A sign on the main entrance gate to the Hilltop Unit, part of the Gatesville, Texas, prison complex, says “NO HOSTAGES BEYOND THIS POINT”.
It appears twice, on each side of the gate, so visitors see this message as they enter and as they leave.
These signs provide a strong clue that you’re entering a different world at Hilltop, and that you will leave it changed.
Ann, the social worker who runs the Sex Offenders Treatment Program (SOTP) for women, escorted my friend Peggy Lamb and me to the dorm where the women in the program live. Peggy is a facilitator for Truth Be Told, a nonprofit working with women behind and beyond bars. She teaches movement and also brings in presenters for Truth Be Told’s Exploring Creativity workshops at the Hilltop Unit.
I was there at her invitation to teach an Exploring Creativity class called Magical Viewpoints, a basic skill in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) where it is also called “triple description”.
Ann led us through the dorm. I’ve visited prisons several times over the past 10 years for Truth Be Told events and graduations. This was the first time I’ve seen the inmates’ living quarters. It’s about as basic as you can get at Hilltop. In one big room, each inmate has a space about 6×4 feet in which there is a single bed (looked like 3-4 inches of mattress on a wooden platform), a storage locker under the bed, and perhaps a small table and chair. These “cells” are separated by wooden partitions about 3.5 feet high, so there is very little privacy. Everything looks old and is painted white. There is no decor. There is no air conditioning either.
We walked to the common area behind the sleeping quarters where the women were waiting for us. The inmates wear white uniforms and choose from a couple of styles of standard-issue shoes (sneakers or short boots). Those who wear eyeglasses wear a plain no-nonsense unisex style that harkens back to the men’s eyewear of the 1950s. No one is wearing makeup. Hairdos are plain and simple.
This room had murals and posters on the white walls, which I was told is not so in other units at Hilltop. A humongous fan was blowing, making a loud racket, along with a couple of smaller fans. We turned that big fan off and used an old, temperamental PA system to make ourselves heard.
Peggy introduced me, and it was obvious that these women love Peggy. (I’m feeling very pleased that I brought Peggy into Truth Be Told. That worked out well. She has made the most of it.)
I taught the women about using first, second, and third position to understand an event from their own eyes and through another’s eyes and to view it as a camera would. First they remembered looking at a piece of art they had created in the previous Exploring Creativity class taught by Peg Runnels, seeing it through their own eyes. Then they remembered seeing another artist creating their art and making those same movements. Finally, they imagined seeing the art, with the artist putting the finishing touches on it, and seeing themselves viewing it.
I did a demo using these three viewpoints on a conflict situation with a wonderful volunteer, Carla, and then I led them as a group through the process, watching them step into imaginary circles for each position. I watched very carefully, and it appeared to me that each woman got it.
Then they journaled about the experience, made art about it, and a few of them shared their art and their experience of doing the exercise. Their homework was to do it with a different event in mind and journal about it for Peggy. Their six opportunities to learn and deepen this skill will serve them well, perhaps for the rest of their lives.
I asked them for their feedback on the three magical viewpoints. Which one gave them the most new information? It surprised me that second position was so powerful for them. I had expected that third position would be the real revelation (the cool sense of detachment often is), but Ann told me that a major goal of the SOTP is learning empathy for the victims of their crimes, and so learning about and experiencing second position strengthened that goal.
Then our time was up. They honored Peggy by giving her a sweet, gigantic homemade card on which each woman had written a personal thank you to her for volunteering with them.
I’ve heard many women tell their stories at TBT graduations over the past decade. Chaos is in every story. Prison provides the security to examine their lives, something many have never done or even been exposed to before getting involved with Truth Be Told’s programs.
That’s the first step toward true rehabilitation. Then there’s the support and learning and accomplishment they get through connection with Truth Be Told.
I’m feeling very lucky and grateful to have had the good fortune to connect with Truth Be Told when it was an infant nonprofit, to have helped nurture it into stability, to step back when life had other plans for me, and to reconnect via teaching a useful life skill.
I want to thank Keith Fail, NLP trainer at NLP Resources Austin, for his support. He and I (mostly he) taught Magical Viewpoints at the Lockhart prison in the fall of 2011. He was training people in Europe when this teaching opportunity came up. I winged it as well as prepped myself, learned a lot, and had a blast!