April 02, 2018

By Sarah O'Brien


Walking toward the building, I could feel my heart beat a little faster. I had never been inside a prison before. Though I knew to expect it, having to surrender my phone, my keys and other possessions was unnerving. The metal detector went off because of a button or clasp on my pants, and there was no joking about it. When the first set of doors boomed to a close behind me, I jumped a little. Then the second set of doors shut. Knowing that I could leave didn’t help; I still felt trapped when I heard all those doors lock behind me.

I was inside the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW) to co-lead a three-day NAMI Peer-to-Peer training. NAMI Peer-to-Peer helps people with mental health conditions notice and manage emotional triggers, develop interpersonal skills and take charge of their lives. It also provides a safe place for deep, personal sharing in a peer-led setting. It is an exceptional program—built around the assumption that every person with a mental health condition has value and potential—that has touched the lives of over 50,000 people since it started in 2001.

NAMI Iowa has partnered with ICIW since 2013 to provide NAMI Peer-to-Peer. Together, they show how peer-support programs can be successful in correctional environments. I was there to train some of the women who had already attended the program, so they could lead their own NAMI Peer-to-Peer classes inside the prison walls.

Creating a Safe Space

ICIW has a beautiful campus with some gardens that the women tend. The buildings have big windows that let in lots of light. But beneath the surface of that serene landscape is constant tension: bullying, fights, arguments. Guards circulate the grounds at all times. Residents are watched closely. People talk in whispers about who is in the “hole” (slang for solitary confinement). There are code words, tough fronts and nowhere to feel fully relaxed.

During our training weekend, we carefully built a space of emotional safety that helped the women bond across the distances they had created from others for their self-preservation. They wanted a space where they could cry safely; they felt as though they’d been thrown away and forgotten by the world. Through our conversations, I found a softness behind their armor.

Many of these women had experienced trauma at a young age. What should have been the innocent, early years of their lives were often marred by physical and psychological abuse, or exposure to drugs and alcohol. It was hard for me to understand how a woman could commit acts of sexual abuse toward her own family member until I understood that she had been repeatedly sexually abused by her own father as a child.

These are things people don’t like to talk about because they are uncomfortable and leave us feeling like crime is a grayer area than we might believe. We might argue, “Well, I know someone who experienced that kind of trauma as a child and didn’t end up in prison.” Fair enough, but this response doesn’t address an underlying question: Why do some people bounce back from trauma and continue on to live stable and productive lives, while others don’t?

This is a question to which we don’t know the answer. One thing I do know (from both personal experience and from talking to others) is that mental distress makes us more susceptible to stress. As someone who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I often observe myself to be more sensitive and easily imbalanced by things that bounce off the surface of other people. My behaviors and perceptions require a reality check from time to time, and the ongoing treatment and support I receive from family, friends, my faith community and medical treatment are critical to my feeling well and making sound decisions. For me, resiliency is all about having the right supports.

When I met these women and heard their stories, I was shocked by how much they struggled—often with no medical or emotional support at all. They did what they could do with what they were dealt, often in complete isolation. I couldn’t help but think, “This could have been me, given other circumstances.”

For some women in ICIW, NAMI Peer-to-Peer was their first opportunity to learn about mental health and ways to manage symptoms. One of the women said, “If only I had known all this when I was younger, I don’t think I would be here today.”

I thought about her words—words from a woman who had spent 15 years in prison and had 15 more to go—and wondered what would have happened had she received treatment and support in her community instead of where she received it for the first time: here, in prison.

My blood boils over this consideration. How is it that these women received their first support for mental health in a prison? Keep in mind that this isn’t an Iowa problem; it is nationwide. Jails and prisons have become treatment centers. Today, 10 times more people with mental health conditions are in correctional settings than in hospitals, and one in five people in jails and prisons has a serious mental illness, according to the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice.

“What Motivates You to Teach?”

I was speaking with one woman after class who told me that her motivation to teach NAMI Peer-to-Peer came from someone believing in her. “They said to me, ‘I am so angry at you,’ and I asked them, ‘Why?’ The person answered, ‘You had everything going for you. You had an education. You are a born leader. Why aren’t you leading?’”

In that moment, she began to believe in her own potential and looked for opportunities to help her peers. Another woman told me the program gives her a sense of purpose—the thought that she could help someone who will be released, or that she could motivate a person who is at “the end of their rope,” provides meaning in a life that often feels empty.

In a prison, nothing belongs to you that can’t be taken away unexpectedly. One day, some of the women were told they had to take down pictures of loved ones from the walls of their “rooms” (which are small cubes shared by two or more women). It may seem like a small thing, but those pictures were their lifelines.

No matter how many gardens you plant in a prison, no matter how many windows there are, the walls are still there. You can never grab a burger and chat with a friend or take comfort in a pet. You can never feel…okay. And for some, their sentences mean that they might never set foot outside a prison again. This made it difficult to leave when the time came.

Driving away on a road that I was free to choose, I realized that these women were still with me; the memory of them had been etched on my heart. Their grit and resilience revealed to me that strength and purpose can live anywhere. Their hunger for freedom reminded me of all the things I take for granted. And their willingness to learn and grow and change—and help others do the same—gave me hope.

My wish for the women of the ICIW is that they experience freedom in their hearts, they feel peace in their minds, they continue to find the strength to help others, and finally, that they know they will never be forgotten.


Sarah O’Brien is manager of national education programs at NAMI.


Note: This piece is a reprint from the Spring 2016 Advocate

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