From the Dungeon to the Palace

I’ve always been a very curious person with many different interests. As an undergraduate, I double majored in psychology and English literature. As a doctoral student, I completed the coursework and internships in two different programs: (1) clinical psychology, the assessment and treatment of mental illness, and (2) industrial-organizational psychology, the scientific study of human behavior in the workplace.

My first double internship was in 2000 when I worked part-time as a geriatric psychiatry intern at a hospital, and part-time for the City of San Diego as an organizational effectiveness consultant. Half the day was spent comforting elderly clients who were dying and the other half was spent facilitating strategic planning support groups, labor-management partnership committees, and diversity committees.

I really enjoyed having wildly different experiences until 2006 when I worked part-time as a forensic psychologist in the prison system and part-time as an organizational consultant. As a consultant, I taught companies how to create organizational cultures that supported work-life balance.

Law offices in particular were interested in my work and had hired me to conduct seminars. One of the seminars was scheduled in the evening at the Palace Hotel on the same day I worked in the men’s prison. I had just been assigned a new rotation with inmates in solitary confinement. The solitary confinement unit was referred to as the “dungeon.”

When I first entered the dungeon, I felt like I was in a scene from the movie, “Silence of the Lambs“. There was a catwalk on the second tier. On one side was a large drop off and on the other side were small cells with no windows. It felt exactly like a dungeon from the dark ages. Food was delivered through a port that opened temporarily for a tray to slide through.

Below is a photo of the dungeon. This photo was published in 2013 by the New York Times when 30,000 California inmates went on a hunger strike to protest solitary confinement.

I took pity on the poor souls in the dungeon. Yes, the inmates were violent, but their living conditions were utterly inhuman. A great sorrow came over me as I looked into the eyes of these helpless, out of control human beings who were treated by the State of California worse than animals. It was disturbing to think that educated people thought this place would rehabilitate an unstable person.

After 8 hours in the dungeon, I drove home, took a hot lavender bath, did my hair and makeup, put on an expensive Italian suit, and drove to the Palace Hotel in San Francisco to give the seminar.

Palace Hotel in downtown San Francisco

As I walked into the Palace nothing seemed real. Under the crystal chandeliers, the attorneys greeted me with their shinning white teeth, perfect clothes, and beautiful glowing faces. They offered me a glass of wine from the open bar, which I declined, and a large variety of hors d’oeurves laid out on golden trays. I took to the stage to deliver my talk and spoke powerfully about the need for work-life balance and organizational change. The attorneys applauded and then continued to wine and dine me.

After that night, I never returned to the Palace or worked as an organizational consultant again. For the next 5 years, I sat with the lost traumatized souls in the dungeon. Not just in the men’s prison but also in the women’s prison. The most beautiful moment was when inmates in solitary turned to me and said, “When I am with you, I feel like a person.” Most of the inmates I worked with in solitary made enough behavioral changes that they were released to the general prison population. I knew that my psychological knowledge could make a world of difference in their lives and could help them break out of the dungeon.

In 2011, the State of California cut funding for mental health services in the prison system. I was laid off and started my private practice in Pleasanton. My life has changed a lot since those days and I now have a child to raise. Working with a diverse group of clients at my office in Pleasanton is very rewarding, but I still think about those inmates in solitary.

If you would like to learn more about solitary confinement in the California State Prison system and the massive hunger strike of 30,000 inmates protesting confinement, please read, 50 Days Without Food: The California Prison Hunger Strike Explained

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