When tensions are mounting in a high-security prison, do words really have power to de-escalate a fight?
In prison terms, to be "about the business" is to live by the rules of your gang. These rules are the prisoner's compass. "The priorities of the gang rule the prisoner's viewpoint and conduct," explains Don Caballero, a Prison Fellowship® Academy manager in California. "… The culture, in itself, can really harden a person."
Don is a former prisoner. He has seen much of prison up close, from the poorest of the human condition to the brightest hope in a dark place. Many people, gang-affiliated or not, will leave prison without a new sense of values and purpose. It's no wonder 2 out of 3 people released from state prisons will be arrested again within three years. And the vicious cycle of incarceration continues.
But what happens when people in prison are equipped to make their days count? Good citizenship needs to begin inside prison walls—inside the hearts and minds of men and women. This is why Prison Fellowship is working to transform prison culture, one person at a time. Part of this solution is called the Prison Fellowship Academy®.
PUTTING AFFIRMATION INTO PRACTICE
Located in select prisons across the U.S., the Prison Fellowship Academy guides incarcerated men and women through a holistic life transformation spanning weeks or months, where they are led by Prison Fellowship staff and volunteers to live purposefully and productively in prison and outside.
Academy participants learn to embrace prosocial values that challenge prison norms. They discover a safe place to try, fail, and try again, knowing that transformation is often a long road. It helps to have mentors like Don and supportive peers to guide, encourage, and affirm good progress along the way.
The Academy practices affirmation by intentionally and regularly recognizing others' worth, strengths, and achievements. When so many decisions come down to a person's mindset and attitudes, positive verbal affirmations can not only turn a prisoner's day around but also help reroute a person’s entire prison journey when combined with a prosocial community.
And it's not just a decent idea in theory. Don has seen it play out where you'd least expect it.
VOICES OF TRUTH
Don shared a story of George, an Academy participant who found himself on the brink of a violent altercation behind bars. Another man on the unit was looking to pick a fight. George knew in his head what to do before the fight escalated, but in the heat of the moment, the decision to walk away felt impossible. Frantic thoughts and emotions fogged George’s mind.
Don recalls George saying, "The [other man] actually stood in a fighting stance and called him out … [everything] was tunnel vision."
But George wasn't facing the conflict alone. Several of his Academy peers stood nearby, repeating, "George, don't do it. Don't do it. George, it's going to be all right."
George described what came next as a moment of sudden clarity: What if I did this? he thought. I'm going to lose my [release] date. I'm going to lose my Academy—I'm going to lose all of this stuff that I've gained.
With his fellow Academy members urging him by name, George refocused. He stepped back and let the confrontation defuse. George's peers rushed to applaud and affirm him.
"I love you guys," George told them, on the verge of tears. "[In] my tunnel vision, I started hearing your voices … it just kind of opened [me] up, and I was able to really start thinking this thing through."
AGAINST THE GRAIN
In a typical prison dynamic, the actions of George and his Academy peers are considered unusual. And Don says that's the point of positive verbal affirmation in a place where it's seldom heard: "It's going against the grain."
The Academy is "about the business" of transformation, inspiring change one person at a time. Change looks a little different for everyone. One participant's progress may not set the pace for everyone else. And words have power. When we acknowledge someone's progress or achievements, it's not about how they perform. It's about who they are as a child of God, created with dignity and worth.
The words of the reckless pierce like swords,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing."
DID YOU ENJOY THIS ARTICLE?
Make sure you don' t miss out on any of our helpful articles and incredible transformation stories! Sign up to receive our weekly newsletter, and you' ll get great content delivered directly to your inbox.
Your privacy is safe with us. We will never sell, trade, or share your personal information.