Thanks to all who have donated so far to the Healing Trauma Launch at Lockhart Prison. Your amazing support made it possible for me to attend the National Covington Curriculum Conference, where I learned about Women & Trauma and the Healing Trauma course.
The training also was a reunion of sorts, because I was able to reconnect with my colleague Robin Cullen, whom I first met in 2015 at the Adult and Juvenile Female Offenders Conference. I owe it to Robin for encouraging me to bring the Healing Trauma course to the women at Lockhart prison. Driven by her own experience of incarceration, Robin has been facilitating Healing Trauma groups on both sides of the prison wall for more than 10 years.
The following are snapshots from my time in Connecticut.
Robin and I are sitting around a table with five women at a community center in Hartford, where she leads a Healing Trauma group on Monday nights. We all have our workbooks open, and Robin is walking us through “The Process of Trauma” chart, which maps out the brain’s freeze-fight-flight response to traumatic events and then further explains what is going on in the “communication center” of the brain.
“Sorry,” Robin playfully warns. “This part can get a little dry and technical.”
A woman seated directly across from Robin waves a dismissive hand in the air and leans forward in her chair. “Oh, don’t apologize. I love all this science!”
Later in the session, Robin passes out index cards, colored pencils and crayons. We are to decorate our cards with a personal affirmation and then display it somewhere where we will see it often as we go about our days.
One woman meticulously selects a different crayon for each letter as she writes in all caps: I LOVE AND ACCEPT MY… before realizing she has run out of room. Myself doesn’t fit.
She slumps back in her chair. Her frustration is sincere.
A classmate leans over and assesses the situation. “You could hyphenate it and continue to the next line,” she suggests. And then after a pause, “It’ll still look good.”
It takes several beats for the woman to warm up to her classmate’s idea, but then a smile lights up her face. A breakthrough.
She picks up her crayon and finishes her affirmation. “Well, it is what it is. And I accept it, just as it is.”
I LOVE AND
AS I AM.
Robin and I roll our bags down a red-and-gold carpeted hallway at the conference hotel. She’s laughing at how much stuff she packed for five days. She has brought a little of everything because the weather along the East Coast has been fickle. I tell her proudly that I packed my Dickie’s jumpsuit, and I plan to wear it every day. All I need to change is my T-shirt, socks and underwear.
She tells me that’s a great strategy for packing light, but it's not something she'll likely adopt.
“I think I've spent enough time in a jumpsuit,” she quips.
Day 1 of training, and we have divided into our core curriculum tracks. I’m in the Women and Trauma track, which covers the Healing Trauma course. The ballroom is full, maybe 150 people — less than 10 are men. I’m surrounded by clinicians from addiction treatment centers and hospitals, managers of sober and safe houses, therapists with private practices, social workers, graduate students, counselors in correctional settings — and then there’s me.
We are seated at round tables of eight. We learn about the biological process of trauma, how it carves neural pathways in the brain that keep us stuck in looped trains of thought and behavioral patterns that make it difficult to form intimate relationships, hold down a job or learn new skills.
We learn how trauma stores itself in the body and how it can lead to physical ailments and disease. We practice yoga poses, we do breath work, and we engage in visualization exercises — all ways to ground ourselves in the present moment and/or calm the nervous system. We learn about Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), both widely used in treating PTSD in war veterans.
We learn how sights, sounds, smells and most anything can trigger a traumatized individual, taking them straight back to the traumatic event and flooding the brain and body with unpleasant feelings and sensations. We learn that the goal of this work is not to try to eradicate all triggers (good luck with that!), but to give people tools to live successfully with them — to be able to respond to triggering moments in ways that aren’t harmful to themselves or other people.
We learn about the healing power of expressive arts. We make collages that tell stories of personal trauma. I discover there are people in the room — my peers in this healing work — who have lost a child, witnessed a murder, survived sexual abuse, lost a twin sister.
I am reminded for the umpteenth time that incarceration is not a prerequisite for this work. We all have some healing to do.
In our hotel room, Robin practices a series of monologues. She volunteers with The Judy Dworin Performance Project, and they are performing at another conference in a few days. She hands me her script and asks me to make sure she gets her lines right.
Facing an imaginary audience, Robin delivers each monologue flawlessly. For her last bit, she walks over to her bed and sits cross-legged on the mattress. She breaks character momentarily to tell me this part is about her first few hours of a three-year prison sentence. Her disclosure rattles me. Right. This really happened.
In the monologue, Robin recounts climbing onto her assigned bunk and thinking, any minute now, a guard will come and he will say: “I’m sorry, Ms. Cullen. There was a terrible mistake. You are free to go.”
Certainly someone will come and set her free: a family member, a friend, a lawyer. Someone.
And then a guard does come. Robin sees him approaching through the slit of window in her cell door. He stops a few feet short of the door, looks directly at her, makes a tick on his clipboard and moves out of view.
I meet so many people at this conference.
There's Christine, the director of a family advocacy center in Connecticut. She has a ton of experience in fundraising, and she fires off several strategies I could employ when she learns what I’m doing at Lockhart. Over the next few days, Christine seems to magically appear several times — in the hallway, in the elevator, in the hotel lobby — to offer more suggestions.
“I’ve thought of more ideas!” she says each time, and each time I dig into my book bag for a pen, ready to jot them down.
And then there's Anne and a different Christine, both substance abuse counselors at a women’s prison in Niantic, CT. We bond over brainstorming ideas for self-care in a correctional setting. Most of our peers work in the free world, and their suggestions to light a candle, take a bubble bath or spend time in nature just ain't gonna fly in prison.
I also meet Jay, director of rehabilitation for the California Department of Corrections. He has worked extensively with Stephanie Covington, and together, they have evoked cultural shifts on prison yards. My mind is blown. I ask him how he is able to get all this done. He tells me that the California governor and Legislature have budgeted millions of dollars in recent years to ensure proven rehabilitative and re-entry programs are expanded, to include arts programming, college degree programs, therapeutic communities, addiction treatment services, mental health services, and more.
He says the government in California recognizes that public safety and rehabilitation are not mutually exclusive.
I think of our situation here in Texas and feel a mixture of envy and hope. We have such a long way to go. But now I see what is possible, and I plan to be a part of the sea change.
The conference is over, and Robin, Pam and I drive 10 minutes south for an afternoon of strolling around the seaside town of Mystic, home to vintage sailboats, ice cream shops and, yes, that famous pizza joint. Robin and Pam met in the late 1990s while they were incarcerated at York Correctional, where they participated in an ongoing creative writing program led by novelist Wally Lamb. Since completing their sentences, both have devoted their lives to prison reform and building better bridges for citizens returning to society.
Our first stop in Mystic is Captain Scott's Lobster Dock, where Robin graciously treats us to hot lobster rolls, served in paper boats with cole slaw and a quarter wedge of lemon. Robin claims our tray at the pickup window and turns to face the outdoor picnic tables.
"Where to?" she asks us, and then shoots Pam a look: "This isn't chow hall. We can sit wherever we want!"
After lunch, we spend the afternoon strolling main street, window shopping, browsing through bookstores and spice shops, treating ourselves to ice cream cones and taking advantage of Pam's advanced selfie photo skills. This storybook, blue-sky day is worth documenting! Click, click, click!
But, really, this afternoon is about sisterhood, women uplifting women, and knowing we have allies as we work to effect change in our respective communities. It feels good that I can lend relevant perspective when Pam asks us for advice about an idea she's working on in her hometown of Philadelphia. And I love that it only takes minutes for Robin and Pam to help me crystallize the format for a prison workshop series I want to create in the not-too-distant future.
Before we know it, the afternoon has passed. We drive to the train station, so Pam can catch the 5 pm to Philly. We all hop out of Robin's truck to say our goodbyes. Pam delivers the warmest hugs to Robin and me before grabbing her roller bag and a paper bag containing one hot lobster roll to go.
Later, when Robin drops me off at the Hartford airport, it's another warmhearted send-off. I think of all the hospitality this dear woman has shown me up here in Connecticut — all the times I tried to pay for things and she would tell me to put my money away and "save it for the women, save it for the program." I confess to her that I'm forever in her debt.
"I'm just paying it forward; this is what we do for one another," she says, a smile lighting up her face. "Now, go do your good work."