Let’s assume for a moment that prison staff are there to rehabilitate people. And assume that a staff goal is to prepare inmates to lead normal lives in society.

Currently there are several steps in the right direction. However, my experience over twenty years is that the small steps forward don’t seem to last long.

One prison had some sympathy for lifers, mainly those with a life sentence for murder. Off the main hallway, a ten by twenty room sat abandoned except for a sink, an old stove, and a freezer. The lifers’ group asked admin if they could buy their own food and have a meal there once a week.

The warden approved, and soon the freezer was filled with steaks, roasts and ribs.

I watched the men prepare for this…it could only be called a banquet, a royal banquet. Guys who gave the finger to jailhouse jobs worked hard testing recipes and finding real silverware (or making it).

The meal went off without a hitch, that meal and others for over a year. The room got to be called, “The Lifer’s Kitchen.” People tried to up their crime classification so they could join the group.

Of course, like most good things prison does, it died a year later. “What will people think, the convicts are eating T bone steaks?”

In Canada, to give the system credit, minimum security prisoners live in four to six man cottages, and each man gets $35 a week to buy his own groceries.

Several other great self-management programs had similar histories – inmates beg for permission, finally get it, the program is very successful and helps people rehabilitate, and then admin kills it because some in the public object.

Some cases are:

The men developed an empty field into a small golf course for their own use. “Those damn convicts are hanging around playing golf. And we pay for it.” Now community people use the golf course, but inmates can’t.

A tattoo parlor. Inmates decorate an old room in the prison with tattoo posters, and they get an old record player to play anything but elevator music. The warden likes this idea, because only clean needles will be used. Hep C and HIV are practically eliminated. Then, “those damn convicts are getting free tattoos.”

Men and women prisoners ask to grow their own veggies. (Somebody send me a recent example of this in an American prison, but I lost it). Everything is fine – prisons include a lot of land. Then a new security chief is hired and he thinks the garden is a security leak.

Inmates cannot have the internet. But the security chief could set up an “Internal Net” where the prison would put ‘on line’ several informative pages about a whole variety of subjects. This gave the inmates a feel for what the real Internet was like.

Good idea, don’t you think? The idea was vetoed before it got off the ground. Prison officials are deathly afraid of the computers and the Internet.

Perhaps you’ve heard of a story like this – an idea that almost got off the ground, but died at the beginning?


  1. I have other examples, but you probably already know them. These were programs that had been in effect for a number of years–as long anyone could remember–but they have been terminated lately, usually by decision of the former Minister, Vic Toews. They were intended to inculcate pro-social habits of thought and practice (including planning and preparation, co-operation, charity, and community service) and to reunite prisoners with their spouse, children and other family members. They included pizza parties where pizza was ordered and sold to prisoners, with the proceeds going to charity, and Socials (Christmas, Easter, Aboriginal Day, Halloween), to which families and friends were invited (for which the prisoners paid) for a day-long event including one or more meals, entertainment–particularly on Aboriginal Day–and gifts for the kids (Christmas), organized and conducted by the prisoners. They were wonderful occasions and, thanks to Toews, are all gone now. CSC has no real interest in rehabilitation, despite the extensive requirements of their Act, Policies and Procedures, and Commissioner’s Directives, and the elaborate pretending that they do in their Annual Report and other public statements.

  2. Catana says:

    In Kenneth Hartman’s Mother California, he writes about the program he dreamed up and managed to get off the ground with official help. It was during one of those periods of extreme violence in the prison and the program was set up to allow the men who were really working on their own rehabilitation to live and work separately, away from the chaos. It worked too well, and was shut down.

    I’ve read so many examples of prisoners working for their own rehabilitation and trying to help others, and not just being shut down, but punished.

  3. Jolene says:

    I am an avid home movie maker with background music and graphics, etc. We have done several videos of our family that I would have given anything for our son to see over the years. As it is now, he will be getting out in April which is just a few months away. He has been locked for seven years. He first went in after his third DWI when he was 24. He did two years of that and was ready to come home when a big muscular inmate tried to molest our son at his locker. He had making advances toward our son for quite some time and our son called us every night and told us he was going to have to punch the guys lights out if he ever touched him. This guy was not gay, just a pervert. Matt said the gays left them all alone and didn’t cause any harm. Matt had told the guy several times that he was just in there to do his time and get back to his little boy at home. He told him that is not what floats my boat. But at his locker the guy came up from behind him and and pinned him in and started groping him and Matt lost it and beat the guy up. Matt is also big and muscular but a very gentle heart. But there was only so much he could take. He gave the guy a concussion and they took him to the hospital. It started away from the cameras but it ended up out in full view of cameras. So out son is the one the prison pressed charges against. We hired a lawyer out of Kansas City with all our savings and he even got two guards to testify on our son’s behalf saying he had never caused anyone any trouble. But the judge threw the book at Matt because it happened in their facility that the judge was all puffed up about and our son got sentenced seven more years. He has served five of those years and is now 31. The drinking? He has learned his lesson. But he has also learned how unfair the prison system is. But back to my comment about home movies. I would love to start a mission to allow families to send videos of family and allow the visitors to go into a special room to play the video with guard present. Is that too much to ask? My mother is very very ill and she may not last before our son gets out. I so wish he could have seen a 60 year wedding anniversary I produced for them and the rest of the family. But of course I can only tell Matt about it. But to view it and hear the great music would have meant so much to him. My heart goes out to these young men and women as well as older men and women caught up in the unreasonable torments of prison life the current system now allows. Yes there is always going to be someone who is going to pitch a fit about how easy they have it. Well, if its so easy why is my son counting down the days until he can come home and be with family once again? Thank you for hearing my story and my concerns. Jolene

  4. Jolene says:

    I might add the man our son defended himself against is fine with no recurring problems from the concussion. He was released the next morning is my understanding.

  5. jcommittedk says:

    I have a few examples but I will write about one. In some institutions the inmates were allowed to run their own canteen. This meant they learned how to be responsible for ordering enough items and items that most people wanted. They also learned to balance books and run a store. This has now been taken away and not only are inmates not getting this positive experience, but their canteen is also not stocked properly, always running out of the things they most need, such as toothbrushes.

  6. iarxiv says:

    I don’t have any stories to contribute. All I can say is that I wish more people paid attention to projects like this, and actually helped them along.

  7. Diana says:

    I don’t really have any contribution but I just wanted to think out loud for a moment…. I LOVED The Lifer’s Kitchen….what a good concept. I don’t know a lot about prisons first hand but I’ve read a lot of books on the subject. We, as a community outside the walls…well we really have NO CLUE what it’s like for prisoners,do we? Some of them deserve what they get and some of them deserve a whole lot more….but EVERYONE deserves help for rehabilitation. If they don’t want it…oh well. ThIs would be they’re loss. But it’s really sad how some prisons treat prisoners are as though they r animals in a cage. Jolene….I’m sorry about what happened to your son. You and your family will be in my prayer. Mr Griffin…I LOVE your blog!!!

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