05/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

What I Learned From Prison Inmates: The Freedom To Choose

Before you dismiss the experience of someone in prison as the polar opposite of your is a quiz.

Are You In Your Own Prison?
• Do you identify yourself by what you do?
• How about what you did before the Financial Meltdown?
• Do the clothes you wear or the food you eat or the cars you drive define who you are?
• (Come on honest. Imagine if cleaning the sink and taking out the garbage were things you dreamed about.)
• Does regret, resentment or hopelessness limit you?

Did you answer yes to more than one question? If so you have the opportunity to get out of your own prison. Maybe, just maybe there is something you can learn from an inmate. You are not alone.

A Taste of What Inmates Taught Me.
The quote, "There by the Grace of God go I" now makes sense...

• A person living in prison is not one smidgeon less divine than anyone else.
• You can overcome your past.
• Listen. Deeply. Everyone has great wisdom to share.
• Every minute each of us have the freedom to choose "our own attitude."
• You can cook everything from burritos to cake with Ramen noodles in a trash bag and boiling water.

See For Yourself.
Here are three videos from the University of Santa Monica's "Freedom to Choose Prison Project."

The videos convey the majesty, dignity and divinity of the human Spirit that is essence of Spiritual Psychology programs far better than any words I could write.

The film version of the videos is a finalist at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

Click here to watch Part 2.
Or here for Part 3.

Do You Use Your Freedom To Choose?
If you are reading this column you have a cornucopia of choices that are not available to someone in prison.

• "Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lie our growth and our freedom." Vicktor Frankl

Being in an environment where women hadn't seen a flower for years brought this quote to a new level.

Regardless of outer circumstance you can choose to be happy and grateful.

• How are you using your freedom? Are you creating more of what you want? Is the world a better place because you are in it?

• What is a choice you can make in the next 15 minutes that honors your dignity of Spirit? Do it!

Take 15 minutes. Turn off all your gizmos and gadgets.
Listen. Listen with your heart. You'll be astonished at what you hear.

Have You Given Up On Yourself?
That would be an easy thing to do if you were going to spend the rest of your life within the walls of a prison. Many Americans have given up hope of finding a job due to the current economic climate. Take courage from those who need it every day.

"It sounds like you gave up on yourself," said one of the very wise women whom I met on my visit, who resided in Valley State Prison. I like many American's was feeling the effects like so many others...

The last few months have been tough ones. Many (and I do mean many) of the conferences for which I was booked to speak had canceled and not just my own speaking engagements. Some conferences have canceled their annual meetings all together. It was hard for me to admit, but looking at my empty calendar I felt like I had gone from Fabulous to Funky.

"It sounds like you gave up on yourself." Said another wise woman. She said, "You need to get out there and go for it. And let us know how you are doing. We are going to check up to see that you are keeping your word." How could I hold back tears at the thought that women in prison were rooting for me? I am happy to report since my visit I booked three speaking engagements.

Are You Holding A Piece of Hot Coal?
"Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned." The Buddha

Additional Facts:
I recently worked with a part of our population that is underserved in the "Freedom to Choose Prison Project for women inmates."

My prayer is that we can break the cycle within these broken families. We need to knock down that revolving door at prison. Kids with parents in prison often end up in prison themselves.

• The women's prison population has grown 757 percent from 1977 through 2005, according to the Institute on Women and Criminal Justice.

• 70 percent the women in prison or under correctional supervision are mothers, according to the Department of Justice.

• 65% were single mothers.

• 1.3 million children are affected, according to the Department of Justice.

• As of December 31, 1999, 73.3% of women in California prisons were imprisoned for non-violent offenses, the majority (43.5% of total) of which were drug crimes. (CDC)

• In 1999, new female felon admissions for drug crimes reached a new high: 50.1%. (CDC, California Prisoners and Parolees 2000, Table 33)

• According to a Department of Justice Statistics report released in April 1998, 48% of women in United States jails reported being sexually or physically abused prior to their detention. Prison officials told me privately that they assessed the figure at 80%.

In the coming weeks, I will be sharing ways that you can help some of the most challenged Americans.


Ask Eli a question at or go to to send her your favorite lesson you learned.

Eli Davidson is a nationally recognized executive coach and motivational speaker.

Her book, Funky to Fabulous: Surefire Success Stories for The Savvy, Sassy and Swamped, (Oak Grove Publishing) has won three national book awards.