I spent last Friday morning with the Cephas prison ministry group comprising 12 inmates, 3 chaplains and me. The prison was Attica Penitentiary, a maximum security prison famous for a 1971 riot that killed 43 people. A few observations about these 12 men:
- There are no secrets in prison. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing, their beliefs, their strengths, their weaknesses. Inmates don’t get away with bullshitting other inmates.
- At least some inmates are intelligent and articulate, and know very well that what they did to get themselves in prison was wrong, but they did it anyway.
- Many inmates in the group struggle to control their rage. Little things that merely rile us, set them off.
- The older inmates – those that have served 15 or 20 years and are in their 40’s – have a different impression of themselves than they did when they first entered prison as cocky, tough young men.
- Many inmates are incarcerated at an early age – 17 or 18 is not unusual – and often are thrust into a brutal but, for the first time in their lives, stable environment.
- The stable environment in which they have landed is not one that they want to remain in. However, they admit that the outside can be more isolating (read: lonely) than the inside, and without any support mechanisms on the outside they often fail to cope with the stress of isolation and ostracism.
- When out of prison, many forget the pain of incarceration and remember only the good parts. Time makes everything look rosier than it was.
I do not feel sorry for these guys, as they are behind bars for good reason. I feel bad that the U.S. prison system uses punishment for bad behavior and not reward for good behavior, and has all but abandoned rehab. Inmates, most of whom are not in prison for life, are eventually released back to society wholly unprepared for what society requires. This needs fixing.
Imprisonment without rehab, release without re-entry services leads to very high recidivism. Check out this article for a brief but interesting take on how the California prison system is creating more, not fewer, criminals.
We incarcerate more people per capita than any other nation in the world. We are not preparing our youth for life as responsible adults, nor are we preparing them for life after prison.
What are we doing????