Posts Tagged ‘prison education’

It seems to me that I am always criticizing our prison system. But yesterday I had a very positive experience in a local pre-trial center.

I had the privilege of taking a famous writer to this facility. As you probably know, pretrial facilities separate people, so that those who were in a crime together cannot work on their stories. As a result there are many separate sections in pretrial, and they can’t be mixed.

The famous writer did not object to speaking to only two of the six or so units. She was her usual engaging, personal self. Nothing was a problem for her, having her picture taken with the men, moving through all the heavy metal doors, and repeating her talk three times, twice to the men and once to the staff.

Everyone was in a good mood. Was it her charm? Was it the fact of having a NYTimes best seller visit them? Was it that I only saw a small segment of the staff and of the inmates?

Whatever, the morning was filled with laughter and good cheer. There are staff who are human beings and inmates who know how to get along with staff.

It was a lesson for a critical person like me.

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Call him Irving, an amazing inmate and an amazing person. I first met him in my creative writing class. He was one of those rare students that I could give a few writing principles to and he would run with them. Soon he was turning in amazing stories, one about a man from a Louisiana bayou, environment and correct Cajun accent as well.

He loved his First Nations’ heritage and wrote a story which brought his tribe to life for me.

He and I talked about the prison’s lack of release planning, and he began to develop some ideas.

Soon he was moved to the Okanagan area where his original offense had occurred. While he was there, he developed a full release planning program and talked the admin into letting him run it. Guys about to be released signed up for his program and he put them thru it. Who will pick you up from Pretrial? Where will you go on your first day out? And so forth.

His prison record was perfect and I was surprised he was still in prison himself. Finally, he came in front of a judge, who took a look at his prison record and his letters of support (one of them was mine). The judge did not add any time, he just told him to finish his current sentence.

An amazing thing happened next. A police car picked him up, and he thought he was on his way back to prison, but instead the police took him to a half-way house in the Okanagan area. He was filled with joy and excitement – he could visit with his mother and his sister. Within a week he had two jobs and was following the rules of the half-way house to the letter.

A month went by. The warden of a large prison noticed the fact that this model prisoner was in a halfway house instead of a federal prison. Without delay he sent a squad car to the Okanagan to pick him up. Never mind that the warden already had 300 prisoners who needed lots of help they weren’t getting. Never mind that his record at the halfway house was perfect. Back to prison.

I met him the next morning. He was sad that he had to give up his two jobs, sad that he couldn’t see his sister or mother, and sad that he had to endure more prison. I told him to contact a new woman on the prison staff. I went to her myself and asked her to help Irving. She said she would. (but she didn’t)

He came back to my writing class. “You know, Ed, what we need is for the staff to see what happens in this class. We should invite them to come.”

“It’s okay by me, but you’ll never get them to come.”

I was wrong. He did get them to come.

A year later he was paroled. Here was a man who long ago got the message that crime didn’t pay. The prison system brought him back when he was doing fine and then dragged their heels to release him. Again, prison jobs were more important to staff than helping inmates.

In my area this week, a man who killed a young girl, was arrested. Newspapers reported that he’d just gotten out of prison after serving his full sentence of 22 years. His preliminary offense was one of sexual offense.

The media made much of the fact that the man had appeared many times before the parole board and had not reformed himself. It seemed that the man was a hopeless criminal.

Yes, maybe he is. However, I began to wonder what the man did in prison for 22 years. Did the staff not have meetings about this man? Were experts consulted? Were new methods tried? I know that some men are indeed unredeemable, but I’ve also seen how little effort prison staff put into helping men get over their crimes. They figure their job is to keep them locked up, not to help them.

Prison time should mean removal from society for a period of time, during which prison staff work to help the man change. Yes, the prison staff needs more training in the human sciences. Yes, tests should be given to applicants for prison jobs to discover their motivation. What motivates them — punishment or helping?

The theory is that prison will teach a man (or woman) how to live in society. It doesn’t work. It’s the farthest thing from what actually happens.

The man gets up at a certain time, marches to the mess hall, and sits with the same three fellows he’s sat with for years. Never does a staff member ask if he could join them. This is an Us and Them world.

The day goes on, the man can only move from one place to another at specified times. He used to have freedom of movement during a good portion of the day, but no more. The staff discovered that it’s easier on them if they put in a military type regime.

This is training to live on the outside?

Then there are programs to take, Cog Skills, Anger Management etc. It doesn’t matter so much whether a man needs a program, the important thing is to keep the classes full. The man has no say in what programs he would like to take. This, of course, guarantees that poor teachers can retain their jobs.

Programs are made conditions of parole. I had a learning experience in this area. I had worked with an inmate for seven years. I knew him thoroughly – he was ready for freedom or at least for a halfway house. I was asked to be interviewed about this man and I agreed. The interviewer was a private individual who prepared reports on inmates. He and I had good conversations, but as we talked, I began to realize that no matter what I said this man was going to report that the inmate wasn’t ready yet. I further suspected that this is what the man always said – this is why the prison system kept him around – he kept filling the prisons, guaranteeing further work for the staff.

“There should be no jails. They do not accomplish what they pretend to accomplish. If you would wipe them out and there would be no more criminals than now. They are a blot upon any civilization.”

Clarence Darrow, 1857-1938

Dennis Haines has written articles for us in the past.

I’m back with my continuing adventures in the real world. The irony is that I have noticed that “real world squares” are not that much different from cons in the joint in some ways. In the month and a half that I have been out I have been observing people and how much the same we are. And to think that I used to feel like I didn’t fit in with normal people and now I find out that we aren’t that different after all.

Case in point, I take the same bus to work every day Monday to Friday at roughly 6:30 am and there are a group of regulars who are taking the same bus. I find that I always sit in the same spot and that everyone else tries to as well. The funny part is that if someone is sitting in someone else’s regular spot, you can actually see the annoyance on their faces at the interruption in their routine. It brings me to mind of people’s spots in the dining room in the institution, except it doesn’t end in violence.

That’s not the only place I notice the same type of behavior. In the lunch room where I work everyone has staked a claim to their chairs and although I don’t believe they would get violent over it, they will tell you if you are sitting in their spot.

So what I’m getting at is that I find it strangely comforting that regular people exhibit the same behaviors that I’m used to from the institutions. I was concerned with my level of institutionalization, but I’m finding that observing the world and putting it in perspective is really helping me along. As people we are all the same, and we all have our little comfort zones. Sometimes these zones are challenged, but it’s our reactions that set us apart.

I write these types of thoughts as a little bit of therapy for myself but also in the hope that maybe someone else who is just getting out will read them as well and maybe be comforted. I hope that I can send a message of hope to someone else who just got out and may or may not be struggling. I hope to let them know that every day out in the community is an adventure just waiting to be undertaken. For me it’s my time to take life by the horns and live it in the best way I can and, if I’m lucky, I can help someone else out along the way.

Dennis Haines has told me specifically that he wants his name and email revealed. He would appreciate any comments you have. You can send them directly to him if you want. dhaines429@gmail.com

People in our society often talk about a positive self-image. They say this is most important for mental health. In prison, however, everything militates against a positive self-identity, and I mean everything. Twice a year I dedicated a portion of every class to read  this essay out loud. Sadly, I’m no longer allowed in prison to do that. The essay:

You are Somebody

Let’s get something straight: You are somebody.

Everything in your present life militates against you believing that you are somebody. From the moment of your arrest to the moment of your final release, the system tells you that you are less than a human being.

You hands are cuffed and you are put in a cage to ride to the police station. You will overhear officers referring to you as ‘scum bag,’ ‘ass hole’ and worse. Your possessions and your clothes will be taken from you and you will be given a number. From now on the passive voice will be used to refer to you. You will no longer initiate action on your own. “He was arrested, he was sentenced, he was moved, he was given prison clothes.”

You are given an institutional personage and clothing to match. You are told the rules. You must comply. You must fit in. You must become an institutional man. Your daily schedule will be determined by the authorities, when you eat, when you sleep, even when you piss.

Slowly you lose your identity, the things that make you an individual. You become a case, someone to be treated by prison social workers and shrinks. You will be defined as a sociopath. You’re sick. You will be told to be caring in an institution that doesn’t care for you. You will be taught alternatives to violence by people who have used high levels of violence to keep you there. You will learn a new rule, that your keepers are always right and you are always wrong. You will be expected to bottle up all your normal sexual desires. Most likely your wife will divorce you and your kids will disown you. The quicker you lose your identity and become a slave of the state, the sooner you will get out of prison.

Whenever I go into prison to teach my class, I hear the public address system call for Inmate Jones to go to the infirmary, or Inmate Smith to report to the social worker. In what other institution are people referred to like that? Do we say Student Jones or Patient Jones?

You read the report the caseworker does on you. You don’t even recognize the person on the paper. He’s some evil dude. He’s not you. But the report stays there and the same old tired things keep being said about you, as if there were no hope for change.

Study the walls around you. Put your hand on them. What do they tell you about who you are? You are an animal that must be caged.

No doubt you will be raped. Many inmates are. You will lose this last bit of control over your body.

Study your function in society. You exist so I will feel better about me. Let’s say I have a real nothing of a job. My boss yells at me, my wife and my kids don’t respect me, but one thing I can say – I’m better than those bums in prison.

And you are entertainment. We get to hear the racy details of your crime every night on the TV and then we see you pleading with the judge and then – what a show – you are dragged off to prison. We feel safe knowing that you’re locked up. Alleluia. Evil is in jail.

Television programs like Oz contribute to the negative image of prisoners. You are portrayed as animals who have no morals. These programs like to say ‘they tell it like it is.’ But that’s exactly what they don’t do. They show only the evil side of people and seldom the good.

Prison, which is supposed to make you into a new and better person, has destroyed you. Perhaps Oscar Wilde says it best:

The vilest deeds like poison weeds

Bloom well in prison air:

It is only what is good in man

That wastes and withers there[1]

I call for a revolution and this revolution starts in the human heart. Make no mistake, all change starts in the human heart. Don’t say, “They should do this or they should do that to reform the system.” Don’t say, “It’s the system or the warden or the guards.” It’s you. You have to re-educate yourself.

You are somebody, to quote Jesse Jackson. Let’s look at it from several angles. Who are you? It sounds corny, but maybe you should sit down and write one affirming sentence about yourself every day, e.g. I am somebody.

From an evolutionary point of view, you are another example of the greatest thing going. You are a human being. You are the results of thousands of years of evolution. You have a fantastically complex brain. Given half a chance, you can master complex sciences or paint a new Mona Lisa or write a great novel.

Say it to yourself: I am somebody. Write it on a piece of paper: I am somebody.

People love you. You are an object of love. People care what happens to you. You ARE lovable. You have certain characteristics that are great, things we all strive for. Make a list of those characteristics. Really. Sit down and write out your good points. Your list should have at least 25 items on it. While some may laugh at this technique as self-help inanity, I believe it is necessary, because the prison system has so thoroughly brainwashed convicts the other way.

I am able to think my way through problems

I have a good sense of humor. People laugh at my jokes.

I have loved a woman. Love is always a good thing.

I am interested in …. Being interested in something is great.

And so forth

Read the universal declaration of human rights from the UN. Read each article carefully and then rewrite the article putting your own name in the article. Here are a few of the articles:

Article 1.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Write: I am a human being. I was born free. I am equal to all others in dignity and rights. I have been endowed with reason and conscience. I should act towards others in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 3.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Write: I have the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 5.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Write: I should not be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Article 20.

Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

Write: I have a right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

Every organized system of belief teaches that you are special. Christianity says that God sent his only son to save you, you the filthy criminal that people said should rot in hell. Jesus said that what people did to the least of the brethren, they did to him. In the view of our society there is nobody more least than you.

Protestants, Catholics and Jews believe that human beings are children of God. God is our loving father/mother. All people are brothers and sisters. My own discipline, the Catholic Church, says that insults to human dignity “… poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury.”[2]

Respect for human dignity is at the core of Christianity. Read the Gospel and the Epistles of John.

You were made in the image and likeness of God. Stand up and stand up tall. Did you get that? The image and likeness of God? You, prisoner number 108392.

Of course our society doesn’t believe this. If we did, we wouldn’t treat prisoners the way we do. But as they say, Christianity is a great religion, except that it’s never really been tried.

Islam says that Allah created all that is on Earth and in the Heavens for man. Man sits high above all. For his sake Allah sent prophets and messengers, preachers, carriers of glad tidings to lead people to the truth. Allah says: “Indeed, We have honored the children of Adam; provided them with transport on land and sea; given them for sustenance things good and pure; and conferred on them special favors, above a great part of Our Creation.” (Al-Isra’ 17:70)

Eastern religions talk about the spark of divinity in all of us. Do you really believe that there is a spark of divinity in you? Call God the Great Spirit or Yahweh or Allah or God, there is a spark of him/her in each of us.

Those who construct systems of philosophy all respect human dignity, from Aristotle to Teilhard de Chardin. Just one example would be Wilhelm von Humboldt who had the deepest respect for human nature and who believed that freedom was the proper environment for this human dignity.

Michel Foucault, the French social critic, has interesting observations on the nature of those in prison. He begins his ideas on prison by wondering why prisons are still around, since they are clearly so unsuccessful at preventing crime. “But perhaps one should reverse the problem and ask oneself what is served by the failure of the prison.”[3]

Foucault claims that the ruling class uses criminality as a way of preventing revolution. His theory is that the dynamic groups of the lower social class are the ones who commit crimes. The establishment fears these people – they are willing to break the rules. The power elites then brand these people and continue to brand them even after they have finished their sentences. The law-breakers become outcasts and therefore powerless. “..prison has succeeded extremely well…in producing delinquents, in an apparently marginal, but in fact centrally supervised milieu. (Prison has succeeded extremely well)… in producing the delinquent as a pathologized subject.[4]

Up close a particular prisoner might seem to be anything but a dynamic member of society, but stepping back, one sees the point of Foucault’s observations.

Victim talk must cease. You are not a victim. You are a proud man, competent, together. You’re in control of your life. You can do things. In the past things beyond your control may have happened to you, but that’s all over. You’re in charge now.

When you realize that you are somebody, that your life is important, that you have work to do while you are in prison, then drugs become less of a problem. Drugs are a way to pass time in prison. Drugs are a response to a terrible existence. Yes, addiction is one hell of a thing to get over, but you can do it. You are somebody.

With the realization that you are somebody, comes the responsibility of being somebody. Prison officials talk about responsibility only in terms of what you have done in the past. Yes, we are all responsible for our past and we have to do what we can to make amends. But often we are very limited in what we can actually do.

It seems to me that the big responsibility is to yourself and to those around you. As to yourself, use your time in prison to develop yourself, your education, your artistic ability, your ability to earn a living. (Here prisons fail you miserably. They won’t pay for good education for you and they train you for jobs that are already out of date.)

We are all responsible for those around us. No one exists in a vacuum. We influence the men around us and they influence us. You are responsible, like it or not, for men you may consider scum-bags. And even harder news is that you are responsible for the guards and the administration. Like it or not, you are where you are and you are part of the system you are in. Make no mistake – you will be no different when you are free. You don’t give a damn now about those around you – you won’t in the future either. So don’t get mad when the report on you uses the word, anti-social.

Prison is a horror movie. Zombies walk from morning work to count and then to lunch and from lunch to afternoon work and then to count. A human being walks the cement corridors. His head is down, his back bent, his spirit lifeless. He moves not with purpose, but to fill time. He’s doing time. He’s being stored in a human-being warehouse. No, it’s worse than that, his soul is being ripped out of him. He’s in dystopia, the opposite of utopia. He’s a modern day Frankenstein, awaiting the jolting message that he is someone.

You are someone. You are someone. You are someone.

[1] Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, pt 5, st 5

[2] Vatican II, The Church and the Modern World, #27

[3] Discipline and Punish, The Birth of the Prison, Foucault, Michel, New York: Random House, 1979, page 272.

[4] Ibid, page 277

 

I’m honored to have one of my books banned, Delaney’s Hope. I join a prestigious group of people who have had their books banned. The Grapes of Wrath, Green Eggs and Ham, Brave New World, Lolita, etc. See the whole list here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_books_banned_by_governments

Two days after I taught a class in prison, I received a call from the prison authorities. “You’re out. Turn in your badge,” the deputy warden said in her harshest of tones. “Your book tells of the rape and murder of a young woman.”

Yes, it does, but nowhere does it approve of such an action. I pointed that out to the friendly deputy warden, but she wasn’t impressed. So I said, “I appeal this decision.”

At the appeal hearing, the acting warden quickly moved away from the initial complaint and said that I brought in things without clearing them with the administration. Yes, I did that, as any good teacher would, bring in materials that would help students understand. In this case I only gave it to one man to teach him how to edit someone else’s work.

The hearing continued and then the acting warden said, “Now about this blog you write every week, Prison Uncensored. You are often critical of the prison.”

“Warden,” I said, “I can’t believe this is part of our discussion today.”

“We expect our employees and volunteers to say positive things about the prison and the administration. You’re banned from entering any federal prison from now on. You can appeal this decision to Ottawa if you want.”

Despite my twenty years of volunteering to teach writing in prison, I was out. I knew Ottawa would back up their local man. My daughter said, “They don’t pay you, they don’t honor you, so just get out.”

A further comment is that Delaney’s Hope is  a warden who set up a prison that really worked i.e. it changed people.  I don’t editorialize in the book, but an existing warden might not like what he or she read.

So, I’m out, but my blog continues. Prison Uncensored Blog https://prisonuncensored.wordpress.com/. The back of Delaney’s Hope says the book was banned in prison.