The Awakening Continues: Steven Clark On Transforming Prisons From The Inside Out

Sep 19, 2022

More than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the United States. About 650,000 of them are released back into society each year — and two thirds end up back in prison. To change these excessively high rates of recidivism, it is imperative to seed hope among incarcerated residents by supporting their healing and fostering their strengths. Those who are impacted by crime need support — and so do those who caused harm.  In the absence of support for the incarcerated, the cycle of suffering will continue. As Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk writes in his book The Body Keeps the Score, “Poverty, unemployment, inferior schools, social isolation, widespread availability of guns, and substandard housing all breed trauma. Trauma breeds further trauma; hurt people hurt people.” 

That’s why I created the Awakening Program  — an inmate-run mentorship program to transform prisons from the inside out. To stop the cycle of harm, we need creative solutions drawing from multiple frameworks and ideologies. We must expand our consciousness, develop our spirituality, and create holistic ways for incarcerated residents to heal from their trauma and overcome their conditioning. The Awakening focuses on individual healing while working to change collective consciousness about incarcerated human beings and the prison experience. My vision is to create a new narrative about what is possible in prisons, and use it as a model to help other marginalized populations.

Last April the GLEN hosted an exchange on The Awakening. That event brought together incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, prison employees, and even a Maine District Attorney to explore potential collaborations to positively impact the system of mass incarceration. It was incredible to see the District Attorney engaging creatively with incarcerated people and others passionate about criminal justice reform. Her heartfelt commitment to support the Awakening moved many of us that day. Her ongoing desire to support the Awakening speaks volumes about the importance and impact of visionary, cross-sector conversations about social change.  

My graduate school advisor Dr. Peggy Samples, who also attended the GLEN Exchange, invited me afterward to present the Awakening at a Life University research event. At that event, I discussed my work with professors and students who were astonished by my commitment to change the narrative and reality of mass incarceration. Afterward, the University President expressed heartfelt curiosity about my work and an interest to support the project. 

After the Glen Exchange we also began training a new cohort of mentors here at Maine State Prison. Already we have experienced many breakthrough moments. At the GLEN, at Awakening trainings, and in other meetings, I am discovering how collaboration can catalyze innovation. An Awakening coach who is incarcerated with me at Maine State Prison was recently accepted into graduate school for Industrial Organizational Psychology. Now he and I are collaboratively researching ways to make prisons more sustainable while creating jobs for those in the system. We have gained the support of global consultants interested in supporting our work, and we recently partnered with Empowerment to explore sustainable options. 

I am grateful for the chance prison leadership has given me to develop connections that support positive change and criminal justice reform. The progressive prison administration in Maine, run by Commissioner Randy Liberty and Associate Commissioner Dr. Thornell, creates opportunities and supports innovation. Warden Magnusson, who runs the prison where I reside, recently participated in a meaningful conversation at the GLEN Café. Afterward, he said he was moved by the change agents he met there. Inspired by the work that is being done within these exchanges,Warden Magnusson authorized me to speak to graduate students about our work. He is fully supportive of my pursuit of a PhD to research ways to improve the perception and reality of mass incarceration. I am grateful that as a result of being in prison and having access to education and outside support I have an opportunity to inspire other incarcerated men and women to change their lives. It is also a gift to be able to show society that prisons can be places of healing and evolution. By changing the narrative, perhaps we can pave the way for those leaving prison to be welcome in their communities rather than being met with fear and resistance. 

In the GLEN community, innovative thinkers, leaders, and change agents have embraced me and my work with real respect and enthusiasm. I am grateful that this organization holds space for visionary conversations that might give birth to new models of collaboration and healing. This work may further enhance the state-of-the-art initiatives of the Maine prison administration.  My intention is to continue working with the GLEN, with Empowerment, and with Lubna Dajani to change systems from the inside out—starting with Maine State Prison.  I fully believe this work will go far beyond prison walls to touch thousands, or maybe millions, of people.