No Judgment: Practicing Therapy—and Compassion—in a Heartland Prison
An Integral Counseling Psychology alum and Bay Area transplant helps promote social justice as a therapist in a Kansas prison.
The geographic center of the contiguous United States is a tiny place called Lebanon, Kansas.
If one drives a couple hundred miles southeast, one arrives in Lawrence, a vibrant college town, home to the University of Kansas and to Emily Feingold, a 2014 Integral Counseling Psychology alum.
About a half-hour's drive west of Lawrence is Feingold's workplace, Topeka Correctional Facility, the only women's prison in the state. In her position as a behavioral health professional, Feingold serves inmates--including two transgender male clients--from minimum, medium, and maximum security on a voluntary, drop-in basis.
In addition to individual sessions, she facilitates groups on mindfulness, trauma recovery, and dialectical behavioral therapy. "The power differential between inmates and staff is already so great, I try to mitigate that with my presence," Feingold says. "I help clients stabilize trauma and reacquaint themselves with their emotions in healthy ways.
"For people with histories of substance abuse who are now incarcerated and sober, they are encountering harsh emotional realities that have been suppressed for a long time."
Ultimately, says Feingold, "therapy in prison is about helping people find choice, helping them access a sense of peace and inner control amid the frustration of such disempowerment. When I was at CIIS, there was a running joke about how often we used the phrase 'hold space,' but that's actually an imperative skill when dealing with inmates who truly have no private space otherwise."
The hardest thing about this work, she notes, is "coming to terms with the reality of what incarceration actually is: the lack of privacy, the length of sentences. I still haven't fully comprehended the fact that some of my clients have been incarcerated for decades. For some people, incarceration is a gift and an opportunity; some of my clients tell me that if they weren't here, they'd be dead, so they're blessed to be in prison. But most don't feel that way."
Emily and Vida, a friend's horse, on a farm outside of Lawrence. (Photo: John Craft)
Feingold's first job in Kansas was as a case manager for children in foster care, doing social work rather than therapy, which she would have preferred. But, she says, the position provided context for the work she would go on to do at Topeka. "The foster care system is brutal, and it causes a lot of suffering. Many inmates I work with now have kids in the system or were in foster care themselves," she says.
As Feingold tells it, "I wasn't specifically looking to work in corrections, but I was open to it." She was already involved through an organization called Black & Pink, as a pen pal to trans women incarcerated in male prisons. She learned about the opportunity via a lecture at CIIS organized by Emmi Bevensee (BIS '13). "Being a pen pal definitely helped me to be more open and inspired to work in a prison, more aware of what goes on inside," Feingold says. To this day, she maintains correspondence with four women incarcerated in Nevada, California, and Texas.
A native of upstate New York, Feingold moved to the Bay Area to attend CIIS and quickly found the pace and cost of living unconducive to her health; she longed for a more rural environment. But she persevered with her CIIS education because she knew she was receiving something very valuable.
"I would not be able to work with the prison population as productively if I hadn't gotten that introduction to my own privilege and position in this culture and in this country. For instance, I received so much great education about trans people from trans people at CIIS. I wouldn't be as effective a therapist for my trans clients if I hadn't had that experience," she says. She credits mentors such as Monique LeSarre, former director of the MHSA Project at CIIS, with providing social justice and antiracist education that "helped me tremendously to be a better listener and a better learner."
Feingold's work also benefits from CIIS' grounding in transpersonal psychology. "Many of my clients are very religious, and they rely on their relationship with God to bolster them in prison," she says. "CIIS helped me to be open to seeing a person's spiritual practice, no matter what they call it, as something therapeutic, something we can work with in a session.
"It's about learning how to trust my clients, learning how to stand back and be supportive." For this approach, Feingold thanks her ICP practicum supervisor, Renee Beck. "I rely on the quality of my presence a lot more than I do on specific interventions," she says.
Most significantly, Feingold's CIIS education helped her to recognize the limitations of her experience by illuminating the many dimensions of intersectional identity. She regularly draws upon this learning around disability, race, class, and gender in the prison. "There's so much I need to handle with curiosity and care, to fine-tune the nuances of my allyship, to bring a nonjudgmental presence. I'm open to exploring whatever identities the inmates express. CIIS helped me to be humbler."
This stance also serves Feingold in navigating the world outside prison walls. Although Lawrence is a relatively diverse and progressive city, she admits that it's a challenging moment to live in a red state.
Kansas, like much of "flyover country," can be misunderstood by people on the coasts, she notes. "There are many people here who fit the stereotype, and many who don't. There's a lot of political conservatism, but there's also a strong Mennonite culture, which is geared toward social justice. There are sustainable farms and indigenous communities. Some people here haven't been exposed to certain kinds of difference. But that doesn't mean they're not open to learning."
Moreover, "people from the coasts need to remember that they also may have not been exposed to Midwestern communities--it can be a myopic view in both cases. The culture gap is never going to close if we don't hear each other out."
Feingold maintains that there is always room to be authentic, in prison and in life. "I take care of myself by clearly communicating my concerns and my challenges." At bottom, she says, "the desire to be heard and respected is what we all have in common"--no matter our legal status or our coordinates.
Sarah Heady is the Senior Grants Writer at CIIS.