The following was written by PEP volunteer, Jessica Middleton. Jessica is a Criminologist and Professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology.

jessica middleton“Who hasn’t danced in prison?” Al asked.  Was I going to raise my hand?  No way!  I had a pretty good idea of what might happen if I did; I mean, why else would someone ask that question?!  Again, no way!  Not happening.  I crossed my arms over my chest and tried to play it cool.  Don’t get me wrong, anyone who knows me know that I am a dancing queen, but this was just a little too outside of my comfort zone.  I have spent the last seven years visiting the Goree Unit in Huntsville and Hightower Unit in Dayton, where my experience inside the walls has consistently been structured, rigid, and sterile to say the least.  Why would I expect anything to be different on this day?  Well, I wouldn’t, and I didn’t.  Now imagine Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman when she says, “Big mistake, HUGE.”

8:30am – I arrive at the unit, find a parking spot, make sure my car doors are locked and that I have nothing on my person but proper identification and my car keys.  That’s it.  That’s all TDCJ allows.  The executive volunteers gathered in the front foyer and then were search and processed through the metal detector one by one.  Standard protocol, no biggie.

I found myself in the first group of volunteers to be escorted to the chow hall.  Upon arrival to the chow hall, the door is locked, but by the sound of it, the hall is full, and several inmates try to unlock and open the door.  Ok – hold up!  Inmates are NOT allowed to operate the doors, so I immediately begin to question what is going on and what is about to ensue.

I thought that the breakfast hour would just be a quiet start to the day comprised of sipping coffee and mingling with other Executive Volunteers.  Us over here, them over there.  Keep your hands to yourself, and avoid extended eye contact.  Nope.  The door finally unjammed, Keep your hands to yourself, and avoid eye contact with inmates.  Umm, no.

The chow hall was filled wall to wall with PEP participants, the perimeter lined with high fives and hand shakes, clapping, smiling, and cheering.  Confuzzled was an understatement on my parr.  I was the second volunteer to enter the chow hall, and was greeted by the inmates with repeated “Good morning, thank you for coming, we’re so glad you’re here,” along with joyous bursts of hoops and hollers, photo ops, loud party music, dancing, and smiles galore.  Two questions:  Where was I, and what was going on?!?

The first of two photo ops was solo; I was holding a sign that read something along the lines of “I was caught being good at the Cleveland Correctional Center.”  I could be way off here, but that part seems a blur to me as I successfully entered shock mode.  The second photo op was in front of several PEP banners, with four guys wearing blue.  I felt embarrassed when the photographer motioned to me to scooch in a little closer to the group.  God, I hoped my insecurity was not dangling ferociously on my sleeve, but apparently it was.

It must have also been written all over my suspecting face that I was a “new fish” because several PEP’ers asked me if that was my first time joining PEP.  Yep.  They had me pegged.  Great…

In the chow hall were members of Class XX, who were graduating that day, as well as graduated members of Class XIIIV who were awaiting release.  Class members were distinguished by their name badges.  Class XIIIIV guys had the title “Servant Leader” under their name; They were in charge of serving breakfast and coffee.  I can honestly say that was the first time I have ever been waited on by an inmate, and the one particular gentleman who brought me coffee was unusually kind, attentive and meek.  He took his “servant leader” title seriously, and he visibly embraced and embodied it fully.  What a strong example he set for not only the members of Class XX, but for every single person in the chow hall.  Goes to show that powerful leadership does not necessarily come in the form of a decorated spokesperson.  It was refreshing and humbling; I felt unworthy of such service…

During the breakfast hour, I had the opportunity to speak with several of the Class XX participants.  Like I said, they had me pegged, so they attempted to break the ice by approaching me, and every single one of them thanked me profusely for joining that day.  Their gratitude, positivity, and the obvious, yet mysterious hope in their eyes displaced the shame and desolation I am accustomed to seeing when working with inmates.  It was fascinating, really.  One young man asked me what made me to want to study and teach Criminology/Criminal Justice upon disclosure of my profession.  I disclosed that a family member of mine was constantly in-and-out of prison, and that I was fascinated with the system and the causation of crime.  Could my answer get any more canned and seemingly rehearsed?  Geez…  At that point, I was still feeling a bit suspicious of my environment, perhaps a bit uncomfortable, because this visit was unusually relaxed in comparison to my previous prison visits.  The warmth and friendliness admittedly took me a little while to accept and embrace.

As the breakfast hour came to a close, the PEP’ers exited the chow hall and prepared for the gathering across the hallway.  I don’t recall exactly what the room was called, but for now I’ll call it the “PEP Hall of Hope,” where the four finalists from the Business Plan Competition would present to all PEP’ers and executive volunteers alike.  I could have never imagined what would happen next…

Strobe lights.  Music.  Dancing.  Clapping.  Cheering.  Laughter.  Wait…dancing?  Yes, you read that right.  Dancing!!  The inmates were getting their groove on!  The PEP Hall of Hope was set up like a chapel, with a center aisle that doubled as the dance floor.  It was like church and club collide.

Eventually everyone found their seat and the enthusiasm quieted to an obedient hush, until several  PEP’ers introduced themselves with their “sweet names” and the entire class would respond back with individualized slogans and/or chants.  This caught me off guard, but I was entertained and deeply impressed at the same time, as this was when the brotherhood and camaraderie of this group became apparent.  For example, the one that stands out most to me is the introduction of “Sweet Kirk Franklin.”

Sweet Kirk: “Hello, I am Sweet Kirk Franklin. GP are ya’ with me?”

Class XX: “Oh yeah, we havin’ church, we ain’t goin’ nowhere!”

At which point I caught myself automatically chanting along.  Woops!

After a few other introductions, the Business Plan Competition (BPC) finalists took center stage and presented their pitches.  All four were terrific.  Really.  Each executive volunteer “judge” had $10,000 “prison bucks” to allocate accordingly to each of the entrepreneurs.  It was essentially “prison shark tank.”  Way cool…  The “prison bucks” did not have any legitimate monetary value, but the winner of the competition would win serious bragging rights!

Let me back up…  Right before the BPC finals began was when Al asked “Who has never danced in prison?”  Several brave souls raised their hands.  Not me!  As clearly indicated in my first paragraph.  Those brave hand-raisers were then instructed to proceed to the back of the room so they could soul-train down the center aisle.  I KNEW IT!!!  Once they all made it to the front of the room, they were asked to share who they were, what they did, and how they were invited to attend the BPC – which I later learned is by invitation only.

So the hand-raisers shared their introductions, and while I may not have been comfortable dancing in prison just yet, speaking to large groups of inmates is something I have become quite used to, so I contemplated jumping in the introduction line although I did not sachay down the center aisle.  Finally, I elevated from my seat and placed myself at the end of the introduction line because it was already evident that I was a rookie, and figured it was better to get the formal introduction out of the way sooner than later.  I started with my name and apologizing for not getting up to dance.  The PEP’ers let out a loud and united “BOO!!” when I replied, “At least I’m being honest, and isn’t honesty one of PEP’s core values?”  It was more comical than serious, so I continued by sharing some personal info and expressing my fondness for the program, along with a few other words of encouragement for Class XX based on what I had witnessed thus far.

I suspect that is when the ice broke for me; when I made myself vulnerable.  Before I sat down, Al gave me a big hug and said into the microphone, “You owe me a dance next time!”  Yes Al, yes I do.  Next time, you’re gonna’ wish I had left my dancin’ shoes at home!

Warm Regards,


Jessica E. Middleton, M.A. 

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