I'm writing this article because I believe there are a number of good men that can benefit from a change in perspective. This article is not about a quick fix or a "right" way to capture this elusive creature we call insight. It is simply a different way to look at it.
As a lifer with nearly 25 years in the prison system, I have watched the release of lifers go from nil to upwards of ten to fifteen people a month. I've heard a number of theories [from fellow inmates] about why certain people get released: "It depends on what commissioners you have" or "They already know who they want to release," or my personal favorite, "Some guys are lucky!"
Those perspectives mainly come from the men (lifers) who are still incarcerated. In many of them the bitterness, resentment, and anger is so palpable you can feel it as soon as they enter a room. I suppose they believe they'll be able to hide those hostile feelings throughout the course of a three to five hour hearing.
However, if you talk to the men who have received a finding of suitability [for parole], I doubt they would agree that they were lucky or they didn't have to work for it. I believe it is disrespectful to even imply that a man who has looked at his life and exorcised his own demons is ...lucky!
Of course there are some who have put on academy-award-winning performances and acted their way out of prison. However, they are the exception to the rule. There are also those who have changed beyond measure but the circumstances of their case or their inability to embody their change while in the board room keeps them languishing within the confines of prison. They are also not in the majority.
The majority of men who still find themselves in prison after 30, 40, or 50 years have a "perspective" that is keeping them not only from getting out of prison, but from getting healthy. If you believe there is a conspiracy against you, or you don't have to change because you have a "right" to be released, you are probably one of those people.
You would rather go into the Board of Prison Hearings (BPH) arguing about your legal position as opposed to your moral one. You make the hearing about everything but you! It is the equivalent of going into an interview for an entry level job at Walmart and telling the interviewers how Walmart should be doing things differently. When they ask you how you qualify, you tell them how they're supposed to hire people from your walk of life (which may actually be what their charter says). Unfortunately, I don't think that approach will get you a job at Walmart. It also isn't going to get you out of prison.
As concerned citizens (which the commissioners are) they want to know that you (a person who has been convicted of a violent crime) understand why you committed your crime and why you won't do it again. It's going to take more than you saying "I understand what I did was wrong and I won't do it again. Plus I got 30 years in."
If what you have read so far has upset you or disgusted you and prompted you to want to tear this article up, I say... excellent! It means that it has touched a sore spot within you. The fact that you're still reading it shows that you are willing to take a look at that. Who knows, by the time you get to the end you may even be willing to change a few of the perspectives you have about how to approach the board.
In all actuality, this is bigger than the board. Gaining insight into your life will help you heal and become a healthier person. Most people in prison at one time or another have been victims. I say this not to justify any illegal or violent behavior, only as a statement of fact. That fact is one of the hardest things for us to admit. No one wants to be seen, or thought of, as a victim. It is a prison death sentence.
However, the reality of our situations are undeniable. Some of us have been victims of robbery, theft, assault, or for many, child abuse (physical, emotional or sexual). These are very difficult things for most men to talk about.
"Well, my dad beat me with a water hose and smacked me in the face all the time, but it was because I was messing up in school. All dads did that back then. It's how they kept their kids in line." I guess you sitting in prison is a perfect testimony of how well that worked.
Our normalization of these types of events has led us to believe that the abuse had nothing to do with the choices we made. "Actually, that wasn't really abuse." Yet for some reason, you hate police or any other type of authority figure. "That's because all of them are no good!" I hate to break it to you, your current actions and/or feelings are being controlled by unresolved issues from your past.
Or let's say you had sex with your older brother's girlfriend, who was eighteen years old, and you were twelve years old. "She did that because she thought I was the man," with your brand new Jordans on that your mama bought you. Yet you currently have a problem trusting women and you've been a womanizer all your life. Why?
It is our lack of understanding (insight) into the contributing factors (not causative because nothing caused us to murder, kidnap, etc. Saying contributing factors takes away the impression of blaming) of our crimes that keeps us in prison, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Everything that has ever happened in our lives contributed to the decisions we've made, especially on the tragic day of our commitment offense.
When we go into the board room the commissioners are looking at a snapshot of our lives. Our crime is one frame in a series of frames that tell a story. Think back to the old picture frame films (on a movie reel). Imagine the hundreds of still frames that had to be strung together and sped up to create a story. The board has ONE frame and they're trying to make sense of the story.
Essentially, what many of us have done is cut out the pieces of the reel that we don't want them to see. We believe that we can still make sense of the story. We did this because years ago the atmosphere of the BPH was hostile and they would use any evidence they could find to deny us. So we were conditioned to tell half-truths or outright lies.
Fast forward to the post-Lawrence era and now the BPH is trying to make sense of the story to find reasons why they can let us go. But for many, "I've been telling this same story the same way for fifteen years. I can't change it now. They'll crucify me!"
Everyone's situation is different and I can't tell you how to pursue your specific situation. However, there's a novel idea that is getting lifers out of prison and it's called... honesty. Not just honesty, but an understanding of your checkered past. This could cost you a five-year denial (even though it can show a court that you've finally found that elusive insight creature). In contrast, sticking to the same story, that doesn't make any sense, may keep you in prison for the rest of your life.
The purpose of this article is not to get you to change your story. It is to give you a different perspective on your life and how your past has affected you and continues to affect you. Maybe you've been lying to yourself and others for so long that the truth is as much a lie as the lie was when you first began to tell it.
As we move forward into what this insight thing really looks like, I just want to encourage you to think about your situation and how all of this applies to you. In the end you will have to decide whether your current course of action is helping you or hurting you, not just in the board, but in your life.
What is insight? There are a number of attorneys who have outlined insight for lifers. I have personally read several edifying articles on insight that have helped me tremendously. In the end, it took real life scenarios to help me grasp the concept.
Notice I said "concept." Insight is a concept, which makes it very difficult to pin down. It is also subjective, which means that the person looking for it is the one responsible for defining it. The best way to describe it is by using an old adage, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Fortunately, there is a way to transcend personal bias when it comes to the insight we so desperately seek.
Imagine going into a Porsche dealership and talking to a salesperson about one particular car you'd like to purchase.
YOU: Hey buddy, I really like this car.
SP: Oh yeah, this is one of the best models.
YOU: Tell me a little about it.
SP: This is a 2015 Porsche 911, black on black, with leather interior...
YOU: Alright, give me some insight into the speed. I like speed.
SP: Oh, it's fast. The speedo on the dash goes up to 180mph, see? It's a 5-speed variable-shift transmission too.
YOU: What else makes it fast?
SP: Well... it has power steering and all-digital dash display...
YOU: Okay, but I want to know more about the speed.
SP: Yeah, Porsches are one of the fastest cars!
YOU: I get that, but I need to know what makes it fast.
SP: It's built low to the ground, with aerodynamic...
YOU: Sir, I get all that. I'm into speed and I need to know why this is one of the fastest cars.
SP: Um, like I said, it's aerodynamic and...
YOU: Okay, thank you, have a nice day. (you're gone)
The salesperson couldn't give any detail about the most important part of the vehicle: the ENGINE! Horsepower, cylinders, fuel injection, turbocharging, torque, etc. This is how many of us are when it comes to our own lives. We can talk about the paint and the rims but we can't talk about the engine. The sad thing is, many of us don't know what drives us.
As a certified counselor and mentor I talk to lifers every day. We discuss relapse prevention plans, insight letters, and "causative factors" (the BPH buzz line). Many guys describe situations to me by saying, "I just got angry and..." How many of you know that anger is a secondary emotion? It is normally used to avoid the root emotions of fear, pain, guilt, shame, or other base emotion. So if anger is a part of your explanation for a particular incident, you haven't gotten to the root of the problem. You're still talking about the upholstery.
Although insight is not a direct science, I am going to outline a map that can assist you in understanding any event that has ever happened in your life. Remember, this is not about "beating the board." It is about gaining an understanding of how your engine works.
[just below here] you will see a diagram. On the right-hand side of the diagram is a tree. Inside of the tree is the word BEHAVIOR. This could be your commitment offense, a CDC115 (disciplinary action), or any other outward behavior that has manifested in your adult life.
Beneath the tree, as we begin to look beneath the surface, there are a range of emotions that are attached to the roots of the tree. The emotions are the drivers of our behavior, our engine. When something happens in our lives that evokes one of these emotions, our outward behavior is an attempt to avoid experiencing those emotions.
Subsequently, those emotions are attached to and driven by beliefs & past experiences (more of our engine). These beliefs and past experiences have shaped and molded how we will act and react in our everyday lives. Our beliefs act as a compass and with this compass, which sits on our past experiences, we respond to our environment accordingly.
There are a number of psychological theories that I can refer to in an attempt to validate what I'm presenting to you. Instead I will give you a brief analogy to show you how it works in real life. Let's take a trip with my young friend Bobby.
Bobby is a twelve-year-old little boy who is growing up in a violent household with three older brothers, 16, 18, and 24 years old. Bobby's dad beats him, and his three older brothers bully him all the time. He is afraid of both his dad and his brothers.
As Bobby gets older he notices how his 16- and 18-year-old brothers fight back against their oldest brother. This causes the oldest brother to stop abusing them most of the time, especially if they get extremely physical. Bobby also watches his oldest brother stand up to his dad, and witnesses his oldest brother punch his dad back. Although this caused the oldest brother to get kicked out of the house, his dad never raised a hand to his oldest brother again. Bobby tells himself "I'm never going to let people walk all over me and disrespect me" (belief).
Fast forward twenty years. Bobby is an adult now and finds himself playing basketball with a bunch of guys. One guy, who happens to be bigger than Bobby, calls him "soft" and walks up in his face. For a split second Bobby feels afraid (just like when he was a little boy) but before he could fully experience that fear, his belief kicked in to help him avoid the feeling. Immediately Bobby punches the guy in the face and they begin to fight.
Can you explain why Bobby punched the guy in the face? If you can explain this, you are way ahead of the game. I'll give my explanation in a moment.
This takes us to the left side of the diagram. As you will note, there are three different levels of communication that coincide with the behavior, feelings, and beliefs we experience in any given situation. We'll use Bobby's scenario to illustrate the three levels of communication.
A Level I communication would sound a little bit like this: "The guy disrespected me so I punched him in the mouth. We started wrestling and the police came over and pepper-sprayed us." This is a very superficial explanation of what took place.
The problem for many of us is that we have been conditioned to have these types of conversations. Most prison conversations revolve around the specific behavior/activity that is taking place. Whether we're having a discussion about a fight on the yard or what was on TV the night before, it's the same. The conversations we have are generally superficial (he did this, she did that, dude said this and she said that).
In order to have a Level II conversation we must be able to identify the feelings driving the behavior. Many of us face an emotional hurdle and we can't get over it. Not just for men in prison, but for men period. We don't like to talk about our emotions and many of us don't understand what emotions we are feeling. If it isn't anger, happiness, or sadness, it becomes indescribable.
In a Level III conversation we need to be able to talk about what happened physically, what the emotions were behind the action, as well as the past experiences that created the beliefs behind the feelings/behavior. If it sounds complicated it may be because you're over-thinking it.
Here's a sample of the three levels of communication using Bobby:
BPH: Mr. Jones, you received a 115 for fighting on the basketball court. What was that about?
BOBBY: I was playing basketball and this guy disrespected me so I punched him. We started to fight and the police came and broke it up. I know I was wrong.
Bobby gave a superficial explanation of the actual incident. They have the 115 so they already know the blow-by-blow. That is not what they're asking about. The question is about your engine.
BPH: Mr. Jones, you received a 115 for fighting on the basketball court. What was that about?
BOBBY: I was playing basketball and this guy called me "soft." At the time I felt disrespected. However, when I really thought about it I realized that I was acting out of fear. I was afraid of what the people standing around would think if I didn't do anything. Plus the guy was bigger than me and I was afraid if I let him hit me first I'd be in trouble.
In this explanation we can see that Bobby understands his emotions. He understands peer pressure and the type of things that drive his behavior. He also has a connection to his feelings.
BPH: Mr. Jones, you received a 115 for fighting on the basketball court. What was that about?
BOBBY: I was playing basketball and this guy called me "soft." At the time I felt disrespected. However, when I really thought about it I realized that I was acting out of fear. I was afraid of what the people standing around would think if I didn't do anything. Plus the guy was bigger than me and I was afraid if I let him hit me first I'd be in trouble. I also realize that I allowed my past experiences of being bullied and abused to cause me to adopt irrational beliefs: I told myself that I would never allow anyone else to bully or abuse me ever again, even if it meant hurting someone. I was still operating out of my old belief system at the time of the incident.
It is clear in the Level III conversation that Bobby knows his engine. He talked about the behavior, the feelings that led to the behavior, and the past experiences that forged his irrational beliefs. It is this level of communication that will transcend the subjective view of anyone we explain our lives to.
When you can take every CDC115, every outburst, every negative behavior (including your commitment offense), and map it out using this outline, you will put yourself in an ideal position to gain freedom. Not just from prison but from all of the trauma that still controls your life.
As you look at your commitment offense and your prior board hearings, read the transcripts to see if you were articulating all three levels of communication. Also, does it take you ten minutes to make your point? If you read the Level III example out lout you'll see that it only takes a couple of minutes to explain. It goes from Level I to Level III concisely and quickly. If they want to know more, they'll ask.
The key is not to map it out to memorize it so we can recite it verbatim to the board. We map it out so we can get an understanding of our lives, and since it is our lives we will be able to connect with it.
The feelings you've hidden from our normalized for so long will begin to come back to you. It will be uncomfortable and maybe painful. Well, growing and healing is painful. However, it will cause the bitterness to dissolve when you realize that you are the reason for everything. You are the reason you are still here. When people live with toxic trauma they usually become toxic. They walk into a room and immediately the vibe changes. It doesn't matter if it is the dayroom or the board room. Their presence is undeniably wretched.
Is that you?
In closing, I want you to think about this. Imagine if a wannabe gangster came into a circle of you and your buddies. He begins to talk about where he did time and how he ran with all of these "killers." Upon questioning him you see that he doesn't have details about the prisons he claims to have done time in. He doesn't remember different characteristics of the killers he says are his boys. However, he looks the part (tattoos, tough talk, scowl on his face).
How long do you think it would take you and your buddies to figure out that he was a fake? Twenty minutes, forty minutes, maybe two hours tops? Why do you think you would be able to figure him out? More than likely it is because you've been or have lived around what he is trying to portray.
So here you go into the BPH. You still have some criminal ways. Your beliefs really haven't changed that much but you don't act on them the way you used to. You still believe the police (or "the pigs") are out to get you. You still believe some people deserve to be beat up or stabbed to teach them a lesson, but you're not going to risk getting a CDC115. By the way, these are all anti-social beliefs.
How long do you think it will take for a couple of pro-social people (who have been that way all their lives) to sniff you out? One hour, two hours, maybe three? It is the exact same thing you can do to a phony. If you're pretending to be a reformed criminal, they will probably sniff you out.
My hope is that instead of practicing mock questions and memorizing material from groups, you will analyze your belief system. Gain an understanding of your life, and the questions put before you won't matter, It is impossible to get out (physically, emotionally, or spiritually) without going in. True change comes from within. Use this opportunity to practice introspection and you'll get all the insight you need.
Good luck on your journey.