I Went To Prison Tuesday (Story Inside)

“Step to the line…”

Josh and I have not been able to put together the right words to share just what transpired at the maximum security prison on Tuesday.

On the way back home in the back of the van, we took this picture to TRYYYY and express what truly can’t be expressed with human words.

The brief given to us was go and help them with their business ideas, but what transpired was much more. As our friend Michael, put it, it was profound.

And that it was…deeply moving and life-altering and that is not one bit an exaggeration. You cannot see life the same way — not yours, not anyone’s — after experiencing a day like this one.

As I shared with Nolan when we got home late that night, the experience and what was felt in the heart for these men, and also for how we can evolve the system, is up there with other top experiences of my life….

Up there with the day I said I do, the day the Dutch nurses handed me my son, the days I spent with refugees in Greece or with patients in hospice and the day I loved up on my Oma as she, herself, took her last breath. There are others, but suffice to say that Tuesday was in solid company with these moments as just some examples.

Half the time we did support them with business mentoring. For example, we held mock interviews and heard pitches for their business ideas (they were GOOD!!).

But the other half (and, really, all throughout the business conversations we had with them) was spent getting to know them as people.

♥️ “I feel human again,” was a common theme.

As we first walked toward the large visitation room that held the 50 or 60 men (out of 600, they were the ones who qualified by doing a ton of coursework), they immediately started cheering and screaming as they saw us. It was as if a concert had just started or something.

The party atmosphere was a moving and welcome surprise. The tunes were also already playing and loudly (some of my favorites).

It brought tears to my eyes and to the eyes of fellow volunteers and we hadn’t even begun yet, (the joke was on me — uhm, clearly the work had already started within *me*).

Speaking of tunes, we did end up dancing to loads of hip-hop throughout the day to break up the business stuff and even participated in some pretty epic lip-sync battles and a solid limbo line. Experiencing their joy (not something they feel often) was my joy.

There were so many good vibes, laughter and love that my heart expanded multiple times throughout the eight hours.

You could see and feel how connecting all of these moments were for them (Hustle 2.0 curates INCREDIBLY real, fun and deeply transformative events. Check out Cat Hoke’s TEDx talk here: https://youtu.be/f4J1pgxYTww).

To paint the picture for you some of these guys had spent 10+ years in solitary confinement, most who spend up to 23 hours a day in their cells, a third who hadn’t had a visitor in over six months and all of whom told us of the daily stabbings that take place in the yard.

One of my favorite moments (of many) was when we experienced “Step to the line.”

“Step to the line if you had parents who tucked you in at night or told you they loved you.”

As volunteers or inmates, each of us on separate sides of a long piece of blue tape on the floor, would step up closest to the tape if the statement was true, and far away from the tape if it was not.

To this one, as I looked around, only two or three of the 50-60 guys walked up to the blue line. I could see some of them holding back tears. Most, if not all of us volunteers, had stepped up to the line agreeing with the statement.

My tears had been on and off all day (either quietly to myself, swallowing them back down, or, at times, actually allowing them to come down a few at a time before wiping them away), but this one, as a mom and knowing how important someone loving and believing in me is/was, opened the floodgates. Many of the volunteers were clearly feeling the same.

There were many similar questions for over 30 minutes.

At one point, I was holding Jessie’s hand (no hugs allowed) as he stood close to the blue line on one side and I stood close to the blue line on the other side after having walked up together at many of the questions (this happened with all volunteers, we ALL had walked up to the line many times, alongside the men).

He had been crying on and off.

I believe we walked up to the line for this one: “I experienced violence in the home at a young age” or maybe it was this one “I have lost one or both of my parents” or… “I had a teenage mother”…

We had been instructed to keep looking in each other‘s eyes, especially when you walked up closest to the blue line, so that’s what we did.

That’s what I wanted to do…

Though there were differences, what was most striking, especially when we were both up closest to the blue line like that, was the similarity in the humanity shared.

And, as the exercise kept going, how similar the feelings felt throughout our lives were — shoot, how similar the feelings being felt right then in that moment were. It didn’t matter who we were or what we had done or not done, it mattered what we felt (we had ALL experienced similar feelings and we could all relate to making mistakes, both big, medium and small).

As the exercise continued, we split into small groups and began to talk about forgiveness and what we wanted to be forgiven for. Jessie cried telling me about the mistake he made that landed him in prison for life and I told him about my own hardest moments and we each comforted one another.

I told him, as many times as I could, that he was loved and that there were people on the outside that genuinely cared and, as he saw my tears roll, as I shared more deeply about my own life, he told me that I was loved, too.

Throughout the day, we all filled out “sweet sheets” akin to yearbook pages for one another with loving and empowering messages…they were for us to take back home and for them to take back to their cells which we heard from Cat would be pages that would help them for many days to come.

I will be framing mine — cherishing it always. The work has only begun and Josh and I, hand to heart, can’t wait to keep going.

As I’m sharing this with you, my tears make it hard to see, so I will end by telling you what the warden shared at the end…

He told the guys to take what they felt inside of them right now and to go out into the yard and turn two people into similar forces for good.

“If you could just turn two people, think just how different it would be.”

He asked them if they were up for it, and they jumped to their feet, raising the roof, cheering and hollering just as they had done to welcome us in.

***If you and I could just turn two people, think just how different it would be…***

Make happiness your business by creating your authentic brand…enjoy your business, enjoy your life! 

Life is good,

Michelle Ghilotti
Success Designer, Brand Activator & Social Entrepreneur 

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