Mass incarceration is a fact that many states in our nation now struggle with. In California and across the nation, people in high places are scratching their heads, trying to envision a solution. The reasons for mass incarceration are complex and should not be over-simplified; because of this, it is frequently assumed that the solutions will be complex too. I hope to aid the search for a solution with seven well-thought-out recommendations.
Clearly, the solution to our current state of mass incarceration must be mass rehabilitation. “Mass Rehabilitation” is not a vernacular term yet, but it is one we need to coin, and that is my first recommendation. If that sounds simplistic, it is only because we make the mistake of underestimating how effectively language shapes perception, thinking, and discussion.
When we coin a term—especially if it’s catchy—it clarifies that idea in people’s minds and makes it much easier for people to refer to it. This makes it more likely that the term and its conversation will enter popular culture and perhaps go viral. When the subject comes up, the appeal of the term itself will influence how people feel about the idea it represents.
My second recommendation is just as practical. California’s prison system, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), must create a mission statement committing it to the goal of rehabilitating every offender. Merely changing the department’s name from CDC to CDCR was not enough.
My third recommendation is for the CDCR to task someone with re-examining all its policies to formally identify the ones that hinder rehabilitative activities and efforts.
My fourth recommendation is for the department to identify inmates who could play key roles in implementing the solution. What we need for this movement of Mass Rehabilitation to take shape is one or more “poster children” for rehabilitation. The CDCR has at least sixty to two hundred men in its custody who would easily fit the bill. At least ten of these men would instantly volunteer. Putting realistic faces to Mass Rehabilitation would help diffuse the public’s fear and defuse blind opposition to the idea.
My fifth recommendation is for the CDCR to immediately begin awarding expanded good-conduct credits (now called “good-time” credits) to every inmate exhibiting good behavior. Currently the system’s mechanisms for behavioral control are built around punishments and offer almost no incentives at all. It doesn’t take a behaviorist with a degree in psychology to identify that as a flaw. It is a general rule of life that when you want more of a particular behavior, you reward it, but prison administrators have excelled in restricting “good-time” credits. In prison, only offenders convicted for nonviolent/non-serious offenses (most drug offenders and petty criminals) have been eligible to earn the most good-conduct credits. The irony here is that they have been the least motivated to attempt to earn those credits.
The persons in prison who have been convicted for nonviolent/non-serious offenses all have short prison terms and most take their second chance at freedom for granted. Most of them are still lost in the persona they were trying to live up to on the streets. In prison, most band with similar lost boys and try to impress each other.
Short-termers, for the most part, are followers. They adhere to the mentality of the crowd. Sadly, they are the hardest to reach because they are so easily impressed by negative influences.
If you want to make a strong impression on short-termers, you must first make an impression on the people they listen to. When the ideas, values, and social norms of the people around them change, the short-termers/followers will follow suit. That is the most compelling reason why equal incentives for good conduct must be given to all prison inmates across the board. Only when their peers are acknowledging the senselessness in anti-social behavior and the sense in rehabilitative programs will it dawn upon the average short-termer that acting stupid is no longer “cool.” The lights will come on, and they’ll get it.
My sixth recommendation is for lawmakers to establish a sentencing commission to look at and possibly revise California’s harshest sentences. Every sentence should promote public safety, but disproportionately harsh sentences do not. There is evidence that lengthy sentences produce diminishing returns for public safety. This conclusion was published by The Sentencing Project in 2013, citing The Impact of Incarceration on Public Safety (Social Research, 74 (2), 2007, 613-630) and Imprisonment and Crime: Can Both Be Reduced? (Criminology and Public Policy, 10 (1), 2011, 13-54).
My seventh recommendation is for the CDCR to review the file of every first-termer in prison after ten to fifteen years have elapsed. Every inmate’s sentence should be a reflection of the crime they committed, their level of remorse, and the possibility of rehabilitation. However, for various reasons it may be hard to accurately gauge a first-termer’s remorse and prospect for rehabilitation at the time of their trial.
Criminal trials are accusatory and confrontational. First-termers standing trial for violent offenses go into the courtroom for their trial straight from county jails, violent places that are notorious for bringing out the animal in people. The county jail environment heaps trauma upon trauma and makes it near impossible for first-termers to process their true emotions. Judges looking at defendants during that time do not get a full picture of the individual and they don’t get a crystal ball to help them descry the future. Taking this recommendation is the equivalent of buying the State a crystal ball, and I believe most Americans would support it. Most Americans believe in second chances and, if given the chance, would reserve the harshest sentences for individuals who have burned one or two “second chances” already.
These seven recommendations, taken together, will go a long way toward shifting America’s prison policy from Mass Incarceration to Mass Rehabilitation. They are potent, pragmatic, and well within our reach both politically and logistically. It will be far cheaper for the State of California to implement them than ignore them.
Look for more about Mass Incarceration (and Mass Rehabilitation), coming soon on my blog!
Restorative Justice is a term rarely heard and often misunderstood at first. It is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of services. The most significant thing about Restorative Justice is how diametrically opposed it is to the common approach to criminal justice: relational rather than institutional, personal rather than impersonal, humanizing rather than dehumanizing. And voluntary rather than involuntary.
It is this last point critics pounce upon most. I understand the attraction of the "lock-'em-up" approach to dealing with violent crime, and crimes that are morally repugnant: when a criminal justice system strives to ignore the human complexities of each crime in its context, rushes to slap simplistic labels on the perpetrator, hides them all far away, and forgets them long enough that no one needs to worry about that criminal repeating that crime for a long time. That way, no one can weasel their way out of punishment with sophistry or sob stories. (And if it seems this has happened, the response is more of the same: "Ignore the 'ameliorating circumstances'! Don't listen to their lies! Just throw 'em in jail!") But this approach has been pursued for decades now without much attention to either the perpetrator of the crime or the victim of the crime.
The humans who matter most, the victim and the perpetrator, are lost and ignored in the process, except when they are needed for testimony or procedural correctness.
Restorative Justice brings the focus back to the specific individuals involved in and affected by the crime. Most powerfully, it brings them together in a safe setting and creates the opportunity for resolution, for restitution (if possible), for transformation, and for healing. Yes, Restorative Justice requires each party to be honest with themselves and with the other: there will always be perpetrators who cling to deceit and manipulation, just as there will always be victims who cling to vindictive revenge.
But most of us are more human than that. Given a chance to change, and a context where that change is empowered and protected, we rise to the occasion. I know I long for an opportunity to face those I have so deeply harmed, in a context where we can let down our defenses and I can hear them pour out their pain to me and I can weep with them; and I can pour out my regret and repentance to them and perhaps be forgiven.
I am not alone, in the prison population. I do not know how many inmates would genuinely participate in Restorative Justice so that their victims' lives, minds, and hearts might be healed. Estimated percentages and statistics are the language of the institutional justice system, not the restorative one. Restorative Justice seeks to give each person the chance to be healed and restored, both victim and perpetrator. Forgiveness is the most rare and precious thing, the most deeply desired thing, for any prisoner. Most of us have despaired of ever receiving it, and that despair cuts off the soul from seeking other noble things as well, things that might turn our lives in positive directions when at last we are paroled.
We all might be surprised by the power of even the hope of forgiveness-- not an institutional pardon that cancels a legal sentence, but a personal pardon that cancels a spiritual death penalty that doesn't change whether a person is in or out of prison. Without this authentic forgiveness, an offender is never really freed. And the only one who can grant that pardon, that healing, is the one we have harmed.
Lack of Rehabilitation
During my twenty-four years of incarceration I became acutely aware of the availability of rehabilitation programs--or the lack of them--at various prisons,.
With the exception of Substance Abuse Programs (SAPs), most rehabilitation groups fall under the category of Inmate Leisure-time Activity Groups. The biggest reason there are not more of these groups is that someone must draft a proposal and get it approved. That someone needs to have sufficient knowledge of the structure and workings of good rehabilitation groups in order to draft a good proposal.
As correctional staff are neither trained nor motivated to design rehab programs for inmates (or to draft proposals at all), it often falls on the inmates who will benefit from a rehabilitation group to draft their own proposal and submit it to the warden or the warden's designee for approval. (On rare occasions an outside stakeholder will draft a proposal. More on that later.)
So before a group can start, there must be an inmate who has a vision for how to run a good group. That inmate must be able to write all his ideas in a formal proposal, clearly explaining how the group will benefit its inmate participants and the correctional institution as well. If the inmate has the vision but is intimidated by the paperwork, the plan will die on his lips.
If the inmate drafts the proposal but is frustrated by the inevitable setbacks during the approval process, the plan might still die before it can bear fruit, for any number of technical reasons.
The warden (or his staffer) might require three or four revisions of the plan before approving it. Usually these revisions are perfectly legitimate but sometimes the reasons given might stretch logic (and patience). And in most cases, the plan is rejected as soon as they see one thing that needs fixing, which is why one revision after another is needed to get the whole plan ironed out.
In any event, it will feel inconvenient (at least) every time the proposal is rejected, and the inmate behind the plan must be prepared for that. It would help if all the flaws were pointed out at one time so that they could all be addressed in a single revision, but this rarely happens.
Also, the review-and-return process is not a swift one, and sometimes omits the "return:" they may quietly hold onto the rejected plan until you ask for an update. One has to breathe deeply and persevere through the process. Unfortunately, many inmates take the frustrations personally and after eight to fourteen months of campaigning for their support group, they get discouraged and quit.
The prison system in general is simply not set up to rehabilitate inmates, or to encourage inmates to engineer their own growth or rehabilitation.
Does it allow or encourage outside organizations or concerned individuals to provide rehabilitation opportunities? Or perhaps to provide state-funded and CDCR-designed rehabilitation opportunities? Well... yes and no. More on that in future blog posts.
Effectiveness of Self-Help Study Groups
Self-help groups come in several flavors: religious, spiritual, or secular; on-site or correspondence; flexible self-paced groups, intensive highly-structured groups, 12-step groups, circle groups, peer counseling groups, college courses, seminars, retreat groups, and immersion programs. They all work differently, but they work best in combination and cumulatively over time. And they do work, almost regardless of whether they are "high" or "low" quality!
Inmates with the highest rate of success have, without exception, given themselves fully to more than one kind of rehabilitation group. It doesn't seem to matter where a person begins, which sort of group comes first, second, or third. The order in which an inmate discovers other groups doesn't matter as much as the actual participation.
My first self-help/rehab group was a circle group. The ancient practice of men sitting in a circle around fires to talk about their lives and the issues they all face, predates all our existing models of education, spiritual formation, and government. Yet a "circle group" handles all three functions surprisingly well. Sitting in circles to talk and share struggles, questions, insights, experiences was one of the first things civilized men learned to do, and it is one of the seminal customs from which civilizations sprang. It was a venue for passing on old wisdom and discovering new wisdom, as young men invited to sit at those circles listened to their elders savor the stories that shaped their past and solve the problems that plague their present. It is where they learned the inner dynamics of being a man. Circle-groups today serve the same purpose-- they explain and pass along the secrets of manhood.
That first circle-group (and first self-help group) I joined was the Catholic Men's Support Group at the California Men's Prison-Sacramento. it was life-changing. In our confidential circle I saw for the first time in my life men open up to one another and keep it real. We were all at different stages of our incarceration, and I learned a lot of lessons vicariously through them. It started the process of reconnecting my emotional wiring. In that safe environment I found support to make major life decisions and learn invaluable communication skills. I learned how to support others through rough times. And as I learned how to talk through emotional events, I also learned how to think through them. Learning how to think my way through emotional events changed my definition of strength.
What made that group so effective was the courage, insights, honesty and camaraderie. In the circle, we gave each other courage to stop lying to ourselves, so in contrast to inmates who weren't in our group, we made rapid realizations. I experienced more self-discovery, self-mastery, and major life changes over the course of my two and a half years with them than I had in all my years of incarceration prior to joining them. From week one I recognized how special their program was and dove headfirst into it, grasping at each tool they taught as I struggled through the awkward transition period that accompanies life changes pursued with a singleminded determination to come out better.
Most inmates won't throw themselves wholly into rehabilitation opportunities like this. I certainly didn't, for several years. But when the right group is there at the right time in a prisoner's life, the magic is transformative. Let's encourage and empower as many different kinds of this transformative magic as possible, so that as many inmates as possible will be caught up in it.
And then what ought we do with those men and women?
Don't just learn about the issues. Be an agent of change.
Here are three effective catalysts for change
which need your support and involvement now:
GOGI (Getting Out by Going In) has been serving men, women, and children in prison since 2005 as the only all-donor-funded, all-volunteer-staffed leadership training program available to any prisoner. It is the brainchild of Mara Leigh Taylor, nicknamed "Coach Taylor" because of her active and action-oriented teaching or mentoring style (okay, "coaching" style).
Combining proven behavioral therapy theory and methods with creative feedback from thousands of inmates over a ten-year period, Coach Taylor developed a core curriculum called Positive Decision-Making Tools of GOGI. It emphasizes taking responsibility for one's actions, wise decision-making, and gives prisoners a new sense of identity and a vision for the kind of life they can lead when they rejoin society.
All GOGI coaches and staff are volunteers... as is Coach Taylor! GOGI is not funded by any foundation or government money, so it is not beholden to anyone, and exists purely to serve inmates who want to be transformed from the inside out, who are ready to "go inside" themselves with a GOGI Coach or Peer Coach (a fellow inmate who is a GOGI graduate and pronounced ready and able to coach others). GOGI is one non-profit that you can be sure uses 100% of any donation ONLY to further its programs in America's prisons and jails. And it really does need your support-- see GOGI's facebook update from July 2nd, 2013!
(Save Our Sons) is a ministry of Crenshaw United Methodist Church. It offers a monthly support group for prisoners, parolees, ex-offenders, and their families, as well as legal aid and other helpful resources.
S.O.S. plays a crucial catalytic role in transforming hurting and hurtful persons into healed and healing persons, moving offenders from the category of "threat to society" to "pillar of society."
Save Our Sons is financially supported by Crenshaw UMC but greatly appreciates donations to help defray its costs.
TUMI (The Urban Ministry Institute) has a passion for those discarded by the world, who, at first glance, seem less than credible or salvageable. We heed the biblical injunction: “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body” (Hebrews 13.2). We believe our TUMI prison sites represent the new beachheads of Kingdom advance to reach America’s urban poor.
In 2004, Prison Fellowship invited us to Ellsworth Correctional Facility to partner with the InnerChange Freedom Initiative program. We opened our first prison satellite institute in Ellsworth that summer with a small group of dedicated men, whose dean was a convicted-murderer-turned-professor. That partnership with Prison Fellowship expanded across the nation, reaching California in 2006.
As of Spring 2013, TUMI operates seven classes in five California prisons with 218 inmates enrolled. Under an agreement with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, TUMI will expand to 32 classes in prisons across the state, over the next two years. This will bring TUMI's four-year, 16-course, seminary-level training curriculum to an additional 960 inmates.
Visit our website to see how you can get involved. Please help us provide seminary-level education behind prison walls, equipping prisoners to become pastors and church leaders, to those on the “inside” for lifers, and to urban communities for those who will be released someday.
Many other organizations help those currently in prison, those just being released from prison, and their friends and families. Here are several more that I believe are worthy of your attention, good places to invest your time, dime, and talent: The Inside Circle Foundation, PREP (Partnership for Re-Entry), Straight Talk, Families of the Incarcerated, Friends Outside, California Lifer Newsletter, Quest (AVP California), White Bison, Sycamore Tree Project, Yokefellows, Harvest Bible College, Criminon, Resolve to Stop the Violence, GEO Re-Entry