top of page

I Went to Jail for a Couple of Days

...and it was kind of like studying abroad.

In 2002 and 2003, I “studied” abroad in France. I’m putting “studied” in quotes because I didn’t actually do any studying while abroad; instead, I taught conversational English to French high school students in the suburbs of Paris, through a program with the French government. I count it as one of the top 3 defining experiences in my life - I can remember every detail like it was yesterday. During my time abroad, I learned so much: where to find the best tasting macarons in the city, how to bypass the tourists and find the hidden treasures in the Louvre, and how to pack my whole life into a teeny carry-on suitcase for a long weekend in Switzerland, Spain, Greece, England, the Netherlands, or Italy on a ten-dollar plane ticket.

But the most important lessons I learned were about myself and who I was (and continue to be); what I stand for and believe in, what I look for in relationships, and how to develop resilience and stay cool in the face of challenges. In the span of one year, I grew tremendously. My college professors warned me about culture shock and prepared me for my arrival in France, but what they failed to warn me about was the reverse culture shock upon my re-entry back into the United States. My home, my family, my friends, my favorite places to hang out - nothing had changed... but I had. A lot. It’s a strange feeling. Everyone expects you to be the exact same person you were before you lived abroad, while you cannot really identify with that person anymore. It’s why I suspect any person who ever studies abroad cannot shut up about it for the rest of their lives (present company included, obviously!). It’s such a life-altering experience. Over time, I, of course, re-adapted to my “normal” life in the USA and found my groove, but I will never forget the feeling of having hugely grown while the rest of my world stayed the same.

I was reminded of this feeling again this past weekend.

I was invited to host a 2-day fitness workshop in a women’s correctional facility in my home state, Missouri. Anyone who knows me knows that I have a sliiiiiiiight fascination with true crime (#SSADGM anyone?), and I absolutely love presenting fitness workshops as a master instructor for AFAA. I was thrilled to accept the invitation and have the opportunity to meet the women in the facility. As the workshop date approached, I was in touch with a wonderful Rec Officer, Ms. Teresa, who prepared me for my arrival at the prison. I spammed Ms. Teresa with a slew of questions and, bless her, she answered each and every one with kindness and patience. Through our correspondence, I learned that I could basically bring nothing into the facility - just my ID, car keys, and a lunch - and I would have to just make it work like Tim Gunn taught us all in the early 2000’s. I had zero ideas of what to expect, but knew that no matter what, it was going to be a rewarding experience. And holy moly, guys. It really was.

I arrived at the facility for Day 1 and met another Rec Officer, Ms. Trudy, after going through security. Ms. Trudy walked me through a few different security checkpoints where I had to show my ID again and obtain a visitor pass, and then she gave me a little tour of the prison. She led me through the open courtyard, which was beautifully landscaped by the inmates in the Professional Gardening program they offer, past “the hole” (where inmates who are in big trouble get to hang out for a few days), and into the recreational center, where I’d be setting up my workshops for the next two days. The rec center was, in a word, awesome. There was an area for playing board games, cards, working on puzzles, and watching television. There was a gymnasium with basketball hoops and volleyball nets. There was an exercise area with treadmills, weight machines, and every type of fitness training tool you can imagine - Bosu balls, mats, free weights, you name it. And finally, there was the group exercise room, which the Rec Officers and inmates call “BLAST.” On one wall in the BLAST group ex room were acrylic mirrors (the kind that are sort of wavy-looking and are unbreakable) with a barre. The other walls were lined with shelves with all kinds of fitness equipment - foam rollers, mats, weights, exercise balls - they had it all! To top it all off, they had an excellent sound system with a ton of CDs and a microphone for teaching classes. I didn’t know what to expect, but I certainly didn’t expect all of this. I was impressed! I began setting up for the day, and as I did, one by one, my ladies started trickling in.

I had eight women signed up for my two workshops; they were with me for eight hours a day, two days in a row. From the moment each one walked into the BLAST room and greeted me with a bright, “Hi! We are so glad you are here! We are so excited!” until the moment we had to (tearfully) say goodbye, my love for these women grew and grew. I have taught a lot of people a lot of things over the years, but I have never taught a group like this. Any question I answered was met with a genuine “Thank you SO much. That really helps.” Any tip or trick that I taught them resulted in a chorus of “This is amazing! I’m going to use this next week in class!” Any time we workshopped through a new teaching method or new choreography, the women finished with clapping, cheers, and high-fives all around. I had never taught such an attentive group of individuals. They hung on my every word and furiously took notes. They begged me to help them choreograph some floor cardio to the songs “Low” by T-Pain (2008) and “Push It” by Salt-n-Pepa (1986), their two favorite tracks, and then started a little dance outbreak in the lunch line on grilled cheese day. These women were having a blast. It showed and it was contagious.

The facility itself is a well-oiled machine. The inmates know exactly where they are supposed to be and when. Nothing was chaotic, nothing was out of control, and every single woman I met was polite, respectful, grateful, and quiet. They know and follow the rules and treat each other and the staff with tremendous respect. Some inmates appeared to have more responsibilities than others; they were leaders at their on-campus jobs and were in charge of groups of inmates. Others were happy to follow the rules and do exactly what they were told, with no complaints or issues. Every single woman was pleasant, smiling, and showed not one ounce of entitlement.

When the workshops came to a close, and we were in our last moments together, I asked the women to ask me anything they’d like regarding the topics we covered or anything else that crossed their minds. They wondered if they’d be able to get a job in the fitness industry when they were released. They wondered if they would be able to find their places again, in the outside world, after being incarcerated for 10, 15, 20 years. They wondered if there were outreach programs they could join to help young women make good choices. They asked me what podcasts are and reveled in the fact that we no longer use CDs at our fitness studios anymore because phones and apps can do the tricks that CDs, stereo systems with pitching ability, and timers can do. They asked me to please come back and present some more workshops when they will eventually need to re-certify in two years and assured me that they would still be there, waiting. It broke my heart. We all choked back a few tears and gave each other air hugs (no actual touching allowed), said our final goodbyes, and they were released back to their housing units. I thanked the Rec Officers, Ms. Trudy and Ms. Teresa, and the head of the Rec Center, Mr. Sandy, and headed out.

During my drive home and the following day, I was in a little funk. Normally I’m on a little workshop high, feeling endorphins from the exercise and the connections I made with my workshop participants. And I did experience my workshop high, but it was mixed with deep sadness. I couldn’t get the inmates out of my head. I talked about them, I thought about them, I dreamed about them. The experience was rewarding to the max, but I was struggling with the fact that my ladies were incarcerated for very serious crimes and will remain in their facility for a very long time. It affected me, to say the least.

And just like my reverse culture shock many years ago, I felt like I had grown tremendously over the course of just two days, while the rest of the world stood still.

To find out more about the Missouri Department of Corrections and how you can donate to the facilities, please visit this site.

216 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page