Rehabilitation and Punishment

Today my mind has been on the revolving door of minimum security. I see guys come and go and come back so often that I frequently joke with guys leaving that I can hold some of their belongings for later. The inevitable response is a chuckle and “you won’t see me again!” Perhaps. But I usually can spot the guys who haven’t changed.

My incarceration has taught me a lot about myself. Here in Ohio, corrections has a dual mandate and that is to rehabilitate in addition to punish. Thus it is called the “Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.” I have a lot to say about this as the rehabilitation mandate is often underweighted by administrators and viewed without regard by the state parole board. I’ll cover this in detail as I go because this extracts a terrible cost from society when true. Those issues aside, offenders in Ohio may find themselves attending self-help programs, trade or educational classes such as GED studies or college classes (hosted and paid for by the local community college itself) as they serve their sentence. Most other states have a single mandate and that is to warehouse offenders until one’s sentence ends. In those states, the corrections mandate reads: “Department of Corrections.” Inmates there often find themselves sitting in a cell most of the day or working alongside a public road cleaning up trash. Each approach to incarceration has its strengths and weaknesses, but by far rehabilitation has the greater edge.

The rehabilitation mandate here has had a positive impact on me. Staff and offenders that know me will attest to this. It has enabled me to change my thinking and outlook on life. Unfortunately, the rehabilitation mandate is frequently misunderstood by the public and within the public sphere the vocal opposition minority is often heard and wins out in the end.

With regard to rehabilitation, change occurs when two critical elements are present: 1) a genuine desire by the offender to change, and 2) the active and constant assistance of correctional staff in steering offenders toward that path of change. When offenders and staff take rehabilitation seriously it is impossible for an offender not to change.

I have a great interest in rehabilitation. This wasn’t always so, but time changed my outlook on life. I have a unique perspective and extensive first hand experience. I’ve also studied and researched these topics, recently completing the first volume of a 3 volume criminal justice series (“By Unfair Means: A Look at the Ways of the Offender”; you can read Part One of my book here) for the criminal justice student and those working in community and institutional corrections. The thrust of the work is about how offenders can be helped to discover the path of rehabilitation, and how discovery is facilitated through staff intervention and assistance. I’ve witnessed the consequences when offenders and staff shun these efforts. The path to change is damaged and the cycle of crime perpetuates itself at a great cost to society. Rehabilitation is the key to reducing the rate of recidivism in the United States, and to breaking the cycle of crime. I speak from experience.

Unless you have a loved one that’s incarcerated or know someone that is, talk of rehabilitation probably doesn’t cross your mind. Worse, the proliferation of popular crime and punishment shows only serve to reinforce the public psyche the aspect of punishment. After all, shows where the offender ends up in rehabilitative programming and counseling instead of a cell all day doesn’t make for good entertainment. Yet, without these elements the cycle of crime is guaranteed to continue unabated.

I feel deep remorse for my past actions. I was a different man all those years ago, and I hope that the individual that I harmed and those that were affected by my actions can someday forgive me. Forgiveness, I’ve discovered, is one of the most difficult things that can ever be done in life. Without forgiveness, anger and hate is all that remains. Both will destroy you and I’ve witnessed this here firsthand.

Years ago a drunken driver killed a member of my family, only to serve a few years in prison. A child’s life was cut short. For years I became instantly angry whenever I met someone incarcerated for DUI. It wasn’t until I made the personal decision to forgive the man who killed my step-brother where I no longer felt anger towards my peers convicted of similar crimes. It was hard to make that decision but I am thankful I did for it has been healing.

Sadly, this same offender went on to kill another person while drinking and driving upon his release. How is this possible? I’ll tell you. The offender’s state has but one mandate: to punish. Warehouse offenders until the end of their stated sentences and nothing more. I have no doubt this man will repeat past mistakes, because without rehabilitation the cycle of crime continues. There is no getting around this.

Monsters Exist

So many people have asked me to write about my experience while incarcerated. For a long time I refused. I could not understand why anyone would want to know about what life is like being incarcerated.

Once when I was just a boy, Dad told me that there were no monsters. I awoke one night to something, maybe a sound from within the shadows of my bedroom or a thud from outside my window, what I couldn’t tell you. But whatever it was, it woke me screaming. Screaming as loud as I could.

I remember Dad dashing into my room wide eyed and alert, ready to defend his son from whatever evil was trying to take him. Before I could say anything, I found myself enveloped in Dad’s arms, held close to protect and in that moment I knew I was safe. Dad was here now. He’d said that everything was going to be okay, and that I had a bad dream (what dream? I don’t remember a dream). I muttered something about monsters I’m sure, because I remember him saying, “Son there’s no such thing as monsters. Go back to sleep.” And, since Dad was always right, every little boy knows this, I went back to sleep.

Why did Dad lie to me? For half my life I believed him, that there were no such things as monsters. I tried to convince myself that he lied to protect me from the cold truth of the world. That monsters exist and that they are everywhere. Maybe he had hoped like every father does that his son would be the lucky one and would never have to experience the truth. That in the end things would be okay.

As of this writing, I’ve been incarcerated for a little more than half my entire life. Time has changed my view of the world, and now I think I will write for you. I now understand why people want to know. Monsters do exist and I have found them—all of them.

Dad knew the whole time.

He knew.