We live in extremely hard times. The last year was certainly one of the more daunting of my life. The theme of 2020 was “If it can be shaken, it will be shaken.” And the theme of 2021 may be “transition.” Yet, whether or not 2021 turns out to be a year of growth depends greatly upon perspective. Where you stand usually depends on where you sit. Perspective can become difficult to apprehend amongst excessive noise. Allow me to explain.
In March of 2020, the Education Department was shut down because of a really aggressive outbreak of influenza here at E.O.C.I. Finally back to work on June 5, and then the first cases of Covid-19 are detected at the prison, on my unit. My housing unit goes on quarantine for what turns out to be over 60 days. By the time my unit comes off of quarantine, we had all contracted the virus, myself included, and although two men died as a result, the majority of us recovered fairly well. However, the coronavirus outbreak had become so widespread at E.O.C.I. by that time that the Education Department had been shut down until further notice.
In September, my job, visiting, and virtually all recreational activities had been shut down for 6 months. Football season began, and I started playing fantasy football with some guys on my unit. That turned out to be an unwise decision that would shape at least the next year of my life, perhaps even longer.
On December 19, I was handcuffed and escorted to disciplinary segregation, placed in a cell by myself, where I stayed until after the new year began. They informed me at the time that I was under investigation for gambling. I heard nothing about what was going on for two weeks. Finally, on the 15th day, I was given a misconduct report. On January 6th I went to my hearing and attempted to explain, but the hearing officer determined I had violated the rule against gambling by playing fantasy football. My 18 years of clear conduct made no difference.
While I do feel the direct consequences were fair – credit for time served in segregation and release that same day, the indirect consequences were disproportionate, in my opinion. I lost my 18 years of clear conduct; I lost my job as a tutor, which I had been doing for 13 years; I lost my level and incentive housing, and I lost my access to automation for schooling. I am now on a regular, non-incentive dormitory-style unit, and given the Covid-19 restrictions, I’m unable to do really anything but sit on my bunk, although I do have school stuff on which to focus.
Where I am is a warehouse for discarded, forgotten people, and I’m adjusting to my new reality. The ignorance and distorted thinking patterns of those who surround me are staggering, but it is difficult to blame them. Virtually nothing is being done to help them rectify the situation – and you can’t expect people who have never known how to change to suddenly and spontaneously know how to be different than they have always been. These men have no direction, no guidance, no objectives, and no reasons. They are unmotivated. The unit is chaos, and the men are aimless. And while I am certainly responsible for the mistake I made – I chose to play fantasy football, which is against the rules – these aimless men see that my 18 years of clear conduct did not earn me a break or even a benefit of the doubt. They see that although I spent 13 years helping others by tutoring them in the G.E.D program, it made no difference to those in authority. What message does that send to an increasingly younger prison population? Noise.
When I sought leniency after my hearing from the administration here at E.O.C.I., the man in charge of Rehabilitation Services was cold, self-righteous, and unwavering, which surprised me, given his own moral failings. A few years ago, this man, while married to someone else, had an affair with his boss, who was the superintendent at the time. As a result, the superintendent was fired, and his wife devastated. Yet, not only does he continue to work for the Department of Corrections, he holds a merciless paradigm toward the incarcerated. I don’t care that he made a personal mistake – life can be complicated and we all make mistakes. I just wonder how he can make such an egregious mistake and yet fail to exercise any empathy at all toward people like me… a man who merely played fantasy football. Noise.
Yes, I made a mistake. I broke the rules. I acknowledge it, and I take responsibility for it. I just feel the punishment is disproportionate, and the people in charge who set the standards of discipline for those of us who are incarcerated seem to set different standards for themselves, which seems to fly in the face of any framework of rehabilitation. Sure, they extend us the respect of professionalism, to a point, and the appearance of due process, but they do not extend the respect of humanity – because acknowledging our humanity is to accept we will make mistakes. Allow me to provide an example of the difference.
While I was in segregation, certain officers would pass books, magazines, or even various food items from cell to cell when asked. Then, all of a sudden, they would no longer do it. Apparently, the staff had a meeting, and the head of security told the officers that they are not allowed to pass items for inmates. He told them that if they find it happening again, the cameras will be reviewed and those officers seen passing items will no longer be allowed to work in segregation. The respect of humanity, in this particular example, is that the segregation officers were given a warning by those in charge – because human beings get careless and make mistakes.
I had 18 years of clear conduct, had been on incentive housing for 15 years, had worked at the same job tutoring others in the Education Department for 13 years – earned a Bachelor’s degree in 2015, a Master’s degree in 2017, and I’m currently about 20 months from completing my Ph.D. program… yet, I received no warning. I was placed in handcuffs, and everything I had earned over the last 20 years was taken away from me… for playing fantasy football. Noise.
It becomes difficult not to get discouraged. I see how we are treated in here every single day – even when we are following the rules and doing good. I see how the standards are different for those in authority. I see how so-called leaders politicize the concept of rehabilitation and prison reform. I see those who have worked in the prison system for decades and done virtually nothing to change anything, but when the lights are bright and the cameras are rolling, the pretend to be advocates for reform. I also personally experience unrealistic expectations of perfection in order to maintain my institutional incentives even after I’ve earned them. Noise.
Let me be clear: I am not the victim. I am not whining or saying I am entitled to anything. Yes, I feel the punishment is disproportionate, but I can overcome. I can shut out the noise. I can be greater than my greatest excuse. I can work harder, do more, and be better. That is not my issue here. I am strong-minded, emotionally intelligent, considerably educated, and highly motivated. I will succeed and defeat the hurdles in my path. My questions are not about me. My questions are about the men around me, the men who are young, impulsive, under-educated, immature, and without purpose. As they search for meaning in this dark place, can they black out the excessive noise? When they see that two decades of doing the best an incarcerated person can do simply does not matter at all to those in authority, why should they try? What positive examples do they see? They already don’t know how to change. Now… they don’t know why they should. It’s just too much noise
For a peek inside the Restorative Justice process, see CNN’s original series The Redemption Project with Van Jones.
For the first twelve years of my incarceration I was convinced I had done everything I could to atone for my crime — then I was proven wrong. Although attaining a BS in Sociology and an MS in Psychology while becoming a certified recovery mentor have been milestones, they did not — and could not — fully rehabilitate me. My education could not provide me with the empathy-inducing face-to-face encounters with survivors that are necessary for complete rehabilitation. This transformative catalyst could only come about through the impaired driver victim impact panels.
By pouring all my efforts into a college education (privately funded) that would allow me to counsel adolescents struggling with substance addictions, I felt a sense of purpose and direction. During my studies, I came to understand the underlying causes of my addiction. I gained a level of insight that helped me grasp the complex biopsychosociospiritual model of addiction and criminality. I had convinced myself that because I no longer drank and helped men confront their own pathologies, while encouraging them to strive for better in their own lives, I had exemplified recovery and rehabilitation. What I have accomplished during my incarceration has been integral to my rehabilitation; however, it is not the most transformative component of this comprehensive process.
Three years ago I was given the opportunity to participate in an impaired driver victim impact panel. I eagerly agreed, knowing this would enable me to help others by sharing my story. Little did I know it would be the compelling stories I’d hear from those on the other side of crime that would leave a lasting impact on me!
During our first panel there were approximately 50 inmates in attendance and two volunteers from the community who had been impacted by drunken drivers: one had lost her 28-year-old son, the other was a survivor of a DUII collision. I intently listened to these two courageous women speak about the devastating losses they had endured as a result of these crimes. I found myself feeling ashamed to know I had also left indelible scars on the survivors of my victims, yet I felt encouraged to hear these women also speak of their ability to forgive the people who had taken so much from them. One said, “I can hate the man who has done this to me, but who does that really hurt? So, instead, I choose to forgive and live.” It was silent in the room but for the intermittent sniveling from men who futilely tried to gather their emotions. Since my sentencing, this was the first time I had met with people who are living with the ever-present impact of losing someone to a drunken driving collision. But there was another side.
Because I was recruited to participate in this inaugural panel, I was also asked to tell my story. I prepared intensely because I prided myself on being composed and fluid when I spoke. Thankfully, I was able to deliver, but it was what came afterward that surprised me. The two women thanked me for sharing; they told me they needed more of us to do the same when we get out so people can gain a different perspective from the offenders. I cannot adequately express how this made me feel. To know that the victims of crime would now be eager to work alongside those who, in many ways, represent the criminals who have victimized them was nothing short of remarkable. It was then that I was able to truly appreciate the necessity of coming full circle in my rehabilitative efforts by collaborating with victims and working toward a common goal: preventing further crime. Three years and over 20 volunteers later, the shared healing continues.
During my 15 years of incarceration, I have seen many programs that inmates are able to access (GED, cognitive restructuring, drug and alcohol treatment, religious services, anger management, etc.). All of these serve a valuable purpose in the complex process of helping inmates come to terms with their underlying issues that have manifested in deviant, criminal behavior. However, it has become painfully obvious that this effort would not be complete without exposing inmates to the unique, therapeutic, enlightening and empathy-producing experience that a restorative justice program offers. There is no substitute for hearing, feeling, and witnessing the severe impact our actions have had on victims, families, friends, and communities. As grateful as I am for having had the rare opportunity to earn a graduate degree, the empathy and insight I have gained from listening to those who are on the other side of crime has done more for my rehabilitation than I could have ever imagined. It is, therefore, imperative that any efforts to fully rehabilitate the inmate population include programs of restorative justice.
While certainly not as grossly unjust as it was prior to the 1980s, incarceration is still an incredibly dehumanizing experience, and given that people are incarcerated for years at a time, imprisonment in the United States often permanently scars a person to the point that many prisoners no longer feel like people at all.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not saying we are victims, and I’m not forming my conclusions based on the sense of entitlement that is so pervasive in American culture. It goes without saying that prison is punishment for criminal misconduct, and my actions warrant that punishment. I can accept that. I have developed into a man who can acknowledge the fact that my act of egregious violence not only cost another human being his life, but ultimately harmed everyone involved, including the victim’s family, my family, and the community at large. I am not denying that, nor am I blaming anyone else for my situation.
However, the commission of and consequences for a criminal act, especially an act of violence, doesn’t take place in a vacuum, right? I mean, in the same way that there are identifiable social and psychological ramifications for criminal activity, there are many social and psychological variables that influence and shape the reasons why a person commits a crime. Redemptive justice should look to identify and treat the highly individualized social and psychological deficits in those who engage in criminal activity in an effort to redeem the human beings behind the acts and prepare them for reintegration into society while simultaneously disciplining them with proportionate punitive measures. Unfortunately, prisons in the United States are neither redemptive nor restorative. They are overly punitive and dehumanize the already troubled human beings confined within them.
One example, a situation with which I am dealing currently is an increased emphasis on the enforcement of property rules on my unit, which is completely understandable because things have grown lax in recent years. I live on an incentive housing unit and we all had too much property stored in unauthorized places. However, the one in charge of communicating this elevated enforcement to those who run the units is less than approachable.
One day, he came to the unit after we were called to chow. We returned to chaos and intimidation — I entered my cell, and the folders I had on the table were thrown to the floor, my papers scattered, the blanket on the end of my bunk thrown to the middle, and as I surveyed the small room where I live, I could hear him threatening to move people off the unit when they simply tried to explain that this unit offers less storage space than other units. While this seems like a relatively innocuous incident, it is emblematic of a larger reality.
Another crucial aspect of being human is feeling warmth and love. The incarcerated are almost never shown warmth and love, and we rarely show it to each other. It is generally viewed as a weakness within prison culture, and the staff are trained to put on a persona that lacks any degree of warmth or compassion when dealing with us because it is believed that showing concern and warmth will reduce their authority, even though there is an argument that holds warmth would increase not only the authority and credibility of the staff, but also their safety. In an environment as cold and unfeeling as prison, it can become difficult to express warmth at all after a while. It just becomes so foreign, and if we are unaware of this dynamic, which most of us are, then it can become uncomfortable to receive it as well.
Every human being is unique and has a need to express his or her individuality, but in prison, our ability to experience and express our own individuality is limited. Communication is stifled. Staff rarely listen to or even allow us to explain our side of a given situation, believing we are trying to manipulate everything to our advantage. We are treated as if we are all the same, cattle to be exploited for profit by both the state and the private companies that do business within the prison system, rather than the unique human beings we are.
Meaning and purpose are also crucial aspects of being human. People need to feel like they matter; they need a reason to wake up, to put one foot in front of the other. The “Will to Meaning,” as Victor Frankl put it, provides the impetus for growth, the drive to become a better, more actualized person. While certainly not comparable to Frankl’s Nazi internment camp experiences, the dehumanization of contemporary incarceration still works against the will to meaning. The effects are simply more subtle and, therefore, more insidious. In fact, the prison system has no vehicle or mechanism either to express why meaning and purpose are so critical for rehabilitation or how to help the incarcerated find meaning and purpose in their lives. When humans are treated like their lives are meaningless, it becomes too easy to believe the lives of others are meaningless, too.
The punitive aspects of prison are out of balance with the stated mission of rehabilitation. Unfortunately, the current reality of the prison system is that it more often than not produces people who come out more broken than when they went in. They feel disrespected, frustrated, empty, alone, humiliated, and unloved. Academic and vocational training is limited in both scope and availability. Substance abuse or sex addiction treatment programs are literally non-existent, even though 75% of the incarcerated in Oregon are in for either a drug offense or sex crime. Although I’m not a sex offender, I was drunk when I committed an act of violence against another man, and I had a history of drug and alcohol abuse at the time.
Cognitive dissonance involves a psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously. The idea is that one cannot hold competing beliefs and attitudes for long — it is inevitable that a person will eventually take one position over the other. I feel like when this manager looks in the cells and sees pitchers full of ice water or colored sugary drinks, folders, books, and other evidence of human presence, it causes a psychological conflict for him because he does not view us as human. He wants no human possessions to be visible on the tables and walls — only steel and brick. He wants to see an animal in a cage, rather than a man in a room, so he reacts with venom, intimidation, and vitriolic rhetoric.
Problems of dehumanization are paradigmatic and systemic. Take for example the man in charge of pushing the elevated enforcement of property rules on my unit: It is not the enforcement of the rules that is dehumanizing. It is how he treats people as he enforces them. The lack of flexibility, nonverbal intimidation, and verbal threats reveal his cognitive dissonance regarding the incarcerated.
He is not the only one. Many administrative staff hold these views of the incarcerated, and because of the paradigm with which they do their jobs, subordinates adopt similar views, making it a systemic problem. I don’t blame them too much. I’m not sure they even understand the ripple effect they have on their world, but the consequences go far beyond themselves.
Constant dehumanization, experienced everyday in a thousand different ways over a period of years, amounts to socialization. The negative and abusive patterns of treatment during incarceration socially conditions the incarcerated to view themselves as less than human, unlovable, and undeserving of empathy, thereby reducing their capacity to empathize with those in society. In fact, gang members, sex offenders, and drug addicts who desperately want to change their lives find little in the way of guidance or counseling — when they are in that liminal space between their criminally-oriented past and whatever their future may hold, the only consistent message prison offers is that they are less than authentically human.
Sure, in this environment, we all have the choice to grow… or not, but the criminal justice system certainly does not highlight the better choices one could make. Nor does it show the incarcerated person how to purposely and positively alter his or her decision-making patterns in order to realize genuine change. This method of “rehabilitation” does not curtail criminal behavior or reduce the recidivism rate. Unfortunately, current models of incarceration and systemic dehumanization actually work to increase criminal thinking and antisocial behavior patterns. But…at least there is nothing on my table now.