The Women of 509 Unlocked

by Courtney Walker

Raised in the South, Courtney searched for a sense of freedom at a young age. This quest took her in many different directions, reading and study, meditation, as well as high-level and extreme sports. Continuing on for her search for freedom, Courtney currently serves as the Creative Director/Operations Manager for the Prison Monastery Project.

I’ve had family members go to prison for long stints. Written letters. I wish I knew where those letters were now. I’m not a stranger to the incarcerated but at the same time, I have no idea. I spent the good part of a day, in my youth, in a solitary jail cell. But I have no real sense of what doing time is like. Perhaps a vague idea. I’ve been closer to the monastic experience, quite literally yearning for it in some form or another since I was a child. Studied various Buddhist meditative practices on my own and with teachers. Looked at prisons, the power of the individual and the power of the government, through the eyes of Michel Foucault and through Bentham’s Panopticon while in a European grad school. (I don’t recommend doing either very much, they cause headaches.) I’d never seen the correlation between the monastic experience and penal incarceration until the inception of the Prison Monastery Program.

I had the great blessing to be able to go into the 509 block of the Central California Women’s Facility last month. One thing I do understand from simply the way I’ve lived my life is that you must pay greater attention to your surroundings when you enter a high intensity or high energy environment. I’ve often sought out these environments in work and play for that reason. You have to be aware of what is happening externally as well as internally to survive and to thrive. Prison is certainly one of the highest intensity and energetic environments on Earth. What I came to experience in 509, however, was not what I expected.

I absolutely knew I needed to have my awareness on high alert, but not even close to what I’d thought. What was most intense was not the threat of violence or some sort of mischief, although those were either there or felt in the air. What was most intense was the amount of love, play, joy, and gratitude expressed by the core group of women participating in the Prison Monastery. It was beyond what I could have imagined. The willingness. The very clear care for not only each other but the staff of the Prison Monastery Project was palpable. It was both keeping it real, no nonsense of former gangbangers and chronic offenders of all stripes, mixed with loving softness of women who were able to express a sweet, often mischievous innocence. It was human.

On our last visit to the ladies of 509, Bob Wilms, the Director of Development for the Prison Monastery, and I played a game called Unlocked with the ladies. The primary goal of the game is to build intimacy with people in the room by engaging truthfully and hopefully as vulnerable as possible with a series of prompts. As well, one portion of the game’s flow invites a few members of the audience to join the hosts, Bob and I in this case, at the front of the room in what is called the “hot seat,” while the audience asks them questions directly. Someone can, of course, lie on the hot seat, although it’s pretty obvious when they’re not telling the truth. It’s like the energy dies in the room. It’s palpable. So, it behooves everyone, no matter the discomfort, that the brave soul on the hot seat be truthful in response to what they are being asked. Not once in our game with the ladies was there a feeling of intimacy we’d built with each other being denied. They wanted to be revealed. It was like a party. They allowed themselves to be seen.

They bravely put themselves out there and they had fun. Sometimes gently, sometimes fiercely. It was there that I fell in love with those women. Not as people to save. Not as people to teach or preach to with some sort of superior offering. But as fellow, equal human beings who simply want to know who we are and what great potential, for love primarily, we can fulfill.

We asked for the last participant to come up and join us for a game and immediately, an attractive, twenty something redhead, hair tied back into a ponytail bounced up from her seat and confidently walked up to the front of the room. Someone from the audience asked her a question, what’s your dream for when you get out of here?

Harley responded, “to be a singer.”

The audience playfully interrogated her, “How will you do it? How will you not fall back into criminal patterns like you did before?” She was unfazed, answering each question confidently and vulnerably.

The last question, “Can you sing something for us?”

She paused, blushing, before opening her mouth and belting out an Etta James tune acapella, her voice reverberating through the loud, large concrete room. A mix between Whitney Houston and Halsey, her voice grabbed every one of the participants. My body quivered, filled with joy and love.

That is a testament to the work and willingness of these women and allowance of the vulnerability of being who they are to come through while being in a place that it could be dangerous to allow it. And it is a testament to the work of the Prison Monastery Project and the Art of Soulmaking, its desire to bring rehumanization and dignity to the prison system and give a roadmap to anyone who feels called in courage to do this great work.

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