The first time I heard of the USM prison project was during my first year at USM in 2005. It tugged at me and I knew it was something that I wanted to, or better put “had” to participate in.

In September of 2006 I was chosen to join the October Prison Project team and could hardly contain my enthusiasm. To this day, I’m still quite unsure why I was so strongly drawn to a woman’s maximum security prison. Oddly enough, I did not feel the least bit unnerved walking through the prison yard. On the contrary, I felt very at home (perhaps I myself was an inmate in another lifetime). On an intuitive level, I knew this would be an experience that I would never forget. What I didn’t expect was the profound impact that the inmates of Valley State Prison for Women would have on my life from that moment on.

For those who may not know, the USM volunteers go to the prison to present a workshop called “Freedom to Choose.” The Freedom to Choose Workshop is partly based on the writings of Viktor Frankel, a Jewish Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. In his book “The Meaning of Life”, he wrote;

...We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way..."

It would be simple enough to explain the techniques used in these workshops; three days of familiar trio formats while utilizing a handful of basic skills tailored to the inmates. The workshop is facilitated by Drs. David and Bonnie Paul, who are amazingly inspiring, compassionate, and comforting beings of light, and is assisted by 40 beautiful, loving angels, affectionately known as USM volunteers. Perhaps that may be enough for some to understand how those involved experience transformation.

After participating at the past three workshops, it recently dawned on me that the magical moment occurs when the walls and inhibitions have crumbled, allowing communication with an open heart and without any blame or judgment. It’s immediately apparent; a sudden shift in awareness, eyes welled with tears, faces beaming with a long forgotten familiarity. For myself, in those moments I experience a sudden dizziness, similar to a feeling of drunkenness that overwhelms my equilibrium.

What I believe to be true of what really transpires are human beings experiencing their divinity in a communion of souls. In those moments, no known words in any language can even begin to shed light on the unfolding miracle. How do you explain the beauty in a sunrise? Or, your first kiss with someone you love deeply? Even as I write this, I’m struggling to communicate with words an explanation for an experience that transcends our humanness. And to have this experience in a prison is truly sublime. To see the divinity in these women and to have them reflect my divinity back to me provides a direct experience of what we all know is true: that we are ALL divine beings having a human experience.

My wife Sherry Martyn (USM 2003) and I attended the last two Prison Projects together. The morning after returning home we sat in our kitchen sipping coffee, and after several silent minutes we turned to look at each other and noticed tears trickling down each other’s faces. Without a word we burst into laughter. There was no sadness but a shared knowingness of the profound divine experience that we both had.

At USM I’ve learned that compassion is the willingness to allow someone the dignity of their process. If I were to have the same life experiences as another, who is to say that I would not end up in their identical circumstances. I can think of no other experience where this awareness is put into practice so genuinely.

Occasionally I find myself thinking about the women at VSP, particularly the ones in my trios. I wonder how they are managing their relationships with their family, friends or significant others? Did they make peace with their parents or children? Did they make parole? Other than being divine beings having a “prison experience,” I’ve recognized their issues are identical to yours and mine.

As for my “other” learning’s and manifestations, that is another chapter that I look forward to sharing with you soon.

Peace and blessings to all, and light to the Valley State Prison for Women.

Steve Bernal

Author's Bio: 

By day, Steve Bernal is a Mortgage & Financial Consultant. Steve is also the founder of a heart centered business directory.

Steve holds a B.S. in Business and Information Systems from The University of Phoenix, is a graduate of The Executive Program in Management from UCLA’s Anderson School of Business and most recently earned an M.A. in Spiritual Psychology from the University of Santa Monica. Spiritual psychology is based on the belief that we are all divine beings having a human experience, and its goal is to help individuals connect with their own innate spirituality. This educational background allows Steve to connect with people at a deep level of understanding, support them through their process without judgment and gain clarity on how to be of the greatest service to each of his clients.