Today’s Solutions: October 27, 2021

In his daily life John Wareham coaches some of the most successful and wealthy people. With his neatly combed thick white hair, his bespoke suit and professorial glasses you’d never expect him to spend his free time at a prison. And yet the psychologist, author of several novels and self-help books, voluntarily goes to the heavily guarded prisons of New York to teach inmates. And what he accomplishes with those classes needs to be told. Almost none of the inmates who take Wareham’s classes commit crimes again after being released.
Recently Wareham published a new book: How to survive a bullet through the heart, a compilation of fifteen poems from inmates he worked with during the previous year. Sheldon Arnold is one of them, a 29-year old music producer, who had been sentenced to 16 years in prison because of a violent robbery. He still has 15 years to go on his sentence.  He wrote the opening poem in How to survive a bullet through the heart, titled ‘Questions’

John Wareham’s book How to survive a bullet through the heart is a collection of poems written by inmates.

Who am I?
What have I done?
I can’t believe I did that.
What have I become?
Why are those guys oozing red?
That one looks just like he’s dead.
They’re staring at me, everyone.
Wherever did I get this gun?
Arnold and his fellow inmates write about crime, the moment of arrest, the legal proceedings that follow, the days in prison, the visitors they’ve had, but also about freedom, longing, regret, sadness and faith. Wareham tells of the surprise reactions from readers who’ve read the book. How can people who commit such crimes write with such insight? Compose poems that reflect such understanding of the situation in which they find themselves?
They pour their hearts out
Wareham is not at all surprised. His methods work, and he knows it. His 13-week long course consists of reading literature and fragments of books by philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle and Epictetus; psychologists such as Freud, Adler, Berne, and religious texts from the bible and a Buddhist holy book. He has the inmates give a presentation each week on how those books might fit into their own lives. Wareham concluded that: ‘If you go through the readings each week, and if you’re serious about it, you cannot get to the final class without having your thinking seriously altered, or your eyes seriously opened.’
The poems however are new. This year was the first time Wareham asked the inmates to express their feelings in poetry. ‘What caught me by surprise was the quality of the poems, and the fact that they unleashed and revealed their feelings. They poured their hearts out. As I was listening to them, I thought: we can make a beautiful little book out of this.’ If you read the book from start to finish, Wareham says, you can see the leaps in thinking the inmates make, and how their judgment of their situation changes.
Understanding for the situation
The book came out quietly, without media fanfare, but what Wareham does is remarkable. He refers to the methods used by Carl Jung who once said: ‘the patient can only begin to get better when he understands his predicament and can see a way out of it.’ Wareham tries to take that advice to heart: ‘I try to give an understanding of the predicament through literature and reading, and then help the prisoner to see the way ahead.’
The inmates who participate in Wareham’s classes do so voluntarily. They even come on their days off, when they don’t have prison jobs to do. ‘So the people who come to the class are more serious than the general population,’ Wareham concludes. He adds to this: the recidivism among inmates who’ve taken his classes is almost zero.
What is Wareham’s secret? He has some ideas. He says he hates it when people insist on reaffirming to inmates that they did something very bad, and they made the wrong choices in the past. In contrast Wareham tells them the opposite, that they are innocent, that their eyes haven’t yet been opened to the possibilities that the world has to offer them.
He says: ‘In the moment of your crime, you made the only choice available to you. You could see no other options, and so, effectively, you were a victim of your own unconscious. You might think you made a choice, but that was an illusion.’ Wareham tries to help them open their eyes.
And when the course ends, Wareham gives them this piece of wisdom: ‘going forward, you won’t be innocent anymore. Since your eyes are opened now, you will know that you do have a choice.’
Read the rest of the interview with John Wareham in the July/August issue.
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