Coloring Therapy in Prison

The Emerging Science Behind Kindness

I’ve recently been fascinated by a question along with its definitive answer.

Q: What happens when we treat people who appear unlovable as if they were high potential people instead of highly avoidable people?

A: We find out that kindness has a power all its own.

I am always on the lookout for blessings in my life. Without a doubt, the most remarkable blessing I’ve experienced lately has been being a prison volunteer. Since the fall of 2016, I’ve been teaching classes, facilitating a book club, and mentoring Toastmaster clubs at a medium-security state prisons. I work with male felons who have been convicted and sentenced to prison. 

Volunteer Educator

My role as a volunteer is an educator’s dream. First of all, I am reaching men who are hungry for educational programming, can’t leave, and have nothing better to do. What teacher wouldn’t love having the attention of a captive audience? I find prison education in the CHU (Character Housing Unit) to be a teacher’s ideal classroom. Educators live for the "light bulb above the head" moments. It’s thrilling to feel useful, effective and appreciated.

In a correctional setting, I’m guaranteed light bulb moments often.

Because I’m there on a weekly basis, I’ve witnessed convicted criminals cultivate their hidden potential. One of my favorite examples is a young offender who came to my Coloring Therapy class with his hyper-active switch turned to full blast. As a public school student, this inmate, who I found out is the father of three kids, would have been labeled Most Annoying ADHD as well as all the other not pleasant labels that hyperactive people are handed.

His curiosity ignited, he flitted around the room, talking to everyone, not being mindful at all.

“Yo, this class is about mindfulness and yours is a bit too busy. Would it be okay to ask you to try to stop talking? I mean, just so we can experience the ZEN I’ve been talking about.”

“Oh, my bad,” he says. “I just can’t believe I’m coloring! Feeling like a kid again. You know what I’m talking’ about, don’t chu, Mrs. Randisi? Do you think…?”

He couldn’t finish a simple coloring page or a sentence. However, a few classes into it, he learned how to slow down his brain activity by coloring, By doing one thing, not everything, he found peace. He never knew he could settle himself down. No one ever taught him how to do that. Hmmm. That’s money in the bank for a teacher like me.

Why would a young man in his twenties want to write rows of letters and sentences on lined school paper?

This young inmate also decided to improve his penmanship even though the society he’s going back to will be mostly digital and clickable. Why would a young man in his twenties go back to writing rows of letters on lined school paper? I told him to imagine what it would be like to have to write (or read) an important document or note, only to have it be impossible to read.

If you don’t write in cursive, it can be difficult to read cursive writing. To the eyes, it’s unfamiliar and will slow the reader down, which may be a good thing.

Then I was prompted to add, “How about love letters? Aren’t they worth your time and effort? I’m telling you, no woman’s going to save your text messages in a shoebox after falling in love with you. That got him to care about something he had given up caring about. Ka-ching!

Uncovering Hidden Talents 

Another inmate went from living a life of an atheist to living a brand new life as a totally forgiven, born again Christian. His deep appreciation for what God has done for him through the kindness of strangers showed him he’s worthy of attention and God's forgiveness.

In class, he also discovered he’s capable of expressing thoughts and feelings through poetry. He writes melodious poems to go along with his exquisite artwork. We call him the Tape Artist because he colors with craft tape.

Repairing Youthful Legacies

I’ve watched men transform into leaders. When I first met them, they were bored inmates. Now they're spreading the word about Coloring Therapy in their dorm and facilitating the class when I'm not available. The artwork is extraordinary. The testimonies are amazing. Inmates are unleashing creativity and expanding their capacity to focus and calm their nerves naturally.

It’s a beautiful thing to see inmates replace the hopelessness of incarceration with the freedom of a renewed sense of purpose. Believe me, there’s nothing like seeing the power of kindness at work, which is why I refer to my experiences as a prison volunteer evidences for "The Emerging Science of Kindness."