From the Prison Writing Project
The Renaissance of Inmate B- -----
Stopping Recidivism in America's Prisons
Personal Essay; 4,360-words
"We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done."
I learned how to drive my grandfather's 1984 Pontiac Firebird, a used maroon relic he'd bought from an old gangster in North Philly. I was sixteen and he was assigned driving duty by my mom. But Pops loved spending time with his oldest grandson. We practiced changing lanes while heading to Center City to drop Nana off at church. Spent Saturdays at the horse track, navigating blind corners and weaving around trashcans in the parking lot. I'd stolen cars before, but Pop's lessons were the first time I'd been shown how to really drive correctly. And I was bad at it. I turned the key after the engine was already on, causing a grating, mechanical screech from behind the steering column. I hit the curb and put chalky smudges on the black tires. I coasted onto the shoulder doing sixty. But Pops never yelled.
"It's okay if you make mistakes, just learn from them. Everybody screws up sometimes."
I could never tell if he was talking about my poor driving, or the way I was raising hell as a rebellious teenager. I was on a path that would veer towards oncoming traffic, crash into walls, and break my entire family. After I failed my license test, Pops told me to take the wheel and drive him home.
"Never give up until you get it right," he said. "And if you don't like how things are going in life, you can always change it.
The first time I came to prison, my classification officer told me that people don't change. "A leopard can't change its spots. You guys won't learn. I'm just being brutally honest with you. Most of the scumbags in here will be back. You will probably be back."
I was at a loss. I'd asked about classes at the institution, but it was clear that rehabilitation wasn't going to be a part of their plan. I knew I needed help (I was serving time for a theft I committed to support my drug addiction), but according to the system I was doomed to fail before I even tried to do better. The positive reinforcement of my youth would be replaced by a rabid, daily incredulity, administered by bullying guards and fellow inmates alike.
Every inmate in the Florida Department of Corrections (FLDOC) was assigned an identification card with their name, picture, and a number that began with a zero or a letter from A-Z. The zero represented a first time offender; an "A" meant two times in prison, "B" was three, and so on. Many elderly men with gray beards and bad attitudes carried an I.D. card with "E" and "F" letters; they were essentially serving a life sentence on an installment plan.
This cycle of coming in and out of prison is called recidivism, and for millions of Americans stuck in the criminal justice system, it is a grim reality filled with resentment, hopelessness, and persecution. Critics such as The Marshall Project (www.marshallproject.org) have labeled this turnstile justice, referring to the fact that most inmates are chronic offenders who receive no help and return to prison shortly after release. Year after year, men and women repeat the same mistakes for different reasons, perpetuating an endless loop of shame and failure; acts of ruthless violence are commonplace behind the razor-wire, yet many ex-offenders still make choices that land them back in correctional institutions. But why?
I'm 42-year old repeat offender B - ----- (this is my third time in prison) and it's oppressive; it's very hard to be a convicted felon in this country. I've served two short sentences for theft in my thirties, and I'm currently serving a ten-year sentence for burglarizing my ex's house. I fall under the Prison Releasee Reoffender Act, which makes my term mandatory with no chance of early release – regardless of my good behavior. I wasn't sentenced for my transgression... I was sentenced for my past.
Every offense I've ever committed was related to addiction, yet I've never been offered drug treatment or alternative care. I was bullied into plea bargains that threw me behind bars into a machine of mass incarceration, forgotten in the fray and alienated from the social order. I am not a victim. I accept full responsibility for my bad choices and I'm guilty of all charges; however, I was never afforded an opportunity for reconciliation between me and the actual victims of my crimes. Nor did I receive any opportunity for self-improvement instead of prison.
There's no question that people who break the law need to be held accountable for their actions, and the courts, while flawed, try to hand down sentences that support victim rights and protect the innocent. But experts disagree about whether imprisoning criminals for long periods of time actually prevents further crime. U.S. prisons simply warehouse violence – meaning that inmates are confined in large numbers, with little or no effort made to rehabilitate them. This punitive structure impedes correction, as isolation from society already hinders attempts to reintegrate back home. Sociologist Erving Goffman describes prisons as total institutions – self-contained systems that are unhealthy and shelter inmates from societal norms.
I temporarily live in a lock-em up, old-school, chain gang state. Florida's high recidivism rate creates a costly burden on taxpayers and is overwhelming the criminal justice system at an unprecedented scale. Statistics vary, but out of the 86,000 men and women incarcerated in the FLDOC, approximately 70% will return in their lifetimes. Official records show that 35% of Florida's inmates will return to prison within three years. These numbers show that this is a problem which can no longer be ignored. In response, the Governor, state legislators, prison reform advocates, and voters agree that the time has come for a drastic shift in the paradigm, and restorative justice has become a touchstone in national politics.
"It doesn't make any sense to me," my exasperated mother said over the beat-up, baby-blue prison payphone. Graffiti adorned the wall beside me as men shouted in the background and the television blared. It was my second time in prison and I'd heard the lecture before: "You just keep getting in trouble, Ryan, with no regard for us or your sons. I just hope that this is the last time you get locked up because I don't know if we'll be here for you again."
Why wasn't the fear of being killed by a gang enough to keep me out, or the loss of freedom and companionship? What was the main obstacle to me leaving prison, becoming a productive member of society, and ending up a success story? I asked myself these questions at night, lying on a thin mattress and staring at the moldy ceiling while a summer storm flashed lighting across the wall. My introspection always led to deep shame and regret.
People often asked me why I couldn't straighten my life out, even after having lost so much. Everything I've ever owned is gone. I've missed countless family events: weddings, births, graduations, funerals, and vacations. My relationships withered on the vine while I raised my sons as a phantom father. I've aged behind bars. The list of strikes is endless. I don't know how to answer my family and friends. What do I say? I'm an addict and always will be. When I got out it was too difficult to get my life back together, so I took the easy route and numbed my pain with drugs. Drugs led me to eventual debt and crime. Crime led me back to prison. Was it that simple? I promised my family over and over that this would be the last arrest, the last time in jail, the last prison stint, the last mistake.
From a strictly fiscal standpoint, the benefits of lowering recidivism are enormous. The FLDOC currently has an annual operating budget of two billion dollars for 2020. It costs an average of $25,000 per year to house, feed, clothe, secure, and give medical attention to a single inmate. If legislators would enact an initiative to reduce repeat prison terms by 50% over a one-year period, it would amount to a savings of over one billion dollars. That number swells exponentially if money saved from the judicial system and the expense of social services buttressing single parent households is taken into account. Furthermore, workforce and tax revenues grow as local economies are stimulated by spending.
Correctional institutions all over the country have depleted their budgets and have struggled to provide basic inmate services or a decent wage for officers, making living conditions horrendous and breeding contemptuous staff members who don't care what happens as long as it's not on their 12-hour shift. Lack of funding prevents wardens from offering beneficial programs that could help to create a better environment favorable to change, and allows men to leave prison the same way they came in. This causes a chain reaction of failure from the top down, and forces inmates to choose a way of life inside that can be violent: gangbangers and hustlers thrive on chaos and disorder.
During my first two prison bids, there were no programs or drug treatment or vocational training. There were very few educational courses offered. The name of the game was SURVIVE at any cost. As a nonviolent offender serving short sentences, I was forced into manual labor and put on work squads – rehabilitation was not even mentioned. I lifted weights, stole from the kitchen, smoked weed, sold drugs, assaulted any inmate who challenged me, disrespected officers, spent months in solitary confinement, and didn't improve myself in any way. I simply did my time. I stayed in my lane while trying to be as comfortable as possible, waiting to get out and return to my old life. I learned how to be a better criminal from drug dealers, racketeers, white-collar brainiacs, old mobsters, and bank robbers. There was no hope. No chance to win the game.
I'm ready to start over. I've come to a point in my life that I ask myself if I'm proud of the man I've become. If my dreams are still coming true and a purpose is still being fulfilled. If my meaning for existence still matters. At 37, I'm not proud of the man I am today. I haven't accomplished my goals. You, Mom, Frank, and Meg raised me so well and I've done nothing but hurt you all. I lie, cheat, and steal – use drugs to anesthetize my emotions and avoid the core problems of my inner self. I'm ashamed of how I've neglected my own sons and how I've treated my loving family. I'm a poster child for wasted potential. Please forgive me because I want to change...
Shortly after returning to prison for the third time, I mailed a letter of reconciliation to every member of my family. Most forgave me, some didn't. After all, they had been on the front line for years, watching me burn everything around me with drugs and alcohol and divorces and restarts. This time was going to be different though – I felt it in my bones. Because I was a repeat offender, I'd been threatened with a 20-year sentence for a nonviolent property crime. Hearing that in court was a wake-up call. I pled out to ten years, and serving that amount of time scared me straight. Right then and there, sitting in a dank, confined holding area after walking out of the courtroom, I vowed to make a life-altering transformation – whatever it took. The length of my sentence wasn't the real catalyst for my change though – I had to call my worried mother and tell her how long I'd be gone.
I knew I would do anything to stay out. I'd stay clean and sober. Stop being stubborn and accept wiser people's advice. I'd build on the character my parents had ingrained in me as a child. I'd spend the next ten years working my ass off to be more mature. I'd develop discipline and humility. After failing my first drivers test as a teenager, I was embarrassed and frustrated. But I resolved to succeed by any means necessary and started practicing every day. Passive braking. Parallel parking. I didn't let anything stop me back then. I remember using that tenacity to conquer many obstacles in my life over and over again.
So I became steadfast once again and decided to break my cycle of failure; to become a better man for myself, my family, and my kids. I would no longer be Sisyphus, spending eternity pushing a boulder up the mountain only to watch it fall back down. I would train like Rocky; study like a committed student; and write like it's the end of the world. Nothing was going to stop me, especially a broken system that told me "you can't change."
I wanted to remake my life, in spite of my mistakes. I didn't want to spend 14-hour days picking broccoli on a prison farm, or washing laundry. I wanted to attend classes to better myself. Bruce Lee said that anyone with the courage to admit their mistakes can be forgiven, but it didn't feel like the penal system agreed.
After I finally marshalled my determination, there was still nothing in the prison for me to do except go to the library or recreation yard. The rudimentary Education Department couldn't help me; I already had my high school diploma and some college, but was prevented from applying for Pell grants to finish my degree. There were 1,600 inmates at the institution with no vocational training. No faith-based dormitories. I tried to transfer to a prison offering more, but was told that institutions in the Florida Panhandle were maximum-security holding areas for hardened criminals – their mantra was control, custody, and care.
I decided that even though nothing worthwhile was available, I would start to fix myself. My family paid for a correspondence course from California State University. I started to practice Zen meditation more seriously, studying my mind for ticks and my ego and cracks I could fill. I went to Narcotics Anonymous. Correction officers were often physically and mentally abusive; when the guards mistreated me, I smiled inside and refused to become jaded. No more weed or cigs. I found peace in a nightmare – contentment in hell. My Mind-Body-Spirit was a perfectly balanced sum that got stronger every day.
It was hard to change when surrounded by malicious people who took advantage of the weak or kind-hearted. I didn't let anyone push me around, but found a way to stay away from trouble. I created an inner circle of a few like-minded individuals and kept to myself. I learned how to avoid negativism and operate on my own problems with the precision of a surgeon, carving away malignant flaws and thoughts. I spent three years transforming my way of life from the inside, but eventually an opportunity came along for further progress – a flyer was posted for a pilot program 500 miles away in the swamps of the Everglades...
The new Everglades Incentivized Prison is a first-of-its-kind, program-oriented facility that cultivates an atmosphere of learning and rehabilitation – a privilege offered to men who stay free of disciplinary reports for four years. The initiative focuses on quality of life inside, education, leisure, wellness, and reintegration components that benefit communities and inmates. The list of classes is endless: Toastmasters, Servant Leadership, Conflict Resolution, Seven Habits, Parenting, Victim Impact, K-9 Service Training, Yoga, Zen Meditation, and more.
"I have really low self-worth these days. I mean... what's my first date going to look like after I get out?" I ask. "How's my first conversation with my son going to go after eight years away?"
My first class is called Healing Emotions. I sit in a circle of men, sharing my feelings and fears while connecting on the same level as my peers. I never thought that I'd be involved with something like group therapy in prison, but it feels so natural to explore the who, what, why, when, and how of my past. A bald, former white supremacist with homemade tattoos leans forward with his chin in his hands; a retired black gang leader posts up against the wall; a lonely Hispanic boy sits mute, possibly ruminating on his own life choices. We're all here for the same thing and living in harmony... trying to better ourselves. The sage Confucius said, "When you have faults, do not fear to abandon them," and that's what we're trying to do.
"I don't belong in prison, but for some reason I keep coming back. I was raised in a loving home by parents who instilled values in us kids. I spent years building a career and raising a family of my own. I was a referee for youth basketball, donated to charities, and had a million friends. What happened?" I ask the room rhetorically. I depend on these classes to help me investigate my missteps and learn how to stop repeating them. It seems just as important to find the underlying root of my problems as talking about my drug addiction, so I search like I'm digging for buried treasure. I challenge the pain to a bare-knuckle fight.
On any given day there could be a Gang Summit for Unity in the visitation park, a church softball league playing on the rec yard, Grammy-nominated musicians entertaining in the game room, or Peace Education Development in the learning annex. Professors from nearby University of Miami, FIU, and Miami-Dade College volunteer with Kathy Klarreich at Exchange for Change to teach writing workshops, and exchange anonymous letters with college students studying criminal justice or law. A competitive course on Wastewater/Water Treatment Operations (which I now teach) is a leading vocational program, followed by CDL Permit and Barber School.
The administration hands out seven-inch loaner tablets which we use to email family, receive pictures and videograms, and to keep a schedule of our classes – the warden even emails inspirational quotes and uplifting messages regularly to every inmate here. This is the first time I've had a corrections officer shake my hand, call me 'sir', or ask me how my afternoon was going. It's enlightening when it happens, and inspires me to show them equal respect.
The forces of my own motivation plus an environment conducive to learning equals an unprecedented improvement in my life – I'm able to thrive and even succeed inside these walls. Just because I'm in prison doesn't mean I can't enjoy some victories or have good moments – after all, achievements aren't demographic and happiness is a state of mind. But this institution isn't perfect... there are many inmates here who don't care about changing and just want to live in a low-stress environment. These men say "I'll change when I get out," but the future we plan for begins today. I've categorized all the others here into three states of change – willing to try but not working at it yet; working at it but not being true to themselves; accepting that their way isn't effective and seeking guidance like their lives depends on it. I fall into the last category, as do many of my new friends.
Transition Coordinator Alan Cohen says it best: "If we don't help these men begin to change behind bars, then they will just come right back even worse. But if we teach them a better way, it helps everyone involved."
Coincidentally, the first progressive prison in the U.S. was the Walnut Street Jail in my hometown of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I used to drive Pops all around Philly, going down the narrow cobblestone streets of the Old City and up Broad Street's wide macadam lanes. Built in 1790, the jail incorporated statesman Benjamin Rush's doctrine that prisons should reform offenders, prevent future crimes, and help establish a repentant attitude through rehabilitative practices; it followed the Quaker ideology of educating prisoners instead of punishing them with inhumane treatment.
How will the state know if the Everglades Incentivized Prison is successful or simply progressive? What set of metrics can be used to quantify meaningful change in an inmate? Besides monitoring recidivism statistics and following ex-offenders upon release, is there a way to tell for sure if rehabilitation prevents men and women from coming back to prison? I believe that little things in the present are an indicator of future triumphs, and I've seen empirical evidence of this 1,800-man-pilot-project working. My last institution had a stabbing every week. I haven't seen one here... ever. No officer has been assaulted. There hasn't been one drug overdose or riot or lockdown. Nobody has been Life-Flighted by a trauma helicopter after being brutally attacked on the rec yard. These are all daily occurrences in other Florida prisons, and I've seen them firsthand.
Statistics in Oregon, California, and Georgia show that programs like firefighting school, forestry camps, equestrian training, and conservation groups help curb recidivism, so time will tell if Everglades is completing its mission. But the benefit of training inmates has already been widely publicized in magazines like Outdoor, Time, and Esquire, and on television series like 60 Minutes and CBS Sunday Morning. The country is finally changing its ideas on criminal justice reform, and how we treat our family and friends who end up incarcerated.
Opponents to progress, like the Florida House of Representatives, say that the responsibility of reform rests with the man and not on the system, but sometimes ex-offenders are sent back into communities without the proper tools necessary to succeed, and the obstacles facing a convicted felon can seem insurmountable. Background checks put limits on job opportunities and housing availability, while many people leave prison with no support system in place such as family, substance abuse counseling, career training, or mental health services.
Do communities assist us when we're released or treat us like pariahs? Do employers hire as second-chance companies? Some do, but the modus operandi has always been to shun ex-offenders returning to the world after their time is served. With Google and cheap background checks, it's nearly impossible for me to tell my side of the story before others get to judge me. Unfortunately, repeat offender screams habitual con artist, menace to society, and career criminal all at once. There's no way to evade other people's judgments or rip the inveterate label of convict from my life. No matter how I orchestrate my explanations to the friends I meet, the girls I date, or the companies I apply to, no one really understands. I'm simply a loser defined by his past.
Today when someone walks out of prison, most leave only with the clothes on their back and a Greyhound bus ticket. Some conservatives will ask why the government should give anything to a person who committed a crime – after all, that person chose to violate the law. I would suggest that helping recently released individuals helps everyone. A person who leaves prison with no help may, as a first and last option, commit another crime to get basic human needs like food, shelter, and clothes, and that crime could be against your community. It's a part of our nature to do anything to survive. The last time I got out of prison, I stole work boots and socks from Walmart so I could go to day-labor and earn a paycheck.
It's entirely possible to succeed and thrive after leaving prison with little or no assistance, but the odds are very low. The broad question is: Does society have a moral obligation to help ex-offenders who have paid their debt already? If yes, then it's essential to stop the revolving prison door and turn ex-offenders into productive members of the public. The follow-up question would be: Is the intention to rehabilitate those who land in prison, or continue to use the Draconian punishment like solitary confinement, long-term imprisonment, stigmatization, and physical abuse as the only recourse for bad behavior?
The truth is that people can change, but it takes so much effort – accountability, erasing ego, assiduous self-reflection, hard action – that many people won't follow through and do the difficult work that leads to a better life. Here's the simple fact... it's challenging for people to change, but not impossible (as I was told). The transition from prison to the streets is difficult and overwhelming and can beat even the most well intentioned, motivated person... but it's not impossible.
I know I can have a fulfilling life when I get out again by maintaining my sobriety. By putting my family and other people first. I guess there comes a moment in everyone's life when they feel so strongly about some personal maxim that nothing can detour them. For me, it's a conscious decision that I'm never coming back to prison, and Virgil famously stated, "They are able to because they think they are able to."
If the genuine intention is to help men and women stay out of prison for good, then we need to enable them to make meaningful changes in their character and show them how to live for something bigger than themselves. Institutions like incentivized prisons, volunteers like Alan Cohen and Kathy Klarreich, and resolute families are a lighthouse guiding the incarcerated from a stormy sea to a safe harbor – a beacon of hope for the disenfranchised populace of American prisons.
After I passed my license test it still took me a couple of years to become a good driver, but eventually I was learning from all of my mistakes. I slowed down, became more mindful, and followed directions. When I turned eighteen, Pops wasn't able to drive anymore after the cancer metastasized to his brain. Occasionally, my brothers and I would shuttle him to the doctor's appointments, his favorite diner, or the South Philly shipyard to skip stones over the dirty Delaware River. He never said it out loud, but I could see it in his eyes that he was proud of me and how responsible I'd become, and every time I used my turn signal... he grinned.