My Stint in Prison

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Motivational Speaker Kelly Swanson is an award-winning storyteller, author, and comedian who teaches you how to harness the power of your story to connect, engage, and get results. In this blog, Kelly focuses on the business of professional speaking. Kelly’s post day is Friday. If you aren't sure how to comment on this story, click here.

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Motivational Speaker Spends the Day in Prison

I knew the title would get your attention. I write about hope and encouragement and nobody listens. I put one tiny little post about being in prison and I’ve got you all tuned in. Sigh.

Yes, it’s true. I spent an evening last week in the state prison. No, they didn’t bring me in wearing handcuffs while I did my best Olsen twin impression yelling, “Do you KNOW who I am?”  It wasn’t as glamorous as all that. I simply walked in. (After narrowly passing my background check.)

I was there to speak to the women for a mother’s day banquet.  I did not consider this any typical mother’s day banquet, because I knew these women did not get to tuck their kids in at night – and some would never get to. And I don’t care what path led them to where they are – from one mother to another, I shared their broken heart.

I speak in front of thousands of people all year long – impressive people – entrepreneurs – speakers – nurses – police officers – elected officials – audiences ranging from 500 to 1,000 people. Yet I was more afraid of this job than any other. Why? Because it was so very important to me to be able to make a connection with these women – to deliver a divine message – and to know that they received it.  I could just feel them thinking, “What does she know? She gets to walk out of here and go hug her child.”  It really weighed heavy on my heart – this burden of bringing humor and hope to those with very little.

Some of you saw my post on Facebook ( where I asked for advice on how to face this situation with love and grace. Your comments were inspiring and wise, and you gifted me with words of encouragement, reminding me that you had been on the receiving end of my words and had been blessed for it. Wow. My audience was motivating ME right back. What a wonderful feeling.

As with any group I’m speaking to, I spend some time trying to walk in their shoes, if only in my mind. This group was hard. I couldn’t imagine being in prison, no matter how many episodes of Orange is the New Black I watched in preparation.  Instead of common ground, all I could find was an overwhelming sense of guilt for those things I’ve done in my past that could have landed me behind bars. I just wasn’t caught. Suddenly the words “There but by the grace of God go I” took on a much greater meaning.

Even the morning of the event, I really did not know what I would say. Sure, I knew the stories and the jokes, and even the overall message. But I knew I was there to tell them something special – something from the Creator – and that kind of message should not be taken lightly.  There was just one thing I kept coming back to – the same words I kept whispering as I drove:  Dear God, give me your eyes. Let me see them as you do.   Somehow I knew that if I could just let Him use me to be His eyes, then all would be okay. I guess you could say I decided to let go and let God.

Some of you won’t like me talking about God. But I can’t remove Him from this story. He is the only source of true hope for me and the reason behind everything I do. It isn’t a story without Him.

I wasn’t sure what to wear to a prison. I rented “Walk the Line” to see what Johnny Cash wore to Folsom Prison. But somehow I didn’t think my feather boa pants were the right thing. I look back now and see that it didn’t matter a hoot what I wore. I was overthinking it once again, and trying to hide my uniqueness. But that’s a tired old story. Let’s move on into the prison.

I had never been inside a prison before, so I didn’t know what to expect. I guess I was expecting to walk down a hallway of lined cages while women with limp hair hung out of the bars and whistled as I went by, while I tried to act offended even though I was secretly pleased at all the attention.

I was trying to remember the self-defense moves my husband taught me, in case I was attacked by a woman with a handmade toothbrush shiv who wanted my hair extensions, but the only one that came to mind was gouging out the eyeballs with my fingers. Eeewww. Gross. That was a deal breaker. I would just have out run them.  I started planning my funeral.

I expected armed guards perched up in high buildings waiting to shoot someone if they ran. But I didn’t see any. And I was quite relieved when they told me no I did not need a cavity search, nor would my presentation be delivered from behind plated glass. Whew!  I just couldn’t picture how to tell a speech over a telephone.
In fact, walking into the prison wasn’t much different than going through security at the airport, of which I am a pro.  And the event was actually held in the visitor’s center which looked pretty much like every church fellowship hall I’ve ever been in – with the exception of the cameras in the ceiling.  Note to self: They will not think it’s funny if you make faces at the camera during your presentation.

I paced the room while waiting for them to bring the women in. Yes, I literally paced. Not such the confident motivational speaker now was I?  It didn’t help that it was about 200 hundred degrees in there. Apparently budget cuts meant no air.  I was sweating before I even started. Thank God for good makeup.
The next thing I know the women are walking in wearing matching brown shirts that I thought could have used a little bling, and smiles. Big smiles. I wondered if they had been coached to smile big and act grateful. But it felt genuine. I could feel that this moment for them was special. I was honored to be standing in it.

And here’s the weird thing. They looked like all the other women I have met in my life. I don’t know what I expected. More tattoos? More mullets? Rotted teeth and crazy eyes? These women could have been in any one of my audiences on any given day in any given scenario.  Shoot, some of them looked like they should be out teaching Sunday school and running VBS. They looked like my neighbors, my family, my peers, and my friends. And I was filled with an overwhelming abundance of love for each and every one of them. I had no morbid curiosity to know what they had done. It didn’t matter. Very cool, God. You came through.  You allowed me to see them as You do.  And I couldn’t help but be filled with wonder, realizing that the love I was feeling for these women was the same love my creator has for me. And even more, because He truly defies our human understanding. What a cool feeling to know that you are loved like that. I suspected that many of those women there had never known that kind of love.

The event was hosted by a non-profit ministry ( that works day in and day out, tirelessly, helping incarcerated mothers have a loving relationship with their children. Yes, it’s for the mothers, but it’s really for the children, who landed into a world they didn’t ask for. What a privilege to be included in their story.

I walked through the room chatting with the women as they got their meals and began to eat.  They all began gushing about how much they loved my hair – the universal words instantly guaranteed to turn women from strangers to friends in a matter of moments. I can be thinking the worst thoughts about that woman sitting across from me at the conference, with the perky hair she keeps slinging around and her cute quippy phrases that make me want to smack her. And then she smiles warmly at me and says, “I just love your hair. I’ve been admiring it all day” and I am convinced that we are sisters separated at birth and I will love her forever.

So hair became the common ground on which we stood and all found unity.  For you don’t have to be rich or poor, white or black, educated or not, to appreciate good hair. My nerves began to fade as I realized I was standing in a room full of women who were eager to spend time with me, which I can not say for the sewage workers I was paid to motivate on their lunch break.

I began my program talking to myself in the mirror, as many of you have seen me do, and we were off. From the first laugh I knew it was going to be okay. I just shared my story and did my thing. I admitted to them that I was scared and anxious, worried that they would like me, nervous that I wouldn’t be good enough.  And there was something about just admitting it that made them connect with me.  I’ve always said that the secret to connecting with your audience is not to set yourself above them, but find a way to seat yourself beside them.  This proved to be true once again.

I wish I could take you on a journey of that program moment by moment, but I’ve already rambled far too long, and I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. Just know this: They laughed until their sides ached and their faces hurt from laughing.  What joy to see those women laugh and be surrounded by it – in a place where laughter had been left at the door on their way in.

I told those women that I had been sent to give them a message – that I didn’t know what it was – but that there was a specific message for each one of them, handwritten by someone much greater than me.  I can’t explain to you the feeling of watching their faces, and seeing in different moments, the peace and hope come over their face as I knew they had just received their message.  I’m sure it matched the peace and hope on my face as they delivered a message to me. For every audience gives me more than I give them.

When it was over I got an instantaneous standing ovation. Not the weak kind where one person stands and the rest stand out of obligation – but the kind where the entire room jumps to their feet. The woman who brought me in said that they have NEVER leaped to their feet like that, nor had she ever seen them really laugh like that.

While my pride steps in and wants to claim the standing ovation (and I receive the thanks for my part) it was a testimony to something bigger working in the room. It was a testimony to the power of words, and the power of bringing humor and hope to people who have none. And to all those believers out there, you know, it was the power of becoming the hands and feet of God, and seeing his handwriting splashed out in living color all over the room.  It was the power of seeing people realize that these bars can’t take away their happier ever after, that their choices don’t define them, and that someone sees them for who they really are – warts and all.  I’m still floating on that feeling.

It was hard to say good-bye to those women, just as it is hard to say good-bye to anyone you share a pivotal moment with.  They lined up to hug me, many with tears in their eyes. One will be getting out in twenty days and she is scared to death. Another is watching her children be divided and sent into foster care because there is no one left to take care of them. One will never leave this place. Another one still unable to break through the tough walls she has built around herself.

Nothing in their life changed from before I spoke or after. They still faced the same circumstance. But they were different now. Stronger. Encouraged.  They had experienced the power of your mind – the power to change your life by simply changing the story in your head. And I know that will make all the difference.

Sometimes when I’m drinking my coffee, or sitting in the airport, I will picture their faces, their smiles, and fifty women who have all gone and dyed their hair red.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – my work is bigger than me. It’s not about talent, it’s about the message and the one sending it through me. I’m just lucky to have a front row seat.

To all those living in a prison of your own, whether it be bars, or a relationship, or sadness, or sickness, or fear –hear me when I say this:  There is a message coming your way. Handwritten, gift-wrapped, meant only for you.  I can’t say when you’ll receive it, I can only say that you will. And pray that when it comes, you’ll be listening.

In honor of my new friends in the prison, I want to share a story I wrote about forgiveness. May it bless.

The Rose….by Kelly Swanson, funny motivational speaker (A story of forgiveness)

  • Marilyn Sherman

    Really really beautiful Kelly! I love that you love your audiences so much that you allow the magic to happen. Bravo!!!

  • Karen Eddington

    Oh Kelly! This is beautiful. I love everything you shared in here. I loved that you seat yourself beside your audience. I love how you shared you were here to being them each a unique message, handwritten for them…Thank you for sharing this!

    • kellyswanson1

      You are most welcome, Karen. It was truly a magical day.

  • JasonH

    This post is incredible. Having been there with both the men and the women prisoners myself as their speaker I know this feeling and there’s nothing like it. Thank you for sharing this so eloquently. Amazing.

    • kellyswanson1

      Thanks Jason. Means a lot coming from you. the only thing better was if those women could have seen YOU!

  • kellyswanson1

    Update: I received a letter in the mail yesterday – handwritten – not something you see every day – at least in my world. It was a thank you note from a mother who said….”Thank you so much for your visit to the women’s prison. You have made a difference in my daughter’s life for Christ. It blessed my heart when she told me all the things you told her. Thank you for not forgetting the ones who have made mistakes.” And THAT card, which I will carry in my heart and in my purse forever is worth more than any fee I could have gotten. And just imagine if that daughter shares words of hope with her daughter, who shares them with her friend, who shares them with her mother, who shares them with……… ripples in a pond. We have no idea where our one moment will go.

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