I worked in the Utah State prison as a licensed mental health therapist for three years. I was one of a team of mental health therapists in a substance abuse treatment program for men located within the prison facility. Today I am reflecting upon a few of the things I learned from my experiences there.
I already knew logically that inmates are people, but I strongly came to know this emotionally as well. This first strongly hit me my first day on the job, sitting in a group of men. I looked around and realized I didn’t see people in prison clothes. I saw people.
In my addiction work at the prison, and in other places, I quickly saw that behind every person with behavioral and/or chemical addiction, there is hurt and relational injury. The unhealthy coping that is addiction I found in reality to be not just a problem, but a solution to core injuries. When the relational injury or threat cannot be fixed, substances and addictions can help those painful feelings a great deal. While they can be very destructive in the long-term, addiction is a powerful solution to trauma and PTSD.
One of my teachers explained to me once that one of the greatest gifts we can give in therapy to our clients is hope. Prison is a metaphor for situations all of us face from time to time. And in working with people who are literally imprisoned I have found in my heart a place that feels deeply for those who are in prison. I have also seen people change their lives and find the freedom, hope and connection that we all seek.