Retribution vs. Rehabilitation

Retribution vs. Rehabilitation

What is the most effective approach to dealing with crime and punishment? Should the criminal justice system primarily be used to punish those who violate the law by sending them to prison for lengthy terms? Or should it rather serve as a mechanism for rehabilitation? This dichotomous question is a polarizing one that aligns people on opposite sides of this argument and has shaped our penal system since its inception.

When men and women come to prison, we invariably cost hard-working, law-abiding taxpayers across this country billions of dollars annually to feed, clothe, and house us. Our water, heat, medical and dental care are all paid for on the backs of hard-working Americans from all walks of life. Recidivism rates show that most of us who are eventually released will re-offend and return to these overcrowded prisons within three to five years, continuously costing taxpayers many more billions of dollars for our lengthy terms of incarceration. This bleak trend will, unfortunately, remain intact if prisons continue to be used to primarily warehouse inmates.

Statistics show the higher the education one attains while incarcerated, the greater the likelihood of his or her success in the community, leading to a lesser likelihood that he or she will return to prison. Subsequently, the longer he or she thrives in a productive role in society, the more he or she will feel like a member of a community and not a criminal outcast. Earning a college degree or becoming certified in a trade while in prison is the key to this radical transformation and reintegration into our communities.

Having noted these promising outcomes, I know it is also paramount that the individual who commits a violent felony pays for his or her crime by serving time in prison. The sensible thing to do is to ensure that prison doesn’t continue to have a revolving door that perpetually costs taxpayers and state budgets billions of dollars, but rather to educate prisoners so they can begin to contribute to society. Offer college and apprenticeship programs to prepare them for the ever-evolving technological and service-based occupations that comprise the 21st century economy. When people have more at stake to lose, they tend to think twice about risking it by doing something illegal.

Understandably, many would vociferously rebut this assertion by arguing, “So, we’re just supposed to reward criminals with a free college education?” My answer would be pragmatically blunt: “No, you don’t have to offer any education of substance at all, but either way you’re going to spend those same tax dollars — either on lengthy incarcerations for re-offenders or on education that would enable them to contribute to society in an economically and socially meaningful way.” Which scenario benefits society more?

I am dismayed that this country that offers abundant opportunity on one hand can simultaneously incarcerate more people per capita than any other nation on earth! We’ve become a state and nation that would rather warehouse human lives in the name of retribution than rehabilitate people for the greater good of our collective society. Ironically, every state in the Union includes the word “corrections” in reference to its prison system. The (fill-in-the-state) Department of Corrections sounds as though it is primarily designed to correct or rehabilitate its occupants — but how? This is paradoxical to say the very least.

Personally, I’ve been extremely blessed to have had the financial means and support from loved ones that have enabled me to attain a college education. When I started this journey in 2004, I’d made the decision to make the most of my time by getting a college education and becoming a substance abuse counselor. I didn’t know how this was going to happen, but I was nonetheless determined.

When I arrived at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in 2005, I began taking college courses one at a time for $25. After my father passed away, I used my portion of his life insurance policy to fund my education via correspondence. I began independently taking courses from other universities, earning a Certificate in Human Services from Louisiana State University, AA from Indiana University, BS in Sociology from Colorado State University, and an MS in Psychology from California Coast University. I was certified as a recovery mentor last year and recently as a substance abuse counselor. Good for me, but what about everyone else? It disheartens me when I think of the lack of opportunity for countless others in Oregon prisons because they have been institutionalized with no real opportunities to rehabilitate themselves and gain something tangible to show for it. Sadly, this deplorable trend will only continue if retribution over rehabilitation remains our state’s and nation’s motive for incarceration.

Restorative Justice is Key to Rehabilitation

Restorative Justice is Key to Rehabilitation

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.

Nothing On My Table

Nothing On My Table

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.

What Rehabilitation Means

What Rehabilitation Means

In the movie Shawshank Redemption, one of the incarcerated characters, Red they called him, went before the parole board. He had been in prison for over 30 years at that point, and one of the members of the parole board asked him, “Do you think you have been rehabilitated?” 

Red responded. “I don’t know what that means…. I know what you think it means, but to me, it’s just a politician’s word, a made up word so people like you can have a job…” The setting of this scene is the United States in the mid-to-late 1960s. While it is undeniable that the criminal justice system has come a long way since the 1960s, I still relate to that scene. 

I have been in prison since 2001, and I don’t blame anyone else for my incarceration. I am in prison as a direct result of my violence, my selfishness, and my irresponsibility. Yet, I have grown and matured in virtually every conceivable way, and I have made some observations about rehabilitation during my journey. 

One of the stated missions of the criminal justice system is the rehabilitation of those convicted of criminal activity while holding them accountable for the harm they have caused. The concept of rehabilitation involves returning something back to good condition. Synonyms abound: overhaul, renovate, re-condition, restore, but it seems none of these truly capture what goes on in America’s prisons. 

Without question, there are some programs that positively impact the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of those incarcerated, such as ABE/GED programs, a few basic cognitive-behavioral classes, and even some rudimentary mental health groups. However, none of them wield the depth or intensity to be considered authentically rehabilitative. 

The greatest impediment to genuine rehabilitation taking root in the criminal justice system, in my opinion, is not only the ubiquitous tension between correctional staff and the incarcerated men and women whom they supervise, but also the fact that its magnitude is usually kept hidden — it isn’t ever talked about openly, making any solutions extremely enigmatic. 

I certainly don’t hold it to be completely the fault of correctional staff. Without a doubt, they have a difficult, stressful, and often dangerous job, and they deal with some of the most unreasonable and violent personalities the country has to offer. The complexities and risks involved with being a correctional staff member do not escape me. I do question, however, whether the adversity and subjugation of the incarcerated escapes those who profit from them. 

Genuine empathy and compassionate concern are transformative, not only for those to whom they ar given, but also for those who feel them when serving others. However, they cannot be applied legitimately to a correctional setting without an elevated degree of mercy from those who administer and enforce the rules, regulations, and orderly operations of a correctional facility. Unfortunately, mercy is often misunderstood, and within that misunderstanding lies the fundamental reason for the great gulf that exists between the incarcerated and those who staff correctional facilities. 

Currently, much of the criminal justice system does little but warehouse and manage those convicted of crime, rather than treat the substance abuse and violence surrounding most criminal activity. This has created a growing underclass in the United States. During incarceration, “otherness,” “uncleanness,” and “inferiority” are internalized, and after release, pervasive disenfranchisement reinforces them. Mercy is too often perceived as letting someone off the hook or reducing consequences, to pull one’s punches, so to speak. Yet the true nature of mercy involves such a depth of compassion that one is moved to action on behalf of another. Holding those of us in prison accountable for our actions is both redemptive for us and demanded by the communities from which we come. Consequently, mercy requires justice — but the kind of justice prescribed by mercy is restorative, not corrosive. 

Correctional staff are trained to put on a persona of authority and superiority when dealing with inmates and assert their authority at every opportunity. This maintains a social gap between themselves (essentially those who represent mainstream society) and the incarcerated, creating strawman stereotypes that make it incredibly easy to generalize the most negative notions of the worst incarcerated person to all incarcerated persons. “These guys are lazy, dirty, manipulative, untrustworthy, and dangerous.” These are statements made regularly about inmates by staff. 

Instead of feeling empathy for the moral and social gulf that separates those who have lived a criminal lifestyle and those who have not, instead of learning more about the individual nuances that may provide insight into a given inmate’s behaviors, the situational assessments needed to do these things are too often abandoned in favor of what is easy: subjectively reconstructing the image of every inmate, replacing the diversity of motives and experiences with a singularity of favored presuppositions, a subtle form of rejection that affords correctional staff a feeling of superiority, which becomes intoxicating. This social distance facilitates thinking of the incarcerated in abstract, depersonalized terms. 

Sure, we are not tortured — in fact, we are provided for quite well. But we are not treated with the dignity that might condition us to believe we could ever become contributing members of society. We often encounter an insensitive ear and a closed, even locked door when searching for redemption, intensifying the anguish, pervasive loneliness, and utter despondency of being separated from everything we know and love, and everything that knows and loves us. 

However, the incarcerated are not blameless. Far too many incarcerated persons view their incarceration as an injustice, believing themselves to be victims, unfairly imprisoned. They operate with an obnoxious sense of entitlement, failing to acknowledge the wake of material and human carnage left as a result of their careless, selfish actions. They will spew anger and venom at correctional staff for the smallest, most inconsequential directive or request, however legitimate. Many inmates push the envelope, looking to manipulate every situation to their favor and even defraud their way into some sort of advantageous special treatment, and when their goals are thwarted, they will flip it, making the correctional staff into the bad guy. Some will even be violent, seeking to harm staff members in any way they can. Far too many incarcerated individuals are perpetually disrespectful, legitimately dangerous, and constitutionally unruly, shirking the authority of staff members at every opportunity. 

This seems to be the result of the incarcerated doing the same thing the criminal justice system does to us: Inmates often dehumanize and objectify correctional staff, viewing them not as people with lives and families and a job to do, but as obstacles that keep us from doing what we want to do. 

The bottom line is… no one is innocent in the creation of the tension between correctional staff and the incarcerated. These stereotypes are fundamentally inaccurate. All inmates are not irredeemable — some of us take responsibility for our hurtful behavior and are honestly interested in becoming people who do not hurt others in the pursuit of our goals. And neither are all correctional officers full of hatred for the incarcerated. Some are wonderful people genuinely interested in helping those inmates who are committed to becoming productive members of society. 

The criminal justice system is broken, and the primary reason, aside from the obvious overcrowding as a result of draconian mandatory minimum sentencing laws and a failed war on drugs, is a vicious cycle of animosity between inmates and staff. And it makes it worse that we do not talk about it. Solutions to problems are not found in the dark. If we could all just give each other a break, accept each other as equals with regard to our humanity, and show compassion, things could really change for the better. 

This past Friday, I was taking advantage of this amazing opportunity to take a CPR class. The lieutenant instructing the class actually spoke about this problem. He intimated that for many years he had seen only blue (the color of our uniforms) rather than our humanity. I was literally stunned! I was not offended; I was softened. We all know how we all feel, but when it’s brought into the open, it loses power. This staff member’s vulnerability earned my respect and afforded him a level of credibility that I have not often experienced in almost 20 years of incarceration — simply by acknowledging his struggle to see us as human beings. 

I related to his words quite deeply because I deal with the same problem. For the past few years, I have felt my bitterness toward staff, this ball of galvanized disdain in my gut at which I have been chipping, trying slowly to process away my feelings by working to humanize the correctional staff. It has not been easy, but the admission by that lieutenant not only made it a little easier; it made my struggle feel normal as well, bringing me into the fold of society again, even if only just a little. I hope in the future we can do more to break down the barriers between us — after all, we are all human. Understanding that is what rehabilitation means… isn’t it?

My Unique Dilemma

My Unique Dilemma

As of 2018, I have a little over eight years left before I go before the board of parole and potentially release back into the community. Although I’m admittedly a bit apprehensive, I do feel prepared. I’ve put in considerably effort improving myself not only psychosocially and spiritually, but also relationally. It is extremely important to me that I not impact others negatively. 

Previously, I was ludicrously self-centered, focused only on what I could get in life and out of life, with very little regard for the struggles and feelings experienced by others. Rather than positively impact the lives of others, I was hurting virtually everyone with whom I came into contact. Once I finally realized how I was affecting the people around me everyday, I was able to choose how I impacted others. It was because of this revelation that I decided to pursue a career in counseling. 

I’m currently enrolled in a Ph.D. program (having earned a Master’s degree in 2017), and by the time I go before the parole board, I will have my Ph.D. in Counseling. For my certification, however, there are some additional requirements. I must complete 300 CEUs (Continued Education Units) in counseling and log 4000 clinical hours of actual counseling. While I have met the required 300 CEUs by taking several counseling courses in addition to my degree program, I have been unable to log any clinical hours. But I do have an opportunity to do so, which presents a dilemma. 

I expect to finish my Ph.D. program by mid-2021. At that point it will be possible to transfer to another facility and participate in an alcohol & drug treatment program that will help me log my clinical hours, allowing me to secure a CADC I or II (certification) prior to going before the parole board, and, I believe, increasing my chances for release. Having my certification will also make it easier to enter the workforce with a felony conviction on my record. 

On the other hand, once I complete my Ph.D. program I could go to work in one of the industry jobs that pay around $150 per month, allowing me to save a considerable amount of money for my release, and, I believe, increasing my chances for successful re-entry into society. Money is a critically important aspect of security as I acclimate to a totally new culture — I came to prison prior even to 9/11! Being able to save around $2500 can go a long way toward helping me get established. 

My dilemma lies in the fact that I cannot do both. If I enter the A & D program in order to log my clinical hours, I will be unable to save any significant amount of money for my release. And if I go to work in a job that pays enough for me to save real money, I’ll be unable to log any of the clinical hours I need for certification. It’s a difficult decision, and I haven’t made up my mind yet. I still have a couple of years before I have to decide, but it’s still an ever-present, anxiety-producing hurdle in my path that I know is coming. I think about it often. I’d be lying if I said I don’t long for some guidance, but in prison, rehabilitative guidance simply does not exist.