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Coaching in prison

How can we motivate a prisoner serving a prison sentence to change? How can we force this change to last and bring measurable benefits? How do you build a relationship with someone you only see during seven coaching sessions? And what to do with the emotions that stay with the coach after such a process?

First published in Polish by Marta Kaźmierczak

In 2015, I created an original Resocialisation Programme entitled Coaching in Prison, which was an innovation dedicated to those who are serving prison sentences (starting with ‘short-term’ sentences and then life sentences through to prisoners having problems establishing interpersonal relationships and displaying difficult behaviours). It is a programme designed to aid the prevention of the negative effects of isolation. I created this programme as a coach, and above all, as a person who believes that everyone can be helped, provided that they want to receive support. I found a penitentiary unit, and within it, people who were not afraid of change. A unit which granted me a huge credit of trust by allowing a female coach into their premises, who dared (I use the word ‘dared’ on purpose) to introduce innovative changes into resocialisation work with inmates. The idea of the programme was, and still is, not to forget about the individual for whom imprisonment itself is a change, so as not to lose sight of that person. The easiest way of going through the time in prison (according to some) is to adapt and to wait- to remain in isolation, which I call the phenomenon of ‘isolation in isolation’. Despite this, time spent serving a prison sentence can be used for personal development, however, in order to dare to achieve, you must simply desire that change.

I can recall that the first selection round exceeded our wildest expectations - many more inmates than were anticipated came forward and a reserve list had to be created as a result. The implementation of the innovations has been framed by special operating rules and regulations and precise work schedules, not only because of the specificity of the unit, but above all, for my own safety. Today I know that the success of my coaching activities is a result of many factors, including the people who are responsible for my safety and the efficient implementation of the project.

Throughout the five years of the programme’s implementation, it has been undergoing modifications as the target groups of prisoners participating in coaching activities were changing. Over those years the profile of programme clients has also changed, ranging from prisoners convicted of murder, members of organised crime groups, prisoners from the suicide risk group, aggressive inmates, through to prisoners remaining in isolation due to special security measures. The aim of the programme was, and still remains, to examine how the coaching tools I use in my day-to-day work as a coach will perform in conditions of isolation, what goals clients-prisoners will set out and whether they will be able to find internal motivation to achieve the coaching goals in conditions of isolation, and thus the motivation to change their attitudes. It is worthwhile adding that social competencies play an important role in the process of social re-adaptation of prisoners, and as a result help to overcome the effects of the long-term isolation to which prisoners have been sentenced for criminal acts they had committed in the past. For these individuals undoubtedly serving their sentence is doubly hard, because for many of them the isolation alone is a punishment, not to mention the long-term aspect of the imprisonment. Social isolation can affect: stress levels of the inmates, their sleep, emotions and social interactions. Therefore, the sentence of imprisonment should not constitute for the convict an additional level of social isolation in terms of its negative effects, and thus a kind of exclusion. On the contrary, it should mobilise the prisoners not only to discover themselves (through various forms of training), but should also lead to an in-depth analysis of soft competencies necessary for serving the custodial sentence.


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Taking on the definition of coaching by Jenny Rogers: The coach works with clients to achieve speedy, increased and sustainable effectiveness in their lives and careers through focussed training. The coach’s sole aim is to work with the client to achieve all of the client’s potential – as defined by the client, I decided to adapt it to the prison conditions, in which personal and professional life (in the case of detainees who take up work outside the unit, with the consent of the director of the institution) is subject to many rules & regulations, including security provisions.

For coaching to be a tangible and effective process, I also adopted Jenny Rogers' principles that help distinguish coaching from other disciplines which, at first glance, seem similar

Principle 1: The client is a source of resources - he or she has the resources to solve their problems and change their situation. I noticed that in conditions of isolation, coaching has become for prisoners a chance to take a break from everyday prison life, to devote attention to ‘here’ and ‘now’, to explore emotions that it would be impossible to show in a cell, where everyone must appear tough. During coaching activities, the bars outside the window became invisible, and every meeting of the coach with the client was a chance to notice the human being within an individual who, after all, is some kind of person that comes from somewhere, has someone behind them and has already experienced things in life.

Principle 2: By asking the right questions, challenging and providing support, the coach makes the client start using their own resources. On many occasions it would transpire that the questions I asked were too difficult for the clients, that they could not answer them or did not want to deal with this area of their lives. The principles of cooperation established at the very beginning of the process meant that the client had a choice: to either focus on the area that the question was pertaining to, as a result of client’s previous discourse, or to simply stop the work and indicate another area to work in. On some occasions my clients utilised these jointly agreed rules, but did not abuse them.

Principle 3: Coaching applies to the whole person - with their past, present and future. In my daily work with clients, the present is important to me, but in my work with inmates, it is impossible not to pay attention to their past, which represents a baggage of experiences, is the foundation of numerous negative beliefs and is also a proverbial weight around their neck. A person who starts the coaching process, which is supposed to lead him/her to the change they want to make, is already formed, and besides that, coaching work with an inmate is still work on a living organism - this is how I put it in practice.

Principle 4: The client sets the agenda for the process and for the session.  Only the client knows what he wants to do, what he cares about, what is important to him at a given moment. The fact that he can decide for himself makes him feel fully responsible for the goal he chooses.

Principle 5: Coach and client are equal, and their work is based on unconditional respect. The basis of my work with clients is also confidentiality, which is particularly important in sessions with prisoners. Time during the session is primarily the time belonging to the client, who, often living in a multi-person cell, has no possibility of spending time alone with himself and his thoughts, because he takes on a specific role and simply focusses on surviving the day.

Principle 6: Coaching is about change and action. The clients undertook the coaching process because they wanted something to change in their lives, and when they had tangible evidence that the change they had initiated was becoming possible, and above all noticeable, they began to grow.

For many inmates, my programme proved to be a chance to survive in prison. They undoubtedly welcomed the opportunity for development that was created for them, but they were also happy to be able to overcome their own negative beliefs.

During the 10 editions of the programme, more than 65 inmates took part in the sessions with the coach. The elements differentiating the participants of the programme were:

  • age (the oldest was 67 years old, the youngest 29),
  • crime for which they were serving their sentence,
  • place of origin,
  • level of educational attainment,
  • marital status.

The length of one session meeting carried out within the programme was set as 45 minutes (there were cases of prolonged session time - especially with inmates isolated for security reasons). Sessions were conducted in a 1:1 system, with the full, focussed attention of the coach. Sessions were held according to the developed schedule in a designated place - a therapy room, with all security measures in place.


   What were the goals of the coaching sessions?  

Many times when working with clients certain questions arise: ‘where does the goal for the process come from?’, ‘on what basis is it generated?’ or ‘who comes to the conclusion that it is time for a change?’.  In the case of isolation conditions, the prisoner himself states that he wants to do something with himself, change something, that he is looking for answers to questions bothering him, that he has already used many methods of support and is looking for something else, or has not accessed any from the forms of support offered to him, etc. Coaching is defined as a method of supporting a human being - a client, on their journey, on their way to achieve their goals, on the road to themselves. I will therefore repeat: it is the client who sets the agenda for the process and for the session. Generally speaking, the goals of the clients of all editions of the programme were really varied: starting with goals focussing on all sorts of life dilemmas, through to better self-management of an individual in the context of time (inmates with life imprisonment sentences), undertaking work on the premises of the incarceration institution, dealing with stress, achieving mental balance in relation to the received sentence, undertaking studies, improving sports performance or improving group relationships. There were instances where clients joined the programme with their sentence already determined, just to learn that the sentence got changed during the course of our sessions, for example: due to inmate receiving a cumulative sentence, through a change in the type of accommodation (the prisoner was sent to solitary confinement), commencement of court actions in connection with another crime (which could mean departure to another facility for some amount of time). All of this had an impact on the implementation of the change process. How do you work with a prisoner who, upon joining the program, is serving a 25-year prison sentence, and during the coaching process finds out that the sentence has been changed (by court decision) to a life sentence? What is important for clients is that coaching focusses on their strength, not their weakness. Every client has resources, but not everyone can use them. The coach’s task is to accompany the client on his road to change, which in the case of clients remaining in isolation is a particularly difficult task. Clients look for answers to questions that bother them, and sometimes they just simply accept the reality that they encounter at the stage of change or they get surprised by it. Accompanying the clients sometimes meant sitting in silence, because what can you hope to say when a person comes to the session moments after finding out that someone close to them has died, or that instead of a 25-year sentence they will serve a life sentence? Working with a client in isolation means working with emotions, sometimes even extreme ones (especially in the case of sessions with inmates isolated for security reasons – carried out using a telephone, separated from the client by a layer of plexiglass), but it is still possible.

Depending on the chosen agenda for the process, I employed various coaching tools aimed at, among other things, making prisoners aware of their strengths and highlighting the areas requiring further work, and also to present them with the resources necessary for re-adaptation after their release from prison.

The key coaching tool, which I created while still at coaching studies, turned out to be the wheel of emotions.


Purpose of the tool:

  • Discovering emotions that the client has, which prevent him from achieving his goal.
  • Naming and listing emotions in the context of the goal that client is trying to achieve.
  • Choosing the % value and undertaking work on emotions which, according to the client, are of a key importance to implementation of the goal, but are preventing him from progressing further.

When to use it:

  • When the client's emotions visibly disturb the achievement of the goal.
  • When the client wants to turn negative emotions into positive ones and use them to achieve the set goal.
  • When the client, despite having a formulated plan, does not take action and draws attention to the impact of emotions.



In most prisoners, the prevailing emotions were:

  • hate
  • anger
  • shame
  • guilt
  • fear
  • sense of rejection

Emotions featuring less frequently:

  • indifference
  • desperation
  • helplessness

In some cases, there was a fear of being judged, despite previous explanations from my side, that the coach does not judge, but accompanies the client. Some also felt ashamed because of the reasons for which they were serving their sentence.

The benefits coming from the use of this tool allowed the inmates to confront long-hidden emotions, otherwise impossible to display due to the unforeseen reactions of the other inmates.

The use of the circle of emotions turned out to be too powerful an experience for one of the participants of the innovation, who quit after several sessions, justifying his decision not only by a lack of internal motivation, but above all by a lack of strength to work on the change he wanted to achieve, to face up to himself, as he put it. Leaving the comfort zone, which in the case of this client were the prison conditions combined with the lack of any perspective and a coded scheme of operation, turned out to be impossible to overcome: ‘after being released, I will return to prison anyway, so why should I bother?’. Fear took over.

        How to measure the effectiveness of the programme?

The most effective method is the SWOT analysis, which, after each edition of the programme, was revealing the determinants of action. During the meetings, clients most often indicated cooperation, assertiveness, persuasion and leadership as competencies desired in the process of serving a sentence. The areas indicated as requiring further work - due to disorders in the sphere of the motivational aspect, undoubtedly connected (in some cases) with underdeveloped emotional intelligence, which is the main predictor of social competencies - were the areas of values professed by clients.  


Example of a SWOT analysis:



- variety of tools and their use depending on the client's situation (in my opinion - the most effective: the wheel of emotions),

- Client’s involvement when working independently with tools, regardless of the circumstances;

- drawing the right/creative conclusions from the information obtained through the tools in the work on the objective and determination to achieve it.

- determination to achieve the goal.

- client being palpably concerned about material from the session being disclosed,

- the fear of failure occurring during the periods of low mood (caused, for example, by a family situation),

- poor emotional stability of some clients;

- reluctance to participate in activities due to remaining in solitary confinement.



- discovering their strengths and weaknesses in the context of the goal achievement and personality analysis,

- acquiring knowledge about self-acceptance, so that the client can develop his own resources,

- beneficial changes in client's attitude,

- obtaining permission to take up employment.

- a decrease in internal motivation,

- return to a habitual environment,

- fear of being judged by other inmates,

- dynamic family situation, causing emotional instability of the inmate.

Every time I finish working with the inmates, I am left alone with the emotions that accompany me during my meetings with them. Many people ask how I handle this. How do I cope with working in a place that for many is already dark by its very definition? A coach should not react to the emotions of their client, because it is the client who is experiencing them, however, sitting with an impassive face near a living, breathing person who is experiencing a variety of feelings and sharing the same space without displaying any sort of reaction is not within my methodology. Yes, I do ask my clients what they need in this situation, sometimes I offer a tissue (which in many prisons is a rare commodity), but most often I simply remain silent and let my clients know that I am with them. These are touching moments, but they are also very much needed. They build our relationship and allow us to work more effectively. I am subject to supervision that also offers me support, but I also look for my own ways of unwinding and I find it in cycling. It is my ‘me time’ that allows me to reflect on the process.

Working with inmates creates opportunities for the development of my skills and although at first it took me way out of my comfort zone, nowadays it is the experience of working with an individual in isolation which gives me satisfaction. It is also a chance to appreciate everyday rituals, such as drinking coffee whenever I feel like it, because behind bars everything occurs according to schedules.

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