Let’s Help Prisoners Contribute to the Greater Social Good


Prison populations continue to rise while rehabilitation efforts, if they even exist, continue to fail.  We can do so much better.  The Washington state prison system might just be onto something really, really good.

They’ve begun using inmates as ecological assistants in conservation efforts to save endangered species.  Inmates are ideal for this work, with a controlled environment and lots of time to dedicate.  Perhaps most importantly, the work allows inmates to feel they are contributing to a broader social good. I have probably spoken to more inmates than any doctor or psychiatrist known to me.  Granted, they have all been in the state of California but I refuse to believe they are very different elsewhere.  When I asked most of them what they were in for, the answer was “parole violation.”  I tried to get them to tell me their “index” or original violation but that was like pulling teeth.  Most of them could not remember very much, or were evasive, or told me they had spent long expanses of time behind bars. They had self-esteem you could have trouble scraping off the floor.  Sometimes they would have “workshops” in things like upholstery or auto repair.  I have seen them do private work for the warden, like upholstering his cabin cruiser.  I have seen them get depressed when various workshops were closed for financial reasons.  Mostly, I have seen them unable to imagine life outside of bars. The one thing they have is time.  The different ways they use this time is amazing.  A few, the “intellectual” ones, may write books, run businesses with outside help, or take some kind of correspondence courses.  But my experience tells me this is rare.

I would tell inmates things.  I would tell them how some great writing was done in prison, including the writings of Marco Polo.  Most of all, I would tell them that as far as I was concerned there are no bad men, just good men who do bad things.  So the best thing I could wish them was to pay whatever debts society had imposed upon them, be good, and move along.  I thought this was obvious, but I was surprised how often it resulted in some pretty tough looking guys crying, getting down on one knee, and kissing my hand. I did not think what I said was that extraordinary.  They did, for they had been bombarded with messages that they were totally useless.  The idea that they could do something, anything, after they got out was delirious and radical.  Many turned to religion to help themselves feel good.  It was good stuff for some, but rang hollow for others. I have never, ever, heard of a work project more powerful in helping inmates feel good about themselves than this project in Washington State.  These inmates have nothing but time on their hands to do some time consuming work to keep endangered species alive. Bravo.  This is refreshing in a sector that is only growing and does little or nothing in the way of “rehabilitation.”  Trust me, I’ve worked in about a half dozen prisons and have not laid eyes on it yet.  But finally, somebody who is seemingly unencumbered by habitual ways of thinking is doing some profound humanitarian good.

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