By Patrick Nolan
The Inside Circle Foundation (ICF) is a not for profit organization (501c3) dedicated to the inner personal growth of men in prison. The goal of the ICF is to create environments in which prisoners can work and explore the issues in their lives that have prevented them from living up to their full potential as human beings. In these environments the ICF primarily utilizes self-help discussion groups and creative writing techniques such as journaling, autobiography, and poetry to achieve the inner development necessary to become healthy contributing members of our society.
It is believed that since before recorded history began men have been gathering in circles around campfires to discuss the day’s events and the important issues in each other’s lives. It is also believed by some that since men, for the most part, have lost access to these circles they have consequently lost access to a shared collective wisdom that has left them isolated and out of touch.
It is this sense of loss that has inspired men from all over the world to once again seek one another out. It is this shared collective that men are so seriously attempting to tap into that has resulted in the so-called men’s movement of the past twenty years or so. These circles are the very backbone of the current men’s movement.
With the primary focus of these groups being on personal growth and having very little political agenda or organized affiliations they are gathering virtually unnoticed by the thousands in nearly every city throughout the country. As a consequence, their successes go virtually unnoticed as well. It is only through personal testimonies of those individuals involved that mainstream population would ever hear anything about these groups at all. As well, because of the respect of the confidentiality of each member involved, very little is said of these groups outside these groups.
None the less it is testimony unto itself as to their viability in that perhaps for the first time in a long time men from all walks of life are finally stepping past their ethnic, religious, and political differences and gathering around a common cause, the exploration of what it means to be a healthy adult male and what it takes to be a man.
Many people feel that one of the failures of our modern society is that we, both men and women, have become isolated and that the burden of satisfying all of an individuals needs has fallen totally on the shoulders of our spouses. Many feel that that is too much to expect of our partners and has resulted in tremendous numbers of failed marriages and partnerships that we see in our societies today. It is too much, for example, to expect a woman to be able to handle all the responsibility of dealing with her husbands rage or feelings of inadequacy, and vice versa. Many now feel that it is the responsibility of other men to deal with this man’s rage as well as many other emotions and problems. That this man be able to go to other men with the feelings he has been living with, in isolation all of his life and be able to be heard and dealt with. That his circle of men be strong enough to be able to listen to anything this man brings to them and that he can in this way relieve some of the burden he has up until now, placed on his spouse.
What goes on inside these circles is no great mystery and in some ways quite simple. Men are simply telling each other the truths in their lives. They are telling each other about their anger, how and who they love, what they fear and what they are ashamed of. They are telling each other that gives them joy and how they have been hurt. Put simply, they are building containers of trust where they feel safe enough to explore together how they feel. Many, perhaps for the first time in their lives are developing relationships with other men based not on competition, but in trust.
It has been shown in these circles that there is tremendous healing, simply in being seen. Many men have stated that being seen and trusted by other men has had an amazing impact on their lives. That men from all walks of life can father and brother and mentor each other in ways that they did not expect. That they have been able to tap into that collective wisdom and carry it back into their daily lives.
The Inside Circle Foundation believes that the introduction of these circles into prisons has had an amazing result. As word of mouth has spread the request for groups has far outnumbered availability. One of the primary reasons for the successes of these groups is that these circles carry no particular agenda and their direction and efficiency is totally dependent on the individuals involved. The direction and techniques employed depends on the needs of the collective individuals. Under the guidance of an individual, who has previous experience in the process, each group is encouraged to explore and develop systems that will fit their needs. This gives them a feeling of pride and independence crucial in their success and recovery.
Another reason for their success is that prisoner can start on this path first by learning to trust “one of their own”, so to speak. Most of these men have big trust issues to deal with. Most have difficulty in being able to feel like they can trust anyone. They especially have a lot of difficulty trusting anybody that they feel is part of the establishment, so to speak. In these groups they can begin by learning to trust each other, which is no small feat all by itself, and then perhaps, begin the task of learning to trust the outside world.
The singular most important reason the program has had successes in prison is that it is strictly voluntary. The inmate gains nothing in system credentials by participating. As a result, the only people who get involved are those individuals who at some level are already serious about trying to see if there is any part of their lives that are salvageable. Many of the participants are lifers, some with no chance of ever getting paroled. They understand that there is only one world left for them to explore, the one inside of themselves. They are consequently, for the most part, quite serious.
Using these techniques the Inside Circle Foundation has seen men change. It doesn’t happen overnight when it happens at all. The key element in this whole effort is that it is all entirely dependent on the men himself. He will get out of it only what he puts into it. The ICF can only present him with the opportunity, it is up to him to take it. And when he does, as they sometimes do, it is truly a miraculous thing to witness. To watch a man honestly go down into the depths of his own, sometimes tortured soul, take on the demons he has perhaps been wrestling with for a lifetime and emerge with the wisdom an insight necessary for authentic and lasting change is an inspiration to all who have the privilege of witnessing such events. It is for this reason that the ICF is deeply committed to this challenge.
For more information on Men’s Support Groups, click here.