Building a Bridge of Trust

by Gary York

After more than 30 years working in the jail and prison system, Gary York retired from the Florida Department of Corrections. He authored the books Corruption Behind Bars, Inside The Inner Circle, and The Toughest Job and is currently a columnist for

During the week of April 10-14, I had the opportunity to work with The Art of Soulmaking program and the Guards to Guardians Program at the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF).

The Art of Soulmaking Program for the incarcerated really is impressive. As an officer, I was at first hesitant to attend the program on my first two days of our journey. Then I remembered what I have always told myself, “Keep an open mind in everything we experience.” I am so happy I took my own advice.

The Art of Soulmaking program and its directors Bob Wilms and Kate Feigin are amazing. I sat in on the group sessions and found the female population opened up as they told stories of their lives and read their assignments out loud to the entire group during their writing development class.

I could see the curious looks Captain Keith Hellwig and I were getting and one of the group members asked, “Why do we have officers in our group today?” We then explained that we are in the Guards to Guardians program to help the officers just like the Art of Soulmaking is here to help you.

We went on to tell them that the officers have long hours and suffer at times from stress and other issues just as the incarcerated do.

I told the group we are working to build a bridge of understanding between the officers and the incarcerated and be rid of the thought “us vs. them.” Surprisingly, the group was very interested in this concept and wanted to learn more and work toward a better relationship with the officers. I was very amazed at the eagerness they expressed to learn and develop a new life. I could see the life in their eyes as we witnessed each woman talk. I could almost see that light of a better future burning in their minds.

I left the Art of Soulmaking program with a new outlook on prison life myself after attending the program for two days. I now have first-hand proof that the Art of Soulmaking program not only gives hope to the incarcerated but it will help make their lives better while in prison and after prison life

On day three, it was time to talk with the officers. Captain Keith Hellwig and I spoke to fifty correctional officers and six civilian staff about the Guards to Guardians program. This program allows correctional officers to get their problems out in the open and guides them through troubled times. Officers must know they never have to be alone during times of need. Anyone who really knows correctional officers will tell you that any new type of program is suspect and will be looked at carefully before we officers buy into it.

After Captain Hellwig and I gave our presentations on the Guards to Guardians program and our 24-7 helpline available for all officers, we stood waiting hopefully for feedback. We got just that; officers stayed behind to ask questions and tell us there are not many programs or outlets for officers and they felt the Guards to Guardians program was a good thing for the well-being of correctional officers. This was great for us to hear because in the world of corrections, if the officers keep quiet and say nothing, nine out of ten times, they are not satisfied. The comments and participation from the officers let us know they would use the Guards to Guardians as another option to seeking self-help.

Correctional officers, as I well know from my career in corrections, walk around with what I call “a shield of body and mind armor.” The mindset of “I will not ask for help; I am too strong to be weak in the eyes of others.” Captain Helwig and I stressed the point during our presentation that you are not weak if you ask for help. You are actually stronger admitting you need help. You must never walk alone. No person should ever walk alone.

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