learn along the way. So, the message I took away today is, know yourself–both inside prison and outside. Know yourself and you will not compromise yourself or your program.

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