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Writing as therapy: Intensive journaling helps prisoners deal with their traumas

Bill Israel teaches prisoners at William Head and men in recovery from addiction at New Roads Therapeutic Recovery Centre to write about their lives

In 1972, Bill Israel’s personal and professional life was a slow-motion trainwreck.

The ordained United Methodist minister was too liberal to preach the gospel in his home state of Kansas. The avid anti-Vietnam War activist and civil rights activist got tangled up in the church hierarchy.

And he was going through a bitter divorce.

“My future in the church was limited. But finding another job when the only thing on your resumé is a master’s degree in systematic theology is a little tough,” Israel said in a recent interview at his Cordova Bay home.

He tried to work through his difficulties with the help of a psychiatrist and psychologists, but nothing was helpful or seemed to stick.

Then a fellow clergyman told him about an intensive journal-writing program developed by American psychologist Ira Progoff, a student of Carl Jung, that used private, safe, guided writing exercises to help people find direction and purpose.

“He thought it might help me to sit with a group of people who were also struggling to move their life forward,” said Israel. “And I took to it like a duck to water. It was just a wonderful process.”

That was 50 years ago.

To this day, the 82-year-old maintains his intensive journal work, which he credits for his successful career as a human resources management consultant and even his move to Canada.

In 1988, he and wife Barbara Greeniaus relocated to Victoria, where Israel became chair of Big Brothers, Big Sisters in 1997 and 1998, and chair of the United Way board in 2008 and 2009.

After retiring in 2008, Israel decided to become a facilitator of Progoff’s intensive journal program, and he became certified in 2014.

The following year, he began volunteering with the Restorative Justice Coalition at William Head Institution, a minimum-security federal correctional institution for men in Metchosin, visiting prisoners in the chapel once a week.

“When the inmate committee heard me talking about the intensive journal program, I said I’d be happy to give it a trial.”

‘Absolute privacy’ is key

The intensive journal-writing program had a history of use in a prison setting.

More than 20 years earlier, in 1992, it had been implemented at Folsom State Prison — made famous in the Johnny Cash song Folsom Prison Blues — northeast of Sacramento, California.

An article in The Journal of Correctional Education in September 2004 said the program helped inmates work with their life experiences, family relationships, jobs, health and life purpose. Ten years after its introduction, not one inmate who had completed the introductory workshop had returned to prison.

At William Head Institution, Israel was invited by the deputy warden to explain the trauma-recovery program to about 20 institutional parole officers, the prison’s program manager and a psychiatrist.

When he explained to the group that “absolute privacy” is at the heart of the program, Israel said, “it got really quiet” in the room.

“I didn’t think they would approve,” he said. “Inmates are entitled to their privacy, but — nudge, nudge, wink, wink — this is prison.”

He explained that each inmate would receive a specially organized looseleaf notebook and follow specific writing guidelines.

They would write by hand in a quiet room with the expectation of total privacy. This would allow the men to search deep within themselves to find answers to their problems and find deeper meaning in their existence, he said.

Israel didn’t think the program would be approved but it was. He was told he could teach the course two hours a week for 12 weeks.

He started the program with 10 men, mostly lifers. The men, who live in five-unit houses, were allowed to keep their private journals in their room.

“There was a high risk of their privacy being violated by other prisoners or guards. But we’re in our eighth year and there hasn’t been a single violation of privacy,” said Israel.

The true benefit of the process is that the men have the opportunity to write in a structured journal about things they are not normally encouraged to think about, including adverse childhood experiences, prolonged family trauma and abuse, said Israel.

“It always takes them about four sessions to trust the privacy thing, but once it kicks in, they start writing the nasty bits and pieces of their life on paper. And there’s no obligation to show it to anyone or share it with the group.”

‘It gets intense pretty quickly’

Unlike in group therapy or support groups, there is no crosstalk in the writing sessions, said Israel. No judgment or analysis is invited.

But after the second or third session, he asks if anyone would like to read aloud what they have written.

“Usually, we have to wait until the third session in prison, because vulnerability can be deadly,” Israel explained. “You cannot be weak or be seen to be weak. We are inviting them into a danger zone quite literally. That’s why it’s voluntary to write this stuff down. It creates a fear for them that someone is going to read this.”

During the guided writing sessions, the men are given 20 minutes to describe how they think of themselves in this “now time” of their lives. They are encouraged to describe their worries, their hopes and dreams, if they are looking forward to their parole hearing or family visits.

They are asked to write about persons of significance in their lives, both positive and negative, their relationship to their bodies, events they have missed because of their incarceration and how it affected them.

“It gets intense pretty quickly. It doesn’t take long. The moment I give that first instruction and say: ‘You’ve got 20 minutes,’ every head goes down and they start writing like crazy,” said Israel.

“There is no way to write that without pain emerging — fear, grief, loss. But it’s a relief just to be able to write this down. And because they are doing it by hand, they get an emotional hit from this.”

At one point, the men are asked to switch gears — from their left brain to their right brain — and imagine a metaphor for the life they’ve been describing. The example he gives them is: “My life feels like it is stuck in a chimney.”

One inmate described how his journey was like a giant oak tree changing with the season.

“As I started this course it was November, just as the trees were losing their leaves. It felt like I was being stripped down as my emotions came out. During winter I was torn apart getting in touch with my deepest thoughts as I wrote them down.”

Another inmate described his life as “stumbling into a pit of quicksand … Slowly I sank deeper into the quagmire. Now a young man I sank below the source of the vicious road of my life….”

Israel encourages the men to read aloud what they’ve written and is always surprised by the number who do.

“Once they have time to put the shit down in their lives, boy it unloads,” he said.

When they read aloud, Israel said, it’s not sharing but reading into “the sacred space.”

“You are taking this piece of your heart and your soul that you have put onto this piece of paper and you are going to speak it out loud to no one in particular,” he said. “They read only what they write. They don’t explain.”

‘You have to own it’

The impact has been unbelievable because everybody in the room has been through some version of the same storm, he said.

“I tell them the reason they are writing this down is because you can’t unsee, you can’t forget it. It’s never going to go away. You have to own it and that’s what the process is about. It’s owning it. It’s the only way they will move forward in their life and not be a prisoner of their own shame and fear.”

Reading aloud brings up different emotions than writing, Israel said, and the men are asked to go back to their rooms and make a note of these experiences.

When he listens to the grisly details of some of the inmates’ stories, Israel is grateful for the training he received. He realizes how difficult it must be for parole board members to hear about these crimes.

The inmates focus on replaying the details of the crime they committed to the parole board, but had never considered that they should be preparing for their parole hearing by dealing with their traumas, said Israel.

“What [parole boards] fear is that prisoners will use their traumas as an excuse for their crimes. Parole hearings don’t want to hear of an inmate’s traumas. All they want to hear about are the person’s triggers and how they will manage them.”

The former prison chaplain believes prison in general does a terrible job of releasing prisoners who have confidence that they can make it in the community. But the men who have taken the intensive journal program begin to develop a sense of personal agency, selfhood and confidence, he said.

About 130 prisoners have completed the program. Of the roughly half of those men have been released from William Head, only one has been returned, for a minor breach, said Israel.

“We can see changes in their behaviour while they are still in prison. They work with the parole officers and guards much better.”

‘A lot of trauma in their background’

In recent years, Israel has offered the intensive journalling program to a range of community organizations.

During the pandemic, he was invited by the Family Caregivers of B.C. to teach it over Zoom to high-stressed and isolated family caregivers in small communities.

Last year, he began offering the program to both men and women through the Umbrella Society of Victoria, which provides counselling, harm-reduction, recovery housing and other supports to those struggling with addiction and mental-health issues.

He also began a series of journal workshops this year for the Addiction Recovery Program at the Salvation Army Halfway House on Johnson Street.

At New Roads Therapeutic Recovery Centre in View Royal, which helps men recover from substance abuse and regain their lives, about 80 men have completed the program since Israel was invited to offer it five years ago.

Centre director Cheryl Diebel has taken the program on her own time and says she “highly” recommends it.

“It really helps you pull things from your life that you want to look at and examine. It helps you go through that in a guided way that feels really safe.”

The 12-week program is very popular with the men in recovery, she said, and finishing it correlates closely with success in the New Roads program.

About 35 to 50 per cent of the men at New Roads come directly from the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre, she said, while others arrive through community referrals and self-referrals.

“[Israel’s] program really helps them unpack a lot of stuff,” Diebel said. “A lot of our men come with a lot of trauma in their background. And Bill shows up in such a gentle, quiet caring way. His presence is part of that program.”

Diebel said she can tell when Israel is scheduled to visit the centre because four or five men will express their gratitude for the program at the regular morning meeting.

The therapists who work with the men also respect the program, said Diebel. “It’s really become part of our programming and we value it.”

Poet Lorna Crozier wanted to volunteer at Our Place, but after meeting Israel, she decided to teach poetry to the men at New Roads to see if she could help them express their joys and sorrows and find a way to mend.

To prepare, she took two sessions of the intensive journal program with Israel.

“I dug up stuff in his writing directives that I didn’t know existed and it was extremely moving and extremely helpful psychologically to do this program,” she said.

Crozier called the six-foot, six-inch-tall Israel, who speaks with a soft-spoken southern drawl, a “saintly man,” even though she knows it will embarrass him.

“The fact that he’s in his eighties and presenting his program in places of great need is really quite remarkable,” said Crozier. “It occupies so much of his time and he does it out of the goodness of his heart because he believes that writing is the best form of therapy.”

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