This marks the second post in AltrUHelp’s new series of guest blog posts from industry professionals. Jordan Nacht is a Mental Health Counselor from New York and a thought leader on the topic of altruism in the therapy arena.
As a mental health counselor who works with parolees, probation and pre-trial clients, I’ve heard countless anecdotes of the horrors of prison life. As it is with most daunting experiences, there are points of happiness and growth in these perceivably “dark” experiences. I make it a point to assume a nonjudgmental and unconditionally positive stance toward my clients (which is utterly necessary for any therapist). To do so, I search for these shining lights—redeeming, uplifting moments—however bright or dim.
I often ask my clients a particular question regarding their time in prison: “How did you keep your sanity,” or more pointedly, “how did you maintain the goodness I see inside you while stuck in such a ‘bad’ environment?” This question can elicit such emotion that clients decline to answer–in which case I revisit the question once a more trusting relationship has been established. Oftentimes, though, a response comes forth immediately. It never fails to relate to altruism. In this piece, I will depict some of these experiences, those through which incarcerated persons maintain their humanity.
As I cannot relate specific stories—I am not willing to even broach the possibility of breaking a client’s confidentiality and trust—I will speak generally and report the patterns I have noticed.
All too often I hear of a client who, citing only his instinct and innate desire, began to attend drug and alcohol groups. The groups are basic and designed to allow for the sharing of experiences so others can empathize and allow the user to express their truth, all the while inferring to the other group members that they are not alone in their addictions. The “giving” or “sharing” of one’s truth is the most powerful facet of this group treatment. Clients tell me all the time that these groups allowed them to “remain human to some extent.” They have explained that it was not the group or the treatment itself, but this “sharing” of experiences that brought them all together, that united them. This unity factor is another important subject, one which relates strongly to altruism and human nature, and one that I plan to write more about in the future.
Another common factor in a prisoner’s happiness is solitude. The worst punishment a prisoner can be subject to is not physical, but psychological.
Some of you have heard it referred to as “the hole,” others as “solitary confinement.” It is rare for any prisoner to completely avoid the hole because at one point or another during one’s incarceration, standing up for oneself becomes a necessity, even though any violence or aggression is not permitted. Unfortunately, prison often resembles the “school bully” situation, in which an aggressor will continue to pick on you unless you stand up to him. Often this one instance of “standing up for oneself” leads to some time in solitary. In my career thus far, I have yet to encounter a client who speaks well of solitary confinement. Intense boredom, complete lack of interaction, rereading the same books over and over—no one enjoys “the hole.”
The interesting—and perhaps paradoxical—effect of solitary confinement is that the prisoner realizes just how necessary human interaction can be—how happy a small conversation can him feel. I may be reading into this or I may not, but the “sharing” of one’s life with another is an act of giving in itself. The giving of one’s experiences and thoughts is an altruistic behavior. My clients themselves point out that, even though they’re locked up with people who they primarily abhor, they’d rather be interacting and sharing the experience of incarceration than going through it alone. This facet of human nature cannot be overlooked and should not be taken for granted.
Besides the power of sharing—through experience or in stories—I find that my clients often find that teaching (and learning) provides a way of maintaining their humanity. Often I have heard a client mention that they “taught someone a skill” or “taught someone to defend himself” while stuck in that rut of an environment. The stories have mostly applied to situations between roommates or prisoners of similar ethnic backgrounds, but the “giving” is present nonetheless.
Teaching helps a new prisoner to better adjust to their new environment. While the acclimation process can be a harrowing one, both the teacher and student benefit from the sharing of knowledge and installation of peace of mind. What it comes down to is this: “what you give to another, you give to yourself.” In other words: make someone else happy, and you too will become happy. Give someone else greater peace of mind (especially in a place as shocking to the senses as prison), and you too will increase your peace of mind. Clients relate these experiences as if they are commonplace and not worth the mention or the time it takes to divulge the experience, but the truth is that they are beautiful and telling. They are lights that—however dim—can carry oneself through the darkness unscathed. Any such feats should never go unnoticed or unreported because they exude the truth that we are, by our very nature, a giving and truly altruistic species.
Thank you kindly to any and all of my clients who have inspired me by sharing these experiences. Through the retelling of the stories we can continue to inspire others and help people to find their own lights in the dark.