Therapy in a prison? With murderers and gangsters? Upwards of 80 men all in one room getting in touch with how they really feel?
Sounds like a recipe for disaster.
This was the subject of a recent BBC documentary ‘Storyville: The Work’. Prisoners- all with extremely violent histories that had landed them in prison- mixing with men from the outside come to discover themselves in a very different therapeutic environment.
I’ve done a fair amount of group work as a participant and leader over the years and yet there was something incredibly powerful and moving about how these very different participants worked together.
The way one former gang ‘shot caller’ convinced another inmate on the verge of suicide because he was unable to see his son to wait three months to see what he could do to turn him round. The shot caller stood toe to toe and forehead to forehead and simply would not let go of this man who was completely eaten up by despair.
The power of containment that a group of 10 men where able to give to Dark Cloud as he finally let himself recognise, embody and feel just how much pain and the lives he had permanently scarred by his actions.
Even the combination of blunt confronting directness and immense warmth and support offered to the extremely judgemental guy from the outside world who alienated everyone with his constant negative comments.
And above all the immense courage of the facilitators who leant in to every single moment where there was an opportunity for transformation- no matter how charged it was.
What was most humbling for me was to see the absolute and total commitment of the prisoners. The recognition on their part of the absolute necessity to go all out to feel what was actually there even though it involved giving up the protection that had metaphorically and very literally kept them safe throughout their lives.
The stories of these men, what they had been through and what they had done were appalling. But their courage and honesty was nothing short of inspiring.
And the result of this work? Summed up in the following closing quotes:
‘In the last seventeen years over forty convicts, many lifelong criminals, have been released from prison after attending this program.
Not one has returned.’