What I Learned About Courage from a Night in Jail

Night in Jail

It wasn’t supposed to start this way.

London was supposed to be the launching point of my Global Courage Tour. A large financial services company had hired me to do a series of Courageous Leadership workshops in London, Zurich, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Sydney.

A Screeching Halt

As the start of the world tour, you can imagine how excited I was as I hurried down the ramp at Gatwick Airport and headed to the customs agent.

Then, however, everything came to a screeching halt.

After asking me a few harmless questions about the purpose of my visit, the customs agent said he would have to detain me because I didn’t have a work visa.

“Huh? I’m working in your country for a total of 3 hours. I need a work visa for a 3-hour workshop?”

Nothing is quite as frustrating as a bureaucrat who does his job too well. This dude was a by-the-book kind of guy. Before I knew it, I was being interrogated about the nature of my trip. It was entirely perplexing and humiliating. The reality was, if I had lied about the purpose of my visit, saying, for example, that I was “on holiday,, I would have breezed through customs. But because I readily offered that I was there to conduct a workshop on behalf of a global financial services company with a presence in the UK, I was now set to be refused entry into the UK.

Big Expensive Repercussions

The silly little customs man refused my entry into the UK. As a result, my client would have to cancel the UK and Zürich sessions, inconveniencing literally hundreds of employees. My company’s June revenues would be off by thousands of dollars due to the lost revenues associated with the cancelled sessions.

And I would have to spend the night in an immigration detention center before being sent back to the United States.

Keep in mind that when you’re an immigration detainee, you are not charged with a crime. You are not “under arrest.” You pretty much aren’t anything in the eyes of the country refusing you. Though you aren’t charged with a crime, you are a sort of persona non grata.

You are not welcomed.

Go Directly to Jail

Got To JailSo, instead of standing in front of 100 eager executives sharing my insights on how to lead more courageously, I would be spending the night at The Brook House Immigration Removal Center, at Gatwick Airport.

Except for the fact that I wasn’t handcuffed, I was treated like a common criminal.

I was placed in the back of a locked van, driven to the high-security “detention center” (aka prison), stripped of my belongings, and given a 5-minute phone call.

My choice? The US Embassy in the UK.

Their answer?

“We’re sorry that you’re going through this experience, but we have no authority of the decisions over a foreign sovereignty.”

They did, however, offer to call my client to so they could cancel the session.

A Global Issue

Throughout the world there are tens of thousands of men, women, and children being held in immigration centers. In Australia, for example, there are over 4400 detainees. 65% of them have been there for over 6 months.

The experiencing is so frustrating and harrowing that many are suing the country because of the psychological damage that can result a result of the trauma-inducing experience of being incarcerated.

One man, for example, was awarded $800,000 after being detained for over 3 years. In the process he had gone mad, sewn his lips shut, and attempted suicide.

Profound Affects

I am no wimp. I teach about courage for a living. But I can tell you, if I had to spend 3 years in a detention hell hole, I would go mad too. Though my detention only lasted about 30 hours, it affected me profoundly.

  • First, your communication is severely limited. My family was unaware of my plight for most of my stay.
  • Second, you are left to wait for hours on end.
  • Hours go by as your waiting for the customs person to render the decision as to whether you’ll be allowed entry.
  • After you’re refused entry, hours go by before you are transported to the detention center.
  • Then more hours go by as you are placed in the aptly named “waiting room.”
  • Still more hours go by as you wait to see a nurse – a requirement of all entering detainees.
  • Finally, hours and hours go by as you wait for the seemingly endless night to pass.

A Number, Not a Name

There is a starkness to being in jail.

What could be more institutional, as a setting, than a detention institution.

Everything reeks of depersonalization.

Here you aren’t a person, you are a number.

The guy in cell 108-A.

The floors are linoleum.

The narrow windows are yellow-stained Plexiglas.

The tall fences are topped off with razor wire.

Everything is cold. Including the food. If you can call it that. The word “gruel” seems more fitting.

According to a 2010 report by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, Brook House is one of the worst detention centers out of the 17 in the UK. According to the report, “…we were disturbed to find one of the least safe immigration detention facilities we have inspected, with deeply frustrated detainees and demoralized staff… our surveys, interviews and observations all evidenced a degree of despair amongst detainees about safety at Brook House which we have rarely encountered.”

Learning From Experience

I guess if you’re going to teach about courage, you have to learn about courage. Brook House provided me with ample new lessons, though I would have preferred to learn these lessons remotely instead of firsthand.

Here are four things I learned:

Hope Builds Courage

Part of what makes being in jail so hard is the sheer hopelessness of it all. Your pleas of innocence fall on deaf ears. The jail staff could not care less about the specifics of your situation. My own hope was dashed when I learned that there was a good chance that my detention would be extended because a volcano was spewing ash in Greenland, and it was expected to delay flights in the UK.

But my hope grew during the middle of the night when I looked out my cell window and saw a bright moon through a clear sky. Maybe, just maybe, my flight would still be on. When you’re in jail, any bit of hope will build your courage.

Human Connection Builds Courage

Despite being way too overcrowded, jail is a very lonely place. Everyone is a stranger, and most are from far off different lands and speak strange languages. You are altogether, alone. My conversation with the staff member from the U.S. Embassy, and later conversation with my client (she called me at the prison after the embassy had called her), meant a great deal to me.

Human connection, in the form of empathy and understanding, builds the human spirit. Regardless of how alone you feel, when others tell you that they are thinking about you, and rooting for you, you can’t help but be encouraged.

You Have to Manage Your Mind

Your mind can be friend or foe. During the night especially, my mind raced with negative thoughts. What if my plane is delayed? What if my detention lasts for weeks? What will happen to my business? How will I pay my bills? Etc., etc.  It’s amazing how negative the mind can be when it fills in the blanks for all the unknowns.

What helped me harness my mind, and temper my emotions, was to get out a pen write what I was learning, real-time. I wrote about my emotions and what the felt like. I wrote about the injustice I was feeling. I ranted about my captors, the dirty shower stall, and the shitty food. Purging everything helped my mind refocus and become more positive.

Courage is Beyond the Land of Fear

The hard truth about courage is that it requires fear. Fearlessness may define bravery, but not courage. To even be courage, one has to be afraid. Thus courage is, by definition, fearful. When you are afraid to the point of being petrified, such as I was during my jail stay, it is helpful to remind yourself that your intense feelings of fear may be the best indicator that your courage is being activated.

Courage may be attractive to those who admire the courageous from a distance. But for the person who is experiencing their courage, it sure doesn’t feel very good.

Back In the Saddle Again

In the end, none of my fears turned out the way I had envisioned. When I got back to the states, my client asked me to resume my travels, starting in Japan, which I did – all without any immigration instances. I know look back on my jail stay with some sense of pride. It’s a new merit badge that brought me new firsthand insights about the topic that is so near and dear to me. However long one lives, one should never stop learning about how to be more courageous.


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Bill Treasurer
Bill Treasurer is Chief Encouragement Officer at Giant Leap Consulting, Inc.
He serves his clients with courage-building resources that reach the bottom-line
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Image Sources: travel.usnews.com, stevemiller4lasvegas.com

L2L Contributing Author


  1. Douglas Long on June 7, 2011 at 12:15 am

    You very correctly mention the issue of detainees in the UK and Australia. As you now know (albeit from a very limited perspective), their situation is truly horrible. However you omit to mention those detailed at Guantanamo Bay and other US detention centres – many of whom, like you, have never committed a crime – they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and, even worse, this is acknowledged by the US authorities yet there are still there. How much worse must they be suffering.

    • Bill Treasurer on June 8, 2011 at 9:12 am

      Excellent point Douglas. I agree too that Guantanamo is a tragic situation. That said, being detained as a result of trying to lawfully gain entry into a country – with a valid passport – seems different than being captured and detained in a war. Regardless, I agree with your sentiment about Guantanamo. It’s a disastrous situation, and the U.S.’s inability to resolve the situation is nothing short of pathetic.

  2. J. Mark Walker on June 8, 2011 at 9:52 pm

    You guys have turned what should have been a interesting blog into a political statement. Bill was the victim of a jerk, a classical “civil servant,” who relishes his ability to cause trouble for others by enforcing his little set of petty rules.

    The people at “Club Gitmo” are terrorists, and were captured during battle. They are not being held for petty reasons, like “working for 3 hours without a visa.” In spite of their detained state, they eat well, have reasonably comfortable quarters, and regular communication with legal counsel paid for by the US taxpayer. That seems better than what Bill got. Had the military tribunals been allowed to progress normally, those “detainees” would either have been released to their home nations, or punished appropriately.

    I am disgusted by both of your comments. Maybe you could apply to the US State Department and take one of those pitiful Gitmo detainees into your homes. Your comments about Guantanamo are inappropriate for this kind of business blog.

    • LtUhura on January 8, 2012 at 7:25 pm

      I couldn’t disagree more with your perspective @J.Mark. “That (Gitmo prisoners’ treatment) seems better than what Bill got.” Really? Are you that ill-informed about the conditions, the length of time there, the treatment, the youth & health of some prisoners, etc.? Please remember that many of the Gitmo prisoners were not criminals — they didn’t rob, steal, rape, etc. They thought they were protecting their homeland from invaders. Please educate yourself. Many like our own middle class children, smart, caring; they trusted their elders’. Yet they have no POW rights and not even criminal law rights. Over the years, some of these detainees have turned 18 without seeing their parents.

      OUR treatment of these people is unethical and criminal by some legal experts. The author’s experience was a micro-view of the possible horrors of the powerlessness of being a detainee.

      I and my husband have worked the other side of the fence — as law enforcement & corrections. The author accurately describes the de-humanization, the stripping away of one’s hope, how incarceration can exacerbate the human condition (further destroy one’s ethics, empathy, social responsibility) — rather than building or enhancing society. It doesn’t have to be that way, but given small minds & hearts like yours, that’s what it often is.

      The purpose of this article is 3-fold: 1) to encourage the brave act of thinking beyond self-serving stereotypes of “criminals” and “terrorists” and
      2) push America to be more responsible and return to being the leader we once were in the area of justice and human rights
      3) realize that your tough talk from your position of privilege is just that — talk that will be hard to remember if you are ever put in such a situation. I hope you are never are.

  3. Bill Treasurer on June 9, 2011 at 8:29 am


    So you’re critiquing a reply I made to another person’s comment, and not the blog itself? That’s a first for me.

    BTW, not all the detainees at Gitmo are war captives.