A Visit to Pelican Bay State Prison

"Rarely do you have the gift of knowing you’re inside a moment that will be a part of what defined you. But I knew." - Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness

How do you even begin to sum up the Pelican Bay experience? I have simply been at a loss of words the past few days, overwhelmed by the presence of joy, love, grace and humility, shared by volunteers, Pelican Bay staff, and EIT’s (incarcerated men at Pelican Bay that go through the Defy Ventures program as Entrepreneurs in Training).

There are many things that could have stopped us from going - the long flight, fear, inconvenience, leaving our families during the holiday season, but this all pales in comparison to what we were able to give and receive through participating in this weekend.

It truly is better to give than to receive - I feel that for the first time in my life I really experienced that. What a joy.

Photo credit to the amazing Tom Kubik: tomkubikphoto.com

We arrived in San Francisco after a 5.5 hour flight and caught our next flight to Medford, Oregon, which was just about an hour. It was almost dark when we finally found our rental car (after wandering the parking lot for 20 minutes), and we still had a 2.5 hour drive through the Redwoods (which we wouldn’t see in the daylight). Our drive was long, filled with anticipation of what we would experience over the next 2 days.

I was wide awake at 4 am the next morning, excited to meet the EIT’s and a little nervous - never having been inside of a prison, I really didn’t have any kind of expectations or assumptions (and as a lot of the guys asked, I didn’t Google Pelican Bay before going).

We pulled up to Pelican Bay and joined the long line of cars of just over 100 volunteers waiting to go through security checks at the entrance gate. As we walked into the room before processing, we started to get to know this amazing group of people. Everyone was immediately friendly, exchanging stories of what had brought them there (from 3 different countries and all over the United States).

As we headed into processing, the Pelican Bay staff checked our ID’s, had us sign in with our specific badge number, and had us move through security with only our ID’s in hand. We walked out onto the property, surrounded by high metal fences and barbed wire, and boarded the bus to the B Yard, where we would spend our first day.

As we exited the bus, we walked out onto the yard (after moving through multiple fences and doors), and faced the incarcerated men that were outside at the time on their yard on the other side of the fence. This was a crazy moment for me, it was like it hit me that I really was in a maximum security prison. As I started to not know what we would face walking into a gym with the EIT’s, the doors to the gym flung open, and we were greeted to a huge tunnel that the EIT’s had made with their arms for us to come through - they gave us an amazingly warm welcome, cheering us on and giving us high fives as we danced into the gym together. It felt like a pep rally during spirit week in high school, and then I remembered again where I was - seeing their blue uniforms with the word “prisoner” on the back - that really struck me.

Photo credit to the amazing Tom Kubik: tomkubikphoto.com

Can you imagine walking around with a label imprinted on your back signifying the worst thing you’ve ever done? Empathy rushed in.

Photo credit to the amazing Tom Kubik: tomkubikphoto.com

As we opened up with networking, I then felt like I was in a business meeting - their warm smiles, hello what’s your name, where are you from and networking questions they had on their sheet to ask us immediately shifted the room.

Photo credit to the amazing Tom Kubik: tomkubikphoto.com

The day is hard to describe - we did “the worm” (as the team calls it) - a range of going low or deep to high - having a blast. There was cheering, dance parties (with certain rules - goofy only), high fives (no hugs for the ladies), hand shaking, lots of conversation, connecting, love bombs (cards we received to call out certain traits that the EIT’s and volunteers had seen in each other), lunch together (the guys were really excited about subway ;)), step to the line (an activity where the EIT’s and volunteers faced each other and stepped to the line if the statement was true for them, and business plan pitches that the EIT’s had worked so hard to prepare (many of them were nervous, sharing with us that this was the biggest opportunity they had received to date). It was so much fun to listen to their ideas, provide feedback, encouragement and support as part of the volunteer team. The pitch rounds moved to semi-finals and then finals throughout the day - with excitement and support for each other and from the volunteers.

Photo credit to the amazing Tom Kubik: tomkubikphoto.com

Some things I noticed: they showed support for one another - high fives, hugs (big bear hugs) and words of encouragement. They participated with enthusiasm and their joy was evident. There was not darkness in that room - the room was filled with light, and they were such a huge part of giving that light. Their joy was contagious. It spilled over and the outflow ran onto the volunteers, and vice versa. It was a beautiful exchange of what it feels like to enter into a no judgement zone. Free from condemnation, free from shame, forgiven (both EIT’s and volunteers), and moving toward what it looks like to love one another and ourselves.

"The sorting we do to ourselves and to one another is, at best, unintentional and reflexive. At worst, it is stereotyping that dehumanizes. The paradox is that we all love the ready-made filing system, so handy when we want to quickly characterize people, but we resent it when we're the ones getting filed away." - Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness

Photo credit to the amazing Tom Kubik: tomkubikphoto.com

Through Step to the Line and the exchange of stories and conversations, some shared that they had held back forgiveness of themselves for so long, walked in a state of shame, and it kept them from being able to reframe who they could move into being. After completing the program, they wanted to enter into a season of building their own business, applying for jobs related to their identified strengths, and transforming their hustle to be a valuable participant in society: an employee, an entrepreneur, a neighbor and a friend.

"High lonesome can be a beautiful and powerful place if we can own our pain and share it instead of inflicting pain on others. And if we can find a way to feel hurt rather than spread hurt, we can change. I believe in a world where we can make and share art and words that will help us find our way back to one another." - Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness

Photo credit to the amazing Tom Kubik: tomkubikphoto.com

I got to share this experience with my dad, and we participated in Step to the Line together with Alex, an EIT who stood across from us. We shared a common bond in struggling at times to forgive ourselves, but also got to share some of our father-daughter struggles in the past. Alex was incredibly gracious, touched and told us that he would never forget this moment and what we had shared. He had no family that was able to come for the graduation, so from this moment on, we were Alex’s family, cheering for him every step of the way.

Step to the Line with the EITs and volunteers was extremely powerful - and statements like “step the line if you had 50 books in your house growing up” really unveiled reality. And the reality is, every volunteer had 50 books, and almost none of the EITs did, there were several other statements that really showed that their world didn’t come with built in opportunity. They weren’t given the same things that I had been given. Who would I have been? How would my life have been different if I didn’t have one or both of my parents in my life, if they hadn’t tucked me in each night and told me they loved me? If they hadn’t been able to pay for my education, if they hadn’t taught me to be kind to others, forgive people, and love God.


The second day we woke early to report at 7am (we wouldn’t walk out that night until 8:30pm), so we could go through processing and prepare to visit the SHU (special housing unit, this can also be known as solitary confinement) - this is for the worst of the worst there at Pelican Bay - and Pelican Bay is already known for the incarceration of the “the worst of the worst” (top 10 infamous prisons in the country). I hadn’t felt fear creep in until this moment, I was worried that I wouldn’t see light in their eyes, I was afraid of feeling darkness.

How were they going to be?

We strapped on our vests and prepared to head through numerous doors to meet the EITs in the SHU - to move through the same series of activities we had done the previous day but on a modified scale. We arrived and complete with Cat and her boom box, danced our way down the hall with the EITs in their cells - cheering for us and welcoming us. I again felt like I was in a pep rally of sorts or a conference….the ice breaker part where you introduce yourself and break down any walls or awkwardness.

Photo credit to the amazing Tom Kubik: tomkubikphoto.com

Photo credit to the amazing Tom Kubik: tomkubikphoto.com

We walked around to each of their cells, and could peer through the holes in the metal doors to say hi to them, make eye contact, and do a “pinky tap”. They don’t have any human contact while they’re in there, with the exception of putting their handcuffs on when they need to move somewhere, so contact is huge for them. They were gracious, smiling, joyful, and warm. They thanked us for being there, their excitement was palpable, and there was light in their eyes.

Blown away. These EITs, who are supposedly the worst of the worst, were absolutely lovely.

They barely had room to move around in their cell (just a stool, a small counter and that’s it), but they were prepared for their pitches with note cards, samples, and accompanying artwork. The volunteers gathered around each cell in groups of three, and listened to their pitches, gave feedback, asked questions, and then (the best part) got to sign their “sweet sheets”. They would pass their piece of paper through the crack in the door and we could each write them notes of encouragement, this is part of their HOPE moving forward. These are life giving words that they can hang onto when they feel like they’re in the dark. What an honor to be a part of giving those words. After each pitch, to “clap” for them, we would bang on the cells and make a lot of noise ;)

Photo credit to the amazing Tom Kubik: tomkubikphoto.com

After listening to the pitches and voting was complete, we all got to move out into the courtyard (the EITs got to come outside!) and see their families for their graduation ceremony. They put on their caps and gowns and we got to cheer them on as they entered the courtyard (their families traveled a long way to be there, and the program pays to bus them in). The EITs were SO happy to see their families, some hadn’t seen them in over 10 years. With their Baylor University Certificates in hand, there was much cheering, tears, pictures and hugs. The volunteers formed a circle around the EITs and their families and watched them get to dance with their loved ones, this is HUGE for them! They were outside, got to see their families, have physical contact with people, and have lunch with them. I felt so overjoyed that they were able to celebrate with their families and experience this moment, for most it’s the first time they’ve been in a cap and gown.

Photo credit to the amazing Tom Kubik: tomkubikphoto.com

Photo credit to the amazing Tom Kubik: tomkubikphoto.com

After SHU graduation, we headed back to participate in A Yard pitch competitions, and rounded out the evening with the A and B Yard Graduations! So many families had come, and so many sweet moments, it’s hard to summarize them all. Mothers and sons, fathers and their children, and brothers and sisters expressed to each other their love for one another and how proud they were of their EITs accomplishments.

Photo credit to the amazing Tom Kubik: tomkubikphoto.com

The hardest part that I didn’t anticipate was saying goodbye, it felt so permanent. When the graduation celebration had come to a close, the staff announced that EITs had to return and we had to leave. We were standing on one side, and they stood on the other, waiting to go back through those doors. We were waving, air high fiving, clapping, cheering, blowing kisses and putting our hands over our hearts. This was a very real, tangible moment where you could feel that there was a separation between us, but you didn’t want it. Because you’d realized, that we’re all the same, and with different circumstances, each one of us could have had different outcomes.

Photo credit to the amazing Tom Kubik: tomkubikphoto.com

I miss these guys, I think of them everyday, I pray for protection over them, and their love bombs are in my closet to remind me of them everyday. The team that put this event together (Pelican Bay Staff, Pelican Bay Volunteer Alliance, Cat Hoke and Hustle 2.0) worked tirelessly to put on this professional, outstanding and meaningful event that is directly a part of changing the game for these EITs. They get a second chance at being the CEO of their new lives.

A few thoughts that have surfaced from this experience:

  • “Unlikely” places and relationships teach more than any book, course, or study ever could.

  • Love believes the best.

  • Hope IS the cure for violence.

  • Joy comes out of surrender during and after trials.

  • The phrase “joy is a choice” has a whole new meaning now, I saw it in action. Their joy was pure, palpable and contagious.

  • Being seen is a huge part of growth - when we really “see” people and feel seen, meaningful exchanges happen.

  • Our job as a part of society is to get to a place where we have compassion and understanding.

"Anger is within each one of you, and I will share a secret for a few seconds: that if we are confined in the narrow shells of egos, and the circles of selfishness, then the anger will turn out to be hatred, violence, revenge, destruction. But if we are able to break the circles, then the same anger could turn into a great power. We can break the circles by using our inherent compassion and connect with the world through compassion to make this world better. That same anger can be transformed into it." - Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness

Until Next Time (and there will be a next time ;)),

Lauren Shippy

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