Weekly Journal – Rehabilitation Part 2
In my last post, I talked about my efforts towards rehabilitation. One thing I would like to work on when I leave prison is advocating for better systems of rehabilitation. Specifically, I want to advocate for:
- Changes to eligibility for programming
- An inmate outreach program
- Changes for incarcerated parents
While I have tried to do as much programming as I can, I have faced many roadblocks. Some of them were not under anyone’s control. COVID wreaked havoc on the prison system and the BOP’s ability to provide programming. Among other things, this created staff shortages and long waiting lists. But there are other things that can be improved. For example, one policy prevents inmates from doing certain programs until the end of their sentences. This creates a situation where they will have to pick and choose one program over another when they could benefit from both.
I am going to face this. I have been recommended in two areas of need to work on. There are two residential programs that address these needs, Life Connections and Residential Drug and Alcohol Program. I’d like to do them both, but you can’t take them at the same time. I’ve tried to talk to staff about doing one early so I can fit in both, but they won’t allow it. So by the time I’m eligible, I will only have time to take one. Another inmate I work with has a 25 year sentence. Similarly, he can’t take any of these more intensive programs until 20+ years from now. If his conduct is so egregious that he deserves a 25 year sentence, and the place we live is called a “Correctional Institution” then not addressing his problems for 20 years doesn’t seem like a good system. This should change and I will continue to advocate for that.
In order to rehabilitate inmates, we also need to support them mentally. I realize crimes including mine create anger and hurt that needs to be recognized and is why the punishment of incarceration exists. But if inmates are going to eventually re-enter society and we want them to be productive members who contribute, then we have to make sure we try to improve their mental health to ensure they don’t re-offend. Making someone a pariah or feel like they aren’t worthy isn’t going to help them be a better person. I have been lucky. While I have lost many people I dearly cared about from my life, I still have a strong support system of people who love me and want to see me succeed. Despite this I still struggle daily with feeling unworthy of happiness and worried about recovering some semblance of a normal life again.
If I struggle so much despite the support I have, I can’t imagine what it is like for others. I see many people here that have zero support from the outside. Some have been completely cut off from friends and even from family, including their children. I don’t blame those who choose not to contact these inmates or me, especially if those people have been betrayed or hurt by an inmate’s actions, but it is something that contributes to a further break down of that inmate’s mental health, resiliency and ability to become rehabilitated which is counter to a goal of our society. I have personally witnessed three suicide attempts while incarcerated. One inmate started slamming a heavy iron-barred door on his head, another hung himself with a sheet and a third jumped head first off a balcony. Seeing this further hurt my mental health and shows the struggles I’m talking about.
Being isolated from your previous life and contacts is difficult. I have always been a people pleaser, so knowing people hate me or are angry with me and I can’t fix it, is hard for me to handle. And I know it is something I will face the rest of my life, again deservedly. In many ways, not hearing from certain people at all is worse. I’d almost rather have them yelling at me than silence. I’ve seen a lot of others turn bitter and be angry at the world or others for their current circumstances. Personally I just continue to be angry at myself for my actions. There is nobody else to blame.
The reason I’m writing this particular post, however, is not to complain about how hard it is, or garner any sort of sympathy. It is to point out the detrimental effects this could have on inmates’ rehabilitation and to propose ideas to help offset it. One thing that has been an immense help to me has been hearing any sort of motivation from the outside. My pastor from outside has been a huge help and constant source of inspiration to make positive changes as has my family. I’ve also received a few letters from acquaintances I never expected to hear from. I think maybe it’s easier for them to lend support since they have some distance and were not as directly impacted by my actions. For instance, I got one letter from a family friend I had never talked to much that said “While you did make poor choices and have to deal with the consequences thereof, you are still a valued and loved child of God, worthy of my friendship and kindness. While I’d guess you might have heard from the World one way or another that you are not valued, or you are worthless because of what you did. But that is just another lie.” I can’t tell you how important this was for me to hear because I do often feel that way. So one thing I can do is possibly encourage an outreach program that spreads that kind of message. Since I understand that former friends and family of inmates may not want to reach out and many are completely justified in that because of how they were impacted, it might be easier to have strangers or more distant relations reach out.
For me, it wouldn’t matter who the message came from, it was just something I really needed to hear. And again, while inmates aren’t the victims here or entitled to forgiveness or sympathy, if our goal is for them to be successful upon release, if the choice is to build up their mental health or lock them up and forget about them, then I think my experience has shown me I can do something to help. There are some penpal type programs out there, but it’s something I’d like to research more now and maybe expand once I’m released. I can possibly get my church or the re-entry organization I offered to work with to help.
The last thing I think I can do or at least continue to advocate for is increasing family connection opportunities. As I’ve previously written, being away from my kids is the hardest thing I face. Wasting my ability to be an in person father by committing my crime is something I will never forgive myself for. While the fault lies with the inmate, there are things the BOP can do better with. I’ve written numerous letters and will continue to advocate for changes in visitation, placement, etc. I’ve seen some things that work but that are not implemented consistently. As a short list:
- Do a better job of placing inmates closer to home to allow in-person visits
- Increase the number of phones available and phone minutes (both are restricted)
- Allow all inmates email access if they don’t abuse the privilege (sex offenders are not allowed email)
- Allow video visitation – When I had this in county jail, it made all the difference. I could watch my kids open gifts Christmas morning, feel a part of birthdays and important events, etc. The technology is available, it’s been long promised and women’s Federal prisons have it, but men’s don’t.
- Provide board games and activities for the visiting room
In addition to advocating these and other changes, I’m writing a book on parenting from prison with 20 examples of activities, worksheets (including templates) I’ve created and done with my kids to share with others.