A friend of mine wrote this and has allowed me to share. His unique, first hand perspective provide us with a glimse into the reality of the prison experience.
The penal environment is not one that really lends itself to personal change. From the unforgiving, violent inmate society to the insipid and intransigent bureaucratic attitude of the System that keeps said society, the process is rather arduous and painstaking. Nevertheless, in many cases it is done. In spite of, in the face of, and never mind all adversity, a number of people leave prison better than whenst they came. It can be done. But first have a look at exactly how hard it really is for people in prison to change, what challenges and impediments they face when attempting a transformation. The purpose here is not to judge, only to report, and try to keep in mind that what may seem different or foreign is just that: different and foreign.
Prison has a society of its own. Those outside of it call it a “sub-culture” and name its value system the “con code.” These labels are actually inaccurate, as the prison culture is a society and the value system is a legal system, although unwritten. The society and laws differ from the ones in the community, but not by much. Some things that are illegal in the community are illegal among people prison, illegal in the sense that there are penalties and sanctions for the transgressions of said laws. People in prison actually have two sets of legal systems to contend with, and at times these two are adverse and diametrically opposed: the System’s and the prison’s. This is more stressful than one would believe, especially when dealing with personal change and development.
Change is disliked and even hated by people in prison, it “goes against the grain.” If one wants to change his or her life in prison, he or she has to change the attitudes, values, thinking and behaviours that brought him or her there. Prison is usually fuelled by these old ways of living, as well as nourishing and further promoting them. Consequently, when the person in the prison attempts to change them, he or she meets resistance from their neighbours, peers, and friends. They are seen as defectors and deserters, abandoning the “herd.” Sometimes he or she is drawn back because of this, as the pressure and ostracising is too much. People in prison who try to change are seen as lesser than; a prejudice forms. As with all large groups, the prison society does not like difference.
People in prison do not mind one trying to get out of prison. However, if one is truly trying to change their lives in prison, it will be noticed, and he-or-she will be shunned and spurned. This is because in prison people do things that are adverse to change: drugs, violence, lying, manipulation, etc. and all that promotes and furthers them. People in prison feel they need one another to accomplish all of these things effectively and if one of their own does not help them in these endeavours, then she or he is an alien not to be trusted or accepted.
Then there are the rules and regulations that govern the running of the prison, the System’s rules. If one wants to change their behaviour, the first thing they usually have to start with is the following of these edicts. Go ahead, says the prison society, unless it interferes with our “getting ahead” in some way, then your allegiance is to Us. This can be extremely harrowing to a person trying their best to give up their old lifestyle. They know that the “prison way” is not healthy or effective for them anymore; but a refusal to help, or a hindrance of any kind, is sure to lead to a problem – to say the least. Furthermore, if they continue to capitulate to the “herd” then they will never truly break free from their own behaviours. A dilemma, for sure.
People in prison for, the most part, and yes this is a sweeping, broad statement – believe they are fine the way they are. They do not see anything wrong with their behaviour, only the consequences. They do not really want to benefit from the rehabilitative opportunities offered to them, other than getting out on some form of conditional release. They want to live their lives as they see fit. Until they get caught. Then they will do whatever it takes to avoid those consequences – everything except halting the behaviour that leads to the consequences. Their whole lives are preying on, evading, and manipulating society and the System again and again; some more, some less. Many have been in and out of prison since they were teenagers. Their whole identity, or at least a large part of it, is prison and the mores that belong to it. They see society as the screwed-up ones. The System as villainous fiends who foil their every attempt liberty. However, they hide these feelings when there is a parole or a transfer impending, then they put on the “changed” persona, again, and they claim they have “seen the error of their ways.” Truthfully they are going to do whatever their offence was again, or something worse, or lesser, it all depends, and they probably will not feel any remorse for it. They honestly do not see anything wrong with the lifestyle they live. Only with the people telling them that it is wrong and “punishing” them for it. For people in prison this is their life and that is all there is to it. This is a sad truth.
But it is not really their fault. Now here is where most people would say, “Wait a minute, they know right from wrong, how can it not be their fault; how can they not be responsible?” Because whose right and wrong is it? It is never really known what type or quality of life a person has had, what influences they have had, what pains or traumas have given them the outlook they have. This does not excuse their victimising others or minimize any pain they have caused. Nevertheless, just because one day in their dysfunctional lives someone is telling them: “Because We don’t like that, you will go to prison for X number of years if you do it,” does not mean a person truly appreciates right from wrong. They logically and rationally grasp that there are consequences to their behaviour, but they do not see any inherent evil or malevolence in it. Here is where the system has the most difficulty in reforming people in prison: alien values cannot forced be on others. A Christian cannot force a Muslim to believe in Jesus as his or her personal Saviour. Ergo, one cannot convince another that stealing is immoral and will cause the breakdown of society because of this. If stealing has been a survival tool for said person, and their role models taught them to do steal, or they received contradictory messages, or etc., this will be a fallacy to him. Yes, it harms the theft victims! Yes, it is a burden on society! Yes, society, if it is to remain somewhat stable, cannot condone thievery! But the person whom does not believe stealing is really all that bad – unless he gets caught – does not care about any of that.
Then there is the System to contend with. The System is a large organism that works very slowly and illogically. When Person X tries to reform themselves in and then practice their skills on the System, the skills sometimes work, sometimes not. And most people in prison cannot handle this ambiguity and unpredictability. “I’m straight-up with you now, why can’t you be straight up with me?” Try as they might they will rarely get an honest answer. Patience and honesty with the System do not seem to pay off most of the time, as the System, as it exists, does not truly work with people in prison, it just moves them through itself. It cannot allow people in prison to grow, and then see the System as it is: an illogical organism that does not really accomplish the goal of its own existence, getting people out of itself and never coming back. The System does not allow people in prison to point out its shortcomings, it cannot admit defect or vulnerability. It does not want “them” i.e. the people in prison, pointing out its blemishes; it believes that the people in prison are the problem, not it. In a sense, the System is almost designed to fail in its delivery of rehabilitation. This failure manifests itself as a cycle of recidivism. Its “system” of rehabilitation is destined to perpetuate itself, as it refuses to work with people in prison, and those same people continue to give up trying to deal with a System that cannot work with them. The people in prison, whom are no longer in prison, resort to old behaviour patterns, and then the pattern repeats itself. The System cannot work with people whom are incarcerated and continue to survive itself. If it is going to thrive and grow it cannot concede to its charges, as this is freeing its sustenance. In other words, if the System truly works with people in prison, allows them to practice their newly found skills, and ultimately be released and never come back, it nullifies its existence. Therefore allowing the use of new found skills on itself is a threat to its livelihood and its future.
Programs exist in prisons that address the so-called “the rehabilitative needs” of the people living there. If; however, a person is not going to be released for a number of months to a number of years after completion of these programs, what purpose did these corrective programs serve? Where does the person in prison get to practice these skills? The prison society is not like the society that a “free” citizen lives in. People in the community do not generally solve problems with threats, violence, drugs, manipulation, etc. Of course in the community there are exceptions, but for the sake of this report the majority of people are being referred to. The foregoing skills are the preferred methods of interpersonal problem solving in prison. The intention here is not to judge whether good or bad, remember, just to report. These programs do not teach skills on how to live a “pro-social” life in prison, as mentioned earlier, they end up teaching one how to live an “anti-social” life in prison. One cannot expect to take a set of skills that are effective in one culture and society and apply them in another. The skills taught in the programs work for people in the community, on people in the community. They are an aberration in prison. So what happens when Person X tries his or her newly acquired skills in a context they were not designed for? They fail. And most people who are in prison do not like failure or effort very much, or believe and have faith that it will all work out if they just keep patient and hold onto the skills to apply them once released. The skills then atrophy, are forgotten about, and are then chalked up to a waste of time and energy on the part of the person in prison.
It was said at the beginning that a number of people in prison change despite all the obstacles, some of which have just been illustrated. It is true that personal development and change is not easy or always enjoyable in prison; nevertheless, it can be done. There are a number of common denominators and ways that people in prison who change, do so.
The aforementioned programs seemed redundant and useless; notwithstanding, if rigorously adhered to, despite failures, the skills taught in them do work – just not exactly how they were taught. The prison context is not the proper testing ground for them, admittedly; be that as it may, the person can modify them to work in the penal milieu. Some pride will have to be swallowed, some embarrassment will have to be endured, and some prison societal customs or rules may have to be overlooked or broken; however, the point is no one is harmed in the process and everyone walks away problem free. This is what one is looking for when trying to change: no violence and no problems.
The System as a whole, as an organism, is cold and indifferent, but there are members of the System that truly want to help those who live in it. There are people working within, with, and on the fringes of the System that actually care about what they do and about the people in prison; they could be called humanitarians. They are really trying to better the people living in prison. They will try to allow the people in prison to practice their new way of life, and encourage them when they are frustrated and overwhelmed. This proves that all forces are not working against those in prison, they are not totally alone.
Spirituality is a resource tapped into by many people in prison. The energy and values found in religion can be the new focus for a person trying to forge an identity. This path can give people the strength and courage needed to overcome the loneliness, fear, and frustration encountered while trying to change. After all, personal development is always a spiritual phenomenon, and the holy is part of a person’s change in prison, even if they are not aware of it. To actively incorporate it into one’s life is to strive for maximum growth and change.
Therapy exists in prison in many forms, from twelve-step groups to individual psychotherapy. Therapy is something that is utilized by many people in prison, but if the willingness is there, then it can really heal. The therapy sessions are not actually what change the person, it is the person practicing the therapy outside of the sessions that effects healing or development. This is where many people get confused about therapy: not using it outside the therapeutic setting. Therapy is ultimately up to the individual and the work that she or he does. The therapy or therapist is only a teacher and can only take the patient so far. The process is, at the end of the day, an individual one.
Values and attitudes must change if one is to have a new and different life. The values and attitudes that preceded the incarceration will succeed it, if not changed. And, as is well known, values have a direct correlation to behaviour. People in prison that change know this and start the process while still incarcerated. They change their old values and attitudes to more effective ones. The new values and attitudes will allow them to reintegrate, in a sense, back into society. Because true reintegration may not be possible. The new values and attitudes may not correlate or fit exactly with society’s; the person may never actually be a part of society, they may even snub or offend it from time to time, but as a result of the changes they have made, they will never again harm it. The change is not about becoming a part of another group, it is about becoming a whole individual. The group is not an essential part of the reality, it is a part, but not crucial. The person must make her or his own life.
The paramount objective must not be: Stay out of prison. That will come as a result of the change. A new life must be the priority, and then the maintenance of that new life. Most people who are in prison have been there before, and many of them numerous times. Staying out of prison will become a stagnant goal if left as a priority. People will forget how uncomfortable it was, how lonely, how …. They will fool themselves into believing that the risk of going back is worth it because it has been so long since they have been inside; or they will get fed up with the ups and downs of the “straight” life and rationalize that prison wasn’t really so bad. Prison is not really a deterrent after one has spent a significant amount of time there. It is only another residence.
The fundamental component to change is willingness. The willingness to do whatever it takes to change one’s life, no matter what has to be given up, lost, or sacrificed; no matter how much pain or humiliation has to be endured; no matter how lonely and afraid one has to feel, one has to be willing to endure anything to change. This is the crux of personal development. And all self-help books, tapes, gurus, etc. have said the same thing. Only then will lasting changes take place.
Change does happen all the time in prison. Many people get out of prison and never come back. Many do come back again and again. There does not seem to be a formula for rehabilitation such as the correct time + the correct attitude + the correct programming etc. equals. There is Something larger and more powerful than any of that. The goal of this discourse is to explain what happens with many people in prison who change. Also, to show the System how hard it truly is for these men and women when they do decide to do so.
All of the information in this essay is not black and white, concrete, and factual; nor is documented by research, it is; however, documented by direct observation. There are exceptions to all of what is written here, but most of what is written is generally true. Change is possible in prison, and no matter how many obstacles or problems people in prison face, it can, and will, continue.