By Leigh Erin Carlson
CalSouthern alumnus “Coach” Mara Leigh Taylor (PsyD, 2011) began volunteering inside America’s prisons and jails in 2002, ultimately founding the organization Getting Out by Going In (GOGI). Coach Taylor and her volunteers researched and developed a profoundly simple method of empowering prisoners to learn proven cognitive tools for positive decision making, and have been teaching the tools to incarcerated men, women and youth ever since.
“We lost our formal count at 10,000, but I suspect that close to a quarter of a million prisoners across the nation have studied or engaged in discussion groups focusing on the GOGI Tools for Positive Decision Making,” says Taylor.
Taylor and her team of volunteer coaches travel to prisons and jails nationwide to support the viral growth of prisoner-led GOGI Groups, GOGI book clubs, GOGI study groups and GOGI curricula designed by prisoners for specific needs such as gambling, addiction, parenting and more.
It was this sort of specialized use of the GOGI Tools for Positive Decision Making that got Taylor thinking about another application. She approached a prisoners’ group for veterans and military personnel who had committed crimes. The response confirmed the need for GOGI materials to address service members’ unique challenges.
“I began to do a bit more reading on the effects of PTSD with a specific focus on how PTSD could be a contributing factor to drug addiction and violence leading to incarceration,” says Taylor. “The concept of providing GOGI to our warriors is now being developed from inside the prisons by veterans who know all too well the challenges of the internal battlefield. If we can fortify a returning service member with simple tools for positive decision making that he or she can use to begin the healing from PTSD, we’ll have taken a definitive step toward winning that war within.”
The momentum of GOGI’s growth within the prison population is keeping Taylor and her team of other volunteers busy. GOGI receives more than 200 incoming letters each week. Teams of volunteers handwrite responses to each letter and seek donations to enable prisoners to receive the self-published manual titled How to GOGI. When prisoners receive a donor-paid book including a notification that the book has been paid for by a concerned community member, they will often write a thank-you letter to GOGI, asking that it be forwarded to their donor.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH TO CORRECTIONS
“In my opinion, where the American system of corrections is going wrong is in taking a top-down approach to encourage change,” says Taylor. “That has never worked and it is amazing to me, with all the billions of tax dollars we pump into an unworkable system, that there is not a public demand for change—especially when the solution is far simpler and less expensive.”
Taylor and her team of certified GOGI coaches believe that when you empower an individual with tools for positive decision making, create an alternative positive culture, and then develop leaders from within the population being served, you will find real solutions.
GOGI Coach Maria Castro Fierro believes firmly in the GOGI way of corrections. “GOGI helped me organize my thought process by using simple tools that were developed by prisoners just like me. When I was little, no one taught me that I was the ‘boss of my brain,’ which is one of the GOGI tools. Now I am close to mastering the ability to use these tools to create a wonderful life for myself,” says Coach Maria. “My mom was in prison when she was pregnant with me. I was born in prison. I ended up in prison myself. My husband was in prison, and our baby was placed in foster care. When I began to study GOGI, everything changed. Now, my husband and I go back into the jails and prisons to help others learn the tools that made all the difference in our lives.”
Coach Maria and Coach David Merrihue travel to prisons and jails, volunteering their own time and paying their own way to be of service. “One of the GOGI tools that has made the biggest impact in my life—and in the lives of the prisoners I work with—is ‘ultimate freedom,’” says Coach David. “Ultimate freedom means that as long as one lives a life of service, they maintain their internal freedom. There is no way I am giving up my freedom, ever.”
GOGI also promotes a positive prison culture. The prisoners call it “doing time the GOGI way.” They often contribute art, poetry, songs and testimonials to the materials developed by GOGI for prison distribution.
INMATES HELPING INMATES
A reliance on former and current prisoners to teach other inmates is becoming increasingly popular as prison budgets continue to be cut. “They are using prisoners as educators because they don’t have the budgets to hire teachers,” says Taylor. “The difference is at GOGI, we always knew the prisoners were our greatest teachers. Who is better to know an inmate’s needs than those who experience the same needs and suffer the same pain?” asks Taylor. “There are prisoners I simply cannot reach, but his peers, his cellmates, might have the credibility needed to change that man’s life.”
Taylor believes this format is what’s needed to supplement the military’s approach to aiding soldiers struggling with PTSD. “For the military, this will be a little out of their box, as it is out of the box for most departments of corrections, but if they want results, they may want to look outside the old methods,” says Taylor. “We think the GOGI method is a viable alternative, one that has proven to be successful with the incarcerated population.”
Captain Mike Bornman, who heads the Education-Based Incarceration Division of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, is a believer in the GOGI method. “GOGI’s unique approach at simplified peer-leadership and peer-teaching is consistent with our goal of providing detainees with the opportunity to learn positive decision making before their release. Coach Taylor and her team of coaches have been diligently serving the detained in LA County since 2007, changing many lives with their unwavering dedication to service."
Coach Taylor admits to being somewhat surprised at GOGI’s growth, but now sees even greater potential for the seemingly simple program for teaching positive decision making.
“I started volunteering in 2002 because I saw a big problem and a simple solution,” says Taylor. “I had no idea it would become a virally growing, all-creeds, all-colors, all-shapes-and-sizes solution, but that’s what is happening. It is well established in our nation’s prisons and shows great potential with military service members suffering from PTSD. I hope to one day see it offered to school children and their families, starting in the inner cities. We all deserve the internal freedom that is possible when we learn to use simple, positive decision-making tools.”
Leigh Erin Carlson is GOGI’s national director of media and programs.