Work in Prisons

Maine State Prison


By: Bill Cumming and Sean Greening

In December 2004 we shared our experience of the first “What One Person Can Do” (WOPCD) program delivered as part of the New Horizons Academy program in the Maine State Prison’s Bolduc Center, specifically the power it had for me and the high level of participant involvement. The New Horizons Academy has other critical ingredients in addition to the WOPCD program, including highly skilled, seasonal career counselors who work one on one with participants to determine vocational aptitudes and preferences, including the Myers-Briggs personality types, and who also have conversations with each participant about what is required in order to achieve in any selected career. Additionally, a job resume is co-created for each participant.

Following the last program session of WOPCD held at the prison, I asked one of the participants to tell me why he thought the New Horizons Academy had had an impact on him when he said other things in his life had been ineffective. The result is the letter included below, which he gave me at the closing ceremony, and which speaks profoundly about the power that resides within this participant and within all people. This letter, from Sean Greening, is shared with his permission.

Dear Mr. Cumming:

You asked me why the New Horizons Academy made a difference where other programs failed. Being sentenced to prison was a long road of drug and alcohol induced bad choices. By the time I hit prison my self-confidence was beat down to nothing. Waking up to locked doors with someone you don’t know, in an eight by ten foot cell locked down twenty-one hours a day rips all your self worth away. Losing sense of time, days and months, is the last thing to go. The seasoned prisoners can pick that out, and make a game of torturing you, making every waking hour pure hell.

Taking substance abuse programs teach you how drugs and alcohol affects your mind, body, and how certain people are triggers. Knowing these patterns you can avoid them through self-confidence, support person or groups and will change your life. Having none of the above, I now knew I was bound for failure and recidivating.

Starting the New Horizons Academy, I was very skeptical at first having someone start the program by telling me that I’m an important person. I have the power within and what one person can do. There I sat, listening to this person telling me that I have all this potential. I’m really feeling completely empty after beating myself down to end up in prison, and the rest of my self respect getting stomped on by prisoners that had nothing better to do but harass the new guy. How can this person be serious?

I listened very carefully the first quarter of the program where you were put in some very difficult situations, and came out showing us that what you were saying did make sense. You built a trust level with the group that is taught to trust no one. The walls came crashing down and I became open to everything in your recitation. You supplied anyone in the group with books, course textbooks or anything anyone had interest in and all they had to do was ask. That was very powerful to me, earning my respect. I began working the assignments and found that my days become more meaningful. I now take a little time in the morning before beginning my day telling myself that I am the most important person to me, and not to be sucked into other people’s negativity. I now do everything to the best of my ability, with energy and focus.

The thing that grabbed my attention most was the Myers-Briggs type indicator that was right on. The profiling is an eye opener by showing you why you act and do certain things, and what kind of work you prefer. The career planners take that information along with your ideas and plans, and come up with jobs that would suit you. Through several meetings focusing on areas of job placement, vocational schooling, college or just one on one planning gets you past the first hurdle, and on your way to jobs you never thought possible.

The whole program is very powerful in all three parts. You, in your powerful teaching of coping, dealing with negative people, and making the most of everything we do. I can’t forget the most important piece, showing us how we have the power within ourselves, and can do anything we put our minds and efforts towards. The group becomes excited with new ideas never thought possible, but you don’t forget the part that it’s ok if you fail, don’t give up, regroup and go after your goal until you succeed. The career planners go over and above all expectations, and are truly there for us helping to work plans for success. I can’t forget the dynamite resume that Jim Elkins put together for us.

I have learned more about myself than any other time of my life. I have new self worth, self-confidence and focus along with energy towards every waking day. I would recommend your course to everyone because no matter whom you are or where you want to go it’s possible; all you have to do is want it.

Yours sincerely,

Sean Greening


As Sean points out, facts and information are actually of little use to people who do not see themselves as valuable or responsible in relation to how their lives turn out. The information is heard and rolls off without being internalized or stored for future use. If you do not value yourself, you continue to do things that prove you are not valuable. Specific phrases are critical to Sean’s letter. His experience up until the New Horizons Academy (NHA) could be summarized by these words: “…making every waking hour pure hell…I know knew I was bound for failure and recidivating.” Before the first term is over the idea of continued failure is already present.

On a much less dramatic level than prison and ultimate life choices, as a young person I was able to “get along” in school without significant effort. Through high school and my first two years in college, I was able to produce passable (barely) grades. In the summer of my junior year in college, my dad resigned from his job and told me that the next year was going to be tough financially. In October of that same year, I married. Overnight my relationship with books shifted. Previously restricted to carrying and scanning them, I now devoured them. This was now my education for the first time and I had no safety net. My grade point average went from marginal to better than a 3.0 average, almost overnight. The difference between Sean and me was that I knew I was loved and valued. Reality set in quickly.

Ownership, pride, stick-to-itiveness are written throughout Sean’s entire letter. He now has the experience that he is loved, honored, trusted and can change his behavior. The activities that exist in many programs are already in great shape. Opportunities to learn, grow, change habits and succeed. The work itself is, in many cases, wonderful; unfortunately, the context in which people are held is one which allows for no experience of dignity and the power of the capacities which reside with them. In order for this to change, several things must happen. In the case of our prison systems, those who work with individuals who are incarcerated will have to come to a place of holding each person in high esteem. We as a society will have to recognize that punishment is not the issue. Nor is it some airy-fairy, feel-good, smile notion. This is about the experience of respect and being treated with dignity. Regulations would stay tough, requirements clear. The differences would be dramatic. The Delancy Street Program (prisoner housing/ownership/ rehabilitation) in San Francisco and every highly successful program contains these ingredients. In her book, “Loving What Is,” Byron Katie speaks about her experience of working in prisons. “I love thanking these men for sacrificing their entire lives to teach our children how not to live – and therefore how to live – if they want to be free. I tell them that they are the greatest teachers and that their lives are good and needed. Before I leave, I ask them, ‘Would you spend the rest of your life in prison if you knew that it would keep one child from having to live what you’re living?’ And many of these violent men understand, and they just well up with tears like sweet little boys. There is nothing we can do that doesn’t help the planet. That’s the way it really is.”

It is my opinion that the reason our country has yet to embrace such an idea is that it requires each of us to change our own attitudes. One person is not better than another. All of us are born with the capacity to achieve and thrive. Punishment is not the heart of the matter; value and dignity are. Imagine that in addition to being released from prison, the parolee is given the opportunity to develop the internal tools necessary to be successful in the world. Imagine that in addition to a new job, the unemployed are given the same opportunity. Imagine the kind of climate Sean might create for customers and an employer. Imagine… X