I wanted to capture a little about my night in prison this week – I’m going to guess that title got your attention, eh?

That’s a little of a misnomer – I didn’t spend the night there. But I did go to a men’s prison one night this week to participate in a speech contest!

You likely know by now that I’m a Toastmaster, and passionate about the program. You may not know that in many prisons there are clubs, just like we have on the outside, working the same program: bettering their lives by improving their communication and leadership skills. The Stafford Creek facility in Aberdeen WA that I visited is no different.

The men there worked with the prison staff to coordinate an inside/outside contest – 6 of their best speakers against 6 from the outside. (I’d say our best but we just took volunteers!) I put my name forward; I used to serve in the Kairos prison ministry for many yearrs, so I have a good familiarity with life behind bars, and wanted to support them.

After processing into the visitors center (a large room with chairs set up theater style), I sat in the speakers’ section, surrounded by inmates who were the kindest, most grateful, most polite, most encouraging people I’ve met in ages. Honestly. They were so happy we were there! They were over -the-top encouraging of each other as well; at outside competitions there’s often an awkward silence between competitors but — these men were like brothers on a team cheering each other on. I mentioned the difference, and another outside TM agreed—but the men just said “we ain’t got time for that (bleep) in here!”

Powerful stories

Hearing their speeches, I felt like I’d been to a motivational seminar! They spoke of lessons learned in hard times; the guy next to me, in for multiple murders, spoke of a Mexican artist who melted weapons into instruments — and how he was learning to melt his weapon (fists/guns/violence) the same way, and challenged the audience to embrace a peaceful form of masculinity.

Another spoke of surviving being shot 5 times and dying on the operating table—and being taken to prison as soon as he was out of ICU, staying there til this day. He was restored from the ashes to rise with a purpose for his life to speak encouragement to others. “The enemy doesn’t steal from people who are broke—know that you have gifts in your life you need to defend!”

Needless to say, they cleaned our clocks, sweeping all three prizes—VERY well deserved!!!

My experience as a speaker

The hardest thing about speaking in that room was the admonition not to applaud: some inmates are more popular than others, so they chose to have zero applause to keep from swaying the judges, brought in from outside clubs. In addition to the awkwardness of silence for transitions, the audience seemed to voluntarily limit themselves in reacting to speakers, too—very little laughter at anyone’s jokes! 

Also frm our outside speakers, 2 women and one formerly-incarcerated man spoke ahead of me (I was #8); the women delivered fine speeches, but very club-style . . . no fire-and-brimstone emotion like the inmates. The man’s speech had been in the vein of the fiery inmates’ speeches. So the men next to me had a “oh this is how women speak” perception from what they’d just experienced. During intermission I asked the inmates for their advice for ending my speech, which, with the no-applause rule, now couldn’t end with my planned  “ta-da” pose and raucous applause! The inmates came up w the solution to add “silent” applause, to draw attention to the rule, and that worked out to great comedic effect!

I decided to try to break the silence at the starting my speech, and after the opening line “my best stories have their roots in my dysfunctional childhood,” I followed it with “can I get an Amen?” Yeses and laughter worked to loosen the room! I had previewed the speech to one of my clubs a week before, and on their advice I played up the both the emotion AND the humor of my speech “bigger,” giving airtime to the emotional moments to let them sink in, and overdid the laughing at myself to give them permission to release their own laughter. I am a much better speaker when I get feedback from the audience, so hearing them laugh was encouraging to me to keep going.

At the end, my local State Senator handed out participation certificates to everyone. I was tickled that my name was called first (the joy of a last name with an A!) and took advantage of that to get the applause they were unable to deliver – I stopped on my way to the senator and took an exaggerated bow! It was pretty hilarious – my speech had included several mentions of times in my life when I hadn’t gotten applause;

On a side note, applause at my weekly club meeting is one reason I go. It means the world to get that little affirmation each week – we applaud for anyone who stands up and says anything even if they just read something off a piece of paper! Some clubs only applaud speeches, and I think that’s just not enough in this world that doesn’t celebrate people! I make a big deal of standing and awaiting my applause before I say a word, no matter how small a role I have. LOL!

The inmates’ verdict on my speech: several said “You were the surprise of the night! We didn’t expect that!” I’m pretty sure it was the humor that garnered that response – one man with a long ponytail, glasses, and a huge scar on his face sought me out just before I left to shake my hand and tell me we’re just alike. “Nerds like me and you are underrated: we’re wickedly funny!” That made my night! To realize that an incarcerated man whose life is so completely different than mine could see himself in my story meant I had accomplished my goal: I connected with my audience.

Inspired?

I can’t encourage Toastmasters enough as a way to grow as a human being. You don’t need to be contemplating being a professional speaker – Toastmasters will help you with SO much in your life. Meetings at work. Job interviews. Standing up to make a point at a PTA or HOA meeting. Even just in conversations with friends, you learn how to tell a story that is interesting and engaging, without meandering and losing their interest. The leadership skills you learn help you to work with teams, inspire others to get on board with your ideas, hosting events – and having the confidence to jump in and do things you once thought were beyond your skills. Toastmasters has given me more of a can-do attitude than I had ever really had before, and the ability to encourage others to do the same.

Also, if you ever have an opportunity to attend an event of any kind inside a prison, I highly encourage it. You’d be very surprised at what you experience. Set aside any thoughts of danger, don’t wonder what they did to get there. Open your mind and you’ll find a bunch of human beings with challenges, victories, and life stories — just like you.