Ok. I’ll admit. I’ve never actually been to prison. But I have been in a prison. And saying “What I learned in prison” was the hook that would get you to read this post… because I think you’ll find it interesting.
This past Thursday, I spent 8 hours in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Sanders Estes Unit in Venus, Texas. Sanders Estes Correctional Center is a minimum/medium security prison. I volunteered as one of several Executive Judges for the Prison Entrepreneurship Program. Think… “Shark Tank” but in prison. These men have all applied for their spot in PEP. They have spent months working on who they are, who they were and who they want to be. Again, not every prisoner gets this opportunity. These men earned their spot.
They start with an “inside/outside strategy”. Building character and leadership skills through mentorship and classroom curriculum. They first want to get to the heart of WHY… why are you here? From there they begin what could be compared to as a mini-MBA program. They chose what business they want to start, they make the entire business plan, they put together a pitch complete with slide show, pamphlets, business cards… the whole works. And then, at the end of it all… they pitch their business to other business owners, consultants, and leaders in the community.
That’s where I came in.The PEP class starts with about 150 guys. It dwindles to about 60 before graduation date. On Thursday, we judged 58 men on their business model. We took those 58 to the top 16 and then from the top 16 to the top 4. The top 4 pitched their business ideas on Friday, the winner was chosen. And then ALL of the men graduated the program. I got a lot of the facts I shared earlier in this post from the PEP website… because I want to make sure I say the right things. I want you to know exactly what this thing is. Because it is amazing.
I prayed before I went in on Thursday. I prayed I would be a light to the men. A source of inspiration and hope. And you know what? They were all of that and so much more to me. I was no where near the source of inspiration they were to me. They have been working for 9 months on making themselves… their faith, their security, their confidence… their own source of inspiration and hope.
At the end of the day. I sat in the back of the room. Tears welling up in my eyes.
For a place that is literally the exact opposite of freedom… I felt so incredibly FREE. The prisoners felt so incredibly free. There was no judgement. No comparison. Just fully and wholly a safe environment… IN A PRISON.
They have a rule… if you want to speak… you start at the back of the room. And dance your way to the front. Like break it down, shake-what-your-mama-gave-ya dance… to the front. It’s a hard rule y’all. No one is above it. They also all have “Sweet Names”. A nickname given to them on the first day by the other inmates that is quoted every time they speak and then a little jingle is sung every single time.
So, picture this… a grown man in a white prison jump suit, tattoos covering every inch of his body, standing at the front of the room… after just dancing his way up there… holding a microphone and saying… in a very high pitched voice “My name is Quentin. AKA Pretty Pretty Princess. I’m here for the party”. Do you know what this does? It makes them all equal. It brings them all down to the same level. The level under badassness, the level under cockiness, the level far below I’m too cool for this.
No one is allowed to have a cell phone in the building. No one. So the entire day, I observed. I observed men of all ages and ethnicity supporting each other, laughing with each other, a camaraderie I have seldom witnessed.It felt like church. Or at least what I would love church to feel like. A tangible energy. An enormous feeling of belonging. And a sense of gratitude taller than the barbed wire fence surrounding the building.
It’s still hard to wrap my brain around. I felt sad leaving. Leaving my friends behind… the men I had only known 8 hours. I want to feel that community and camaraderie here. In my life. I think that’s what Sunday Supper is. And Table Talks. And the Cookbook Club… that hopefully someone starts and invites me to. And I think that’s what church is/should be. So, I’ll be praying for you… and you be praying for me. For more opportunities for community and camaraderie and for little winks along the way, pointing us in exactly the direction we should go.
Love you friends and Happy Sunday.