We Can All Be Life Coaches
Updated: Mar 22
Tendencies, no matter how slight, towards the selection of jurors by any method other than a process which will insure a trial by a representative group are undermining processes weakening the institution of jury trial, and should sturdily be resisted.
Justice Frank Murphy Glasser v. United States (1942)
One of the notable changes that has recently occurred here on the Polunsky Unit is the introduction of Life Coach inmates. Four guys who were already involved in mentorship roles within the chaplaincy department were transferred to the Wynne Unit for four months to go through the program (then transferred back here). A very interesting and significant thing: the supervising teacher and director of the Life Coach program on the Wynne Unit is former Death Row inmate Thomas Miller-El.
Those familiar with capital law will recognize his name from the SCOTUS Miller-El case, which dealt with Batson (racial bias during jury selection) application. After the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, Miller-El was given a life sentence and transferred to general population back in 2008. I personally knew Miller-El when he was here. He was the type of guy who shared books, always had something positive to say and would help others if he could. Of course, being housed in super-seg solitary confinement –as we still are– put major limits to what he could achieve.
A very significant point to reflect upon is that for several decades prosecutors representing the State of Texas diligently fought to have Miller-El executed, deeming him a “continuing threat to society” and “the worst of the worst”. Now, Miller-El has been training Life Coaches who are deployed to prison units all over the state and in doing so, being a great asset to society. All of the Polunsky Life Coaches speak very highly of Miller-El.
Life Coaches function in a similar manner as the inmate Field Ministers, but with more of a focus on teaching Life Skills classes. I was surprised to learn that on other units there are Life Coaches who follow other faith paths (ie. non-Christian). On this unit, of course, all of the Life Coaches are Christian.
The Life Coach assigned to 12 building Death Row/ Ad-Seg, Jimmy, has a bachelors degree in Theology, is currently pursuing a Masters of Divinity degree and has been involved with the chaplaincy department for many years. I like Jimmy, he has righteous underlying motivations and his intentions are geared towards promoting teaching, learning and fellowship that transforms lives –and in doing so prevents crime and recidivism and helps make society better. He views his role from the broader perspective of Restorative Justice.
This isn't the case with some of the other Christian guys who are involved with the programming on this unit. They have an extremely biased attitude towards non-Christians and believe, as one of them recently bombastically declared on the prison radio station, “If you’re not Christian, whatever you think, and have to say doesn't matter! God decided to make this a Christian unit!” Even with some who do not make such open proclamations, it is very apparent that their main goal and objective is Christian conversion and promotion of a right-wing Republican, evangelical conservative Christian ideology.
That's fine and I certainly support their right to do so, but mainly focusing on such activity –to the point of excluding and/or preventing other productive endeavors– can be a disservice and hindrance to the transformational work of positive culture change that is occurring on this unit. Again, guys can do as they wish and I would never seek to dissuade them in any way, but it can be quite difficult to work with such people. Our goals and objectives and ideological and strategic outlook differ to an extent to where we can only meet one another in the middle and find common ground in a limited number of areas.
Jimmy is no doubt very Christian but his focus is more centered around “good works” and he sees his job as a Life Coach as a ministerial calling. When Jimmy and I were discussing aspects of the classes he's about to start teaching and I kept making points of reference he found interesting, Jimmy said “Man, you sure do know a lot about all this stuff”. I told him that he's doing the type of work that I have been trying to do for many years now from the very limiting confines of this cage.
This is rather funny: Jimmy mentioned that a Recovery for Veterans with PTSD class is taught in the G.P Education building. He said there are many guys here who are suffering from other forms of PTSD and that’s one of the things he wanted to work on addressing. I told him “Hold on” and stepped over to my bookshelf and grabbed the book Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook for PTSD, added “I have thought the same thing for a long time” and we discussed various relevant aspects of the book.
When Jimmy mentioned some aspects of the Life Skills curriculum involving behavioral and solutions analysis, I told him “that sounds a lot like CBT, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy”. He agreed and I added “You know what, hold on”, as I stepped over to my desk to grab the book, The CBT Toolbox. I made numerous references to ideas and insight in the book as we continued our discussion.
We talked about the mind-body connection and how the constant ever-present stress and anxiety of living in this environment can cause some serious physical health problems. We agreed that the programming on this unit is lacking in promoting an integrated Mind-Body Health lifestyle and this is an area for improvement. Jimmy said that his Life Coach training didn't really address this but he wanted to include this area of study and practice into his work. This prompted me to respond with, yet again, “Hold on”, as I once more stepped over to my desk and grabbed two more books: The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma and The Anxiety Reset. I made pertinent references to the books while we continued discussing the topic.
I told Jimmy that I'd like to see more visual learning material incorporated into the classes being taught here on the unit and we agreed on the importance and impact of visual learning. He said one of the most eye-opening and impactful things he experienced during Life Coach training was when they viewed brain scan images from studies showing how various behaviors physically affect the brain in different ways. “You're going to love this”, I said, as once again, I delved into my treasury of books -this time tapping into an area reserved for only my most exceptionally luscious texts. I stepped back to the door with the Dorling Kindersley The Human Brain book in my hand.
This is a big beautifully illustrated scientific book that describes all aspects of the functioning of the human brain in brilliant detail. Every page is illustrated and some of the diagrams cover two pages so they are about 1 foot in height and 2 feet in width. I flipped through the book showing Jimmy various sections that have particular relevance to the things that we had been discussing.
At the start of the conversation Jimmy said that he was really only working from his Life Coach book. Jimmy kept saying “I want to learn more about that” regarding various topics during our discussion, stating that he wanted to do so to be more effective in teaching his Life Skills classes and to broaden the scope of his ministry. It is very apparent that Jimmy has the same type of enthusiasm that I have for this type of work.
Jimmy said that the books were exactly what he needed, thanked me for showing them to him and asked if he could write down the title so he could try to get some of the books sent in to him. He was surprised when I said “What? No, here–” and I started to slide the books out of my door to give to him. He thanked me and said that he knew they were some expensive books, and he would read them, take notes and get them back to me as soon as possible.
The meaning didn't register when I said, “No, those are books that you definitely want as part of your personal library” and he responded with “Yeah, I know, I'm definitely going to try and get at least a few sent in to me”. Jimmy looked rather astounded when I told him, “Man, those are your books they're yours to keep. I'm giving them to you, they belong to you”. He thanked me and expressed his appreciation. I told Jimmy that he's the one that deserves thanks and appreciation for the work that he is doing, and I just want to support this work in any way that I can.
In prison everything is assigned a monetary value in accordance with the idea that “nothing comes for free”, which has always been present within prison culture. If a guy offers another person something, then it is expected that he will give the guy something of equal value in return. This social norm is adhered to much more strictly out in general population. There are all kinds of deplorable dynamics associated with this mentality and I have always despised this type of thinking.
Over the years I have donated stacks and stacks and stacks of books to others, the prison library and more recently to Field Ministers and other faith-based prisoner coordinators. Some of these stacks and stacks consisted of books that I paid for myself, but most of them were sent to me by friends, supporters and colleagues on the outside. Relaying this story will hopefully give greater context and allow you to more fully understand the depth of appreciation that I have for each and every person that has ever sent books to me. Thank you.
Three different people sent those five books to me and I had one of them for over five years. When Jimmy so graciously expressed his appreciation to me, I was filled with a deep sense of appreciation for all of you. Outside support is what has sustained me for all of these years and helped make the person that I am today. Outside solidarity has kept me alive and allowed me to do all of the positive and productive things that I do from the confines of this wretched little cage. Support and Solidarity from friends and colleagues on the outside is what will save my life and allow me to be released back into society -where there are unlimited opportunities for me to do much more impactful work.
My interest in and dedication to Criminal Justice Reform, Education, Restorative Justice, yoga, meditation, Mind-Body Health practice, sociopolitics, social justice, psychotherapy, art as a vehicle for social change, community involvement and other such things, is an integral part of who I am. And who I am would essentially not exist without all of you. The reason that I am such a book fanatic and spend so much of my time studying, referencing and cross-referencing so many books, is because I'm really just trying to figure it all out and do good in life.
This is something that I know though: our individual actions can have wide-ranging influence on others in ways that we can never imagine. Synchronicity is real. Energy matters. We all have the power to be Life Coaches to one another and in doing so, help further along the process of the healing and evolution of humanity. This is a collective process that must include people from all areas of society. This includes those behind prison walls. And this includes the prisoners currently housed here on the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas.