I’m behind bars a lot.
Over the last two decades, I have been inside over twenty federal and state prisons and many more county and city jails. I have taught a course in Anger Management inside a Nevada State Prison. I have observed behavior change programming that focused on substance abuse, job skills, faith-based initiatives, cognitive-behavioral approaches and many other topics. I’ve had the opportunity to chat informally with inmates and lead small group discussions on a variety of issues. Over the years, I have received letters from hundreds of incarcerated individuals, generally asking for help.
The programming I have witnessed is usually excellent, particularly within the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Studies show how structured programs foster real changes in thinking and behavior. Inmates learn how to change their lives for the better. Of course, programming is also limited by budget, staffing and the priority of ensuring public safety.
Which leads me to think about the inmates themselves: Why are there so many? The U.S. leads the world in incarcerating its citizens. In general, does locking up offenders with each other better prepare them to return to their jobs, families and communities? Probably not.
And the majority of inmates return to neighborhoods and shopping malls in 30 months or less. The concept of “lock them up and throw away the key” is only an option for a very small percentage of the incarcerated population.
To be clear, I’m no expert in justice services and I look at this dilemma in a highly personal way.
As may be true with some of you, in my youth I crossed the legal line on more than one occasion. I wasn’t good at it and I spent time in a few jails, and not as an observer. I recall being placed in a large cell in Maricopa County, Arizona, with several dozen men who all appeared tougher and older than me. One boorish fellow with big biceps took a special interest in me. He spat in my face and told me where I could sit. I sat exactly in that spot for a long time.
I don’t think I gained wisdom from that experience. I was not scared straight. I did learn a few tricks and I was exposed to attitudes that went contrary to healthy and responsible behavior. I adapted temporarily to fit into my circumstances, to not stick out. And, I had advantages over most of my fellow cellmates. I had family and friends who had taught me prosocial values and retained their confidence in me. It was not just internal fortitude that allowed me to choose a more productive path. It was also a combination of love, luck and support.
So this is what I think. We all should take an interest in how our country punishes and rehabilitates. And we can find solutions that provide public safety while helping individuals make positive and lasting life changes. This is a topic that affects everyone, regardless of what side of the bars we’re on.