Freedom Behind The Walls

New program brings hope and leadership opportunities to inmates.

Every eye is trained on the middle-aged man standing in the center of the room. As he shares his story, there is laughter at appropriate places and a strong feeling of camaraderie from the audience.

Many of the men attending this one-day leadership summit hold booklets in their hands, following along as the speaker continues. As he talks about changing your destiny, a slide show plays silently on the screen behind him displaying image after close-up image of brilliantly colored butterflies.

“Before a butterfly can flap its wings, it has to be a caterpillar,” he says.

Seated in the chair next to me, a man nods in affirmation. 

“You have something to bring to the table,” the speaker asserts. Across the room, there are echoes of agreement. “That’s right.” “Yes!”

The overall atmosphere in the large room is upbeat, engaged, focused. It could be taking place in any college auditorium or corporate conference room, but outside the block walls of this meeting room are towering chain link fences topped by coil after coil of razor wire.

It’s a Friday morning, and we’re gathered in the Wellness Center at Marion Correctional Institute (MCI) in Lowell just north of Ocala. Every man in attendance is an inmate of the facility. No doubt they wish they weren’t incarcerated, but every single one of them is glad to be at this event.

I’ve been invited to experience the SAGE Leadership Summit, a program that began in 2016 after a letter from an inmate landed on the desk of Manal Fakhoury, Ph.D. A clinical pharmacist in Ocala who has given TEDx Talks on the opioid epidemic and other topics, she is also the founder of Fakhoury Leadership International, the leadership institute she launched in 2014.

“This inmate wanted to start a public speaking club at the prison,” recalls Fakhoury. “We started that with the help of the local Toastmasters group, and within the same year, we also started eight other clubs.”

Learning and Growing

Those initial clubs ignited a spark, and inmates were eager for more.

In the spring of 2017, Fakhoury helped create a personal development program known as SAGE (Such a Great Experience). SAGE offers dozens of different classes, ranging from art and advanced public speaking to financial stability, business entrepreneurship, meditation and more. There was even a business class based on the concept of the popular television show Shark Tank.

Classes take place in two-hour afternoon and evening sessions Monday through Friday and feature a variety of guest speakers from across the community. Ten classes are held each week, and each class runs for a period of 16 weeks, after which a new set of classes begins. The average class size is 20 to 25 inmates, each of whom must be on good behavior in order to participate. At present, 120 men are involved in the SAGE program.

Fakhoury works closely with Richard Midkiff, an inmate who is a law clerk on the compound and has become coordinator of the SAGE program.

“Richard has taken on a huge leadership and organizational role to make this happen,” says Fakhoury. “He’s the key individual who helps everyone and is very passionate about it.”

“I came into prison when I was very young,” says Midkiff. “There weren’t a lot of programs to get involved in.”

Midkiff has seen that change, particularly at MCI.

“Institutions are open to these programs that help people in prison and when they get out. We did a leadership event last year, and the response was very positive and interactive, so we wanted to do something like that on a continuous level,” Richard explains. “Manal came up with the SAGE program to teach leadership and personal development skills.”

Midkiff hopes to see the SAGE program continue to grow at MCI, as well as spread to other institutions.

“If each one of us impact just two other people in the compound, we can change the trajectory of this entire institution,” he says. “If you apply yourself, anything’s possible.” 

Midkiff is also responsible for coming up with a program known as “Storytime Dads,” something he’s found extremely gratifying. Many of the inmates are fathers, so this is a way for them to share something with their children that many dads take for granted. Inmates who want to participate are recorded on DVD reading a book. That DVD, along with the actual book, are then sent to the man’s child.

Artistic Flair

He’s been drawing for the past two decades, but Eric Anderson’s creativity truly caught fire when he got involved in an art class at MCI, “Art from the Heart.”

Now 40, Anderson entered the correctional system when he was just 23.

Impressed by his talents, the staff and warden suggested he paint a mural on one of the walls in the Visitation Park, but Anderson wasn’t sure he was up to the task. After all, he never had any formal training and admits the only art “experience” he had in the past involved walls and cans of spray paint. 

Today, Anderson can proudly stand in front of not one but five murals he has completely designed. All murals are indoors; the largest is about 30 feet long and approximately 15 feet tall. 

In the “Kids’ Corner,” where children of inmates can play, he painted instantly recognizable Sesame Street characters. 

“I also included some hidden things for them to find, like a butterfly, lion, the face of Jesus, an angel and different words,” adds Anderson. “My hope is that people will be blessed to see something nice in a sterile atmosphere.”

Anderson has been involved with the SAGE program since it started. When asked why, his answer is simple. 

“I want to change. I’ve been incarcerated for 18 years. What we have here is much better than any other place I’ve been. The Department of Corrections is a big ship; it takes a long time to shift direction, but we’re seeing that here.

“If it wasn’t for Dr. Fakhoury, Warden Howell and the volunteers, we wouldn’t have what we do,” says Anderson. “They are invaluable in their efforts and willingness to help. I’m proud to be part of this. One day I hope to get out, and I want to do some non-profit work.”

Anderson says his biggest goal is not to allow mistakes of the past dictate the future.

Inspiration & Hope

Approximately half the population at MCI is involved in some kind of program. In addition to the SAGE Leadership program, there are opportunities for inmates to get their GED and other areas of personal betterment. A number of inmates participate in the garment-sewing and box-making programs, for which they receive a very modest “salary.” 

“This particular institution has so many programs,” says Matthew Williams, who works in garment sewing and box making. “I’ve been locked up a long time, and this is unheard of. The No. 1 priority is that guys don’t come back when they get out. Most of these men are good guys; they just made a mistake.”

Williams was taking part in the SAGE Leadership Summit the day I visited. He’s obviously glad to participate.

“I try to take a leadership role wherever I can; I want to enhance the atmosphere in a positive way,” says Williams, who is a “peer facilitator” in his dorm, meaning he’s over eight other inmates in his “family.”  

“This program gives us confidence in ourselves, and to be in SAGE you have to stay out of trouble,” notes Williams, who has graduated the faith and character program.

Making A Difference

“What’s so rewarding is that over and over, I hear from the inmates how meaningful this is to them. These programs give them a chance to escape, and for that time at least, they don’t feel like they’re in prison,” says Fakhoury.

“When I walk into one of the classes or conferences, I feel like I’m walking into a university campus, not a prison,” she says. 

One of the classes Fakhoury herself teaches is called Restorative Justice, a topic she personally loves. 

“As the inmates learn about the principle of building trust by relationship, we’ve seen tears shed and people telling us how healing it is. The art and meditation classes are also very therapeutic and healing,” she relates.

“One activity leads to another, and we can see the hunger for more,” says Fakhoury. “We are currently working on having SAGE talks and are selecting speakers now. This will be modeled closely after TEDx Talks and will probably start in September.”

Fakhoury and every other speaker involved in the programs are doing so without financial compensation, donating all their time and expertise.

“Being able to share and give back is so rewarding. The other volunteers say the same thing,” says Fakhoury. “We’re very appreciative of Assistant Warden Jeffrey Howell who has to approve all these programs.”

The inmates are also visibly appreciative and respectful of Warden Howell. During the summit I attended, Howell addressed the group and his short speech received a rousing round of applause from the men.

“We know we have problems in prison, but we also have power and positivity,” says Howell. “Society needs leaders. Even people in prison who will never get out can still be leaders here. Make sure you’re a leader on this compound and leading other inmates. We need to be better tomorrow than we are today.”

There’s a saying in prison: “I’m not going to allow time to do me; I’m going to do time.”

Those inmates involved in the SAGE program have decided to “do time” in the most positive way possible.  

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