Last night I went to the Everglades Correctional Institute, which ironically is across the street from the Micouskee Casino. I spent two hours with 45 inmates who have been imprisoned for over 25 years for crimes that resulted in the death of a person(s). With my dear friend and club founder, Chris Wolfe, we ran a Toastmaster meeting, in this case it’s called a Gavel Club. These meetings are always fascinating and I leave feeling blessed for all the freedoms large and small I enjoy in my everyday life.
In prison last night, I watched poetry in motion as one of the inmates lyrically described why he preferred the magic and finesse of basketball over football. The majority of the Gaveliers bravely tackled correctly using the word “promulgate” which was our Word of the Day. I listened to one speaker introspectively and intelligently explore choices, influences and their ramifications using a diagram he learned in another course. Another gave his Icebreaker, the first speech in Toastmasters. He attended 26 schools and moved incessantly because his stepfather was a con artist. Interestingly, he wouldn’t discuss the crime that put him here today—many will do this in their Icebreaker. At the end of the meeting we honored another Gavelier with a certificate from Toastmasters International for completing his first ten speeches – a momentous milestone in all the Toastmaster programs.
The impromptu portion of the meeting, Table Topics, asked probing questions that covered politics and other issues including the pluses and minuses of halfway houses and parole stipulations of guaranteed employment prior to parole. These men have plenty of time to think and it showed in their thoughtful responses. My questions at the end of the meeting paled in comparison – “what is your favorite food”, “would you rather travel by plane, train, car or boat?” Actually the latter question yielded an interesting answer because the only time that Gavelier flew on a plane was when it delivered him to prison, so he has no desire to fly again.
This Gavel club is one of the largest prison programs in the United States. It has over 80 members at any time and is part of the curriculum for a transition program that readies these long-term inmates for possible parole. These men gather from across the state to participate in this transition program which is the only one in Florida. Chris and I are alone with these men. The guard is somewhere nearby but never in the room. We each wear a small, seemingly ineffectual personal alarm.
I go to prison every other month to spend an evening with these men who many times speak from the heart. They address each other respectfully and all welcome me as an honored guest each time they stand to speak. Every time I walk out appreciative of my life all the way down to the little freedoms I enjoy every day (Starbucks, cable TV, privacy). Every time I walk out with an emotional story – these stories bring fear, laughter or sadness.
Last night I went to prison. This morning I rejoice in my freedom.