Yesterday, I went to my first men’s prison at Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility (AVCF) to see the culmination of their entrepreneurial training program with Defy. Six men serving sentences for murder and sexual offense, shared their stories as part of an event called One Last Talk. They were more raw and vulnerable than the women I’ve trained. They trembled, they cried and they didn’t try to put a bow on their pain or past.

The first man to speak stood up with his strong jaw line and bald head and long shaped beard. He shared that he had a good family but that he never felt like he belonged anywhere or that he could ever really connect with anyone. He used the word “awkward” over and over again. He just felt awkward with everyone and that he still feels like there is something bad or wrong with him. He tried taking his life while in prison by slicing his wrists.

Antonio was raped and beaten for years by his stepfather and prays that he will see his daughter again. When Philip, the host from One Last Talk, asked him the last time he saw his daughter Antonio said, “When she was 1.”

“How old is she now?” asked Philip

“23”

Philip had to pass the mic onto another questioner in the audience he was so gut punched with tears.

Latham stood up and started sharing his story without much breath as he zoomed through his rehearsed, first few lines. “Society is filled with labels and society is itself a bully.” Phillip came up and reminded him to breath. Latham admitted that he was petrified.

He shared the horrors of his childhood and that he eventually was arrested for a sex offense and seen as a monster even inside of prison. It’s fascinating that murder is more accepted than sex crimes. I am completely guilty of judging and avoiding working with men because I don’t want to work with sex offenders.

As soon as I walked into AVCF I thought to myself, “Which one of these guys raped a woman?” I was paranoid about my clothes and the fact that I wore earrings. I was uncomfortable with the attention.

Cory shared his story around being a twin and how his brother was the only person he felt connected to on the planet. After his brother was murdered by a police officer he himself murdered a young man. He described the sound of the tears coming from the mother of his victim and how her voice rang through the court room. He couldn’t hear the judge sentencing him as he only heard his victim’s mother weeping.

Rydel stood up, a tall black man with braids. He was five years old when his mother left for a few hours and told him to watch his 4 year old brother. They melted crayons under an iron, made Kool Aid and a general mess everywhere. When his mother came back home she said, “You are going to jail for what you did.” He and his brother packed up their bags to go to jail and truly believed that when they heard sirens they were for him and his brother.

He was a smart kid with good grades but in middle school his grades started to fall and he started “fronting” and becoming some tough caricature of himself. He said, “In what world is going to jail for making kool aid ok or going to prison for my crime years later…how is the ridiculousness of prison ok?”

He went on, “In order to affect change, we need to leave that person in their environment and create the change from within the system.”

I was left thinking, wondering and reeling. How is it that the people I keep meeting inside of prison, who have all endured unfathomable pain – how is it that they are almost consistently more real than anyone I meet who is “free?”

I see how my education, my privilege, my persona, create a wedge between me and another. These men stood up naked with nothing to prove. They were incapable of pretense. They weren’t even trying to prove that they have nothing to prove! I watched when all of the “free” people in the audience tried to share from a real place within themselves and how their words felt empty.

Even the words, depth, authentic, genuine, sincere… honest – fall short and feel contrived. These men were not contrived! They were able to share themselves with so much bravery.

And boy do those of us on the “outside” all crave that!! I can feel even as I blog about this amazing experience I am in that same trap.

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