At first glance, we might be the most unlikely group to embrace the Toastmasters program. After all, what could federal inmates who have made poor choices that led to incarceration possibly gain from public speaking? The answer: everything.
For those of us who are committed to changing our lives, we know the stark reality that no matter what we do to redeem ourselves, society will still view us as felons. But each of us has a desire to overcome that stigma. While each inmate may take a different path to redemption, we all have one thing in common: the need to become effective, clear and fearless speakers. This is exactly what the Toastmasters program offers to the 2nd Chance club at Lompoc Federal Prison Camp in Lompoc, California.
Every Wednesday at 6 p.m., shortly after dinner is served, numerous inmates gather in the chapel for the weekly Toastmasters meeting. Widely viewed as the “most powerful hour at camp,” we see the program as a gorgeous isolated pocket of positivity and inspiration in an environment that typically breeds negativity and hopelessness. What makes this so powerful is not only how we seek to become better speakers, but how our meetings give us an emotional outlet and a source of inspiration and openness. We share similar stories of pain being distanced from our family, shame from the crime we committed, and the desire to change ourselves to lead a life of transparency. Public speaking is one of the scariest things to do, but talking onstage about our fears and flaws can make the experience that much more daunting. However, because our club environment has become so inviting and free from judgment, we know that whatever we say on that stage will be respected, and that we will receive support in more ways than we knew was possible.
Collectively, we know that once we are released from prison we will spend the rest of our lives explaining ourselves to the world for our past actions. To do so effectively, we must become confident, skilled and practiced speakers. Practice goes a long way toward self-improvement, and the framework of Toastmasters allows for feedback, constructive advice and continual improvement.
We will spend the rest of our lives explaining ourselves to the world for our past actions. In order to do so effectively, we need to become confident, skilled and practiced speakers.
Beatrice Hawkins, the prison’s staff facilitator for our club, fosters an environment that encourages us to open up and become more passionate in the delivery of our speeches. Club President Anthony Aguas has been an incredible leader by example, providing us with routine words of inspiration. As vice president, I embrace this role that gets new speakers comfortable onstage through words of encouragement and personal coaching. These efforts have created an environment where inmates are eager to share their stories. The best part is how every speaker becomes better as time goes on.
Every Toastmasters club develops its own culture that unites its members in unique ways. For us, Toastmasters is dual-purposed—it allows us to become public speakers and also gives us an outlet for the emotions we experience as incarcerated individuals. We become more honest with ourselves and gain long-term benefits, which also inspires others.
Not only do we wish to become effective speakers for our post-release lives, we also want to add value to the community. In August 2016, with our newfound skillset, we created IMPACT (Inmates Mentoring Peers Against Criminal Thinking) to educate at-risk youth. By sharing our stories with troubled teens in high schools, juvenile centers and probationary programs, we inmates deliver valuable messages to today’s youth. Through IMPACT, we have presented to over 300 young members of the community in hopes of preventing them from making the same poor choices we did.
The 2nd Chance club is so grateful for the Toastmasters program. The gravitational pull of those Wednesday nights gives us the confidence to communicate effectively. And that is something that will stay with us for life.
Neal Goyal is a member of the 2nd Chance club at the Lompoc Federal Prison Camp in Lompoc, California.