Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Repenting at Leisure (in Prison)

Most of the guys in my prison, or at least the ones who were in for murder, had committed their crimes on impulse but some were the result of days or weeks of planning. Some killed with their fists or their feet or improvised weapons from materials nearby. I know of at least 3 who each strangled a woman with the scarf she was wearing and that is why the officers wear clip on ties and the use of dental floss is forbidden.  Others used illegally obtained guns. One poured gasoline through the letter box in the front door of his ex-missus and tossed a match in after. Some of the crimes were motivated by hurt and jealousy – crimes of passion; or perverse opportunity, or gangland revenge over perceived disrespect or drug deals gone wrong. Some were motivated by racism and hate.

I’ve mentioned before that I didn’t spend much time exploring their crimes unless they worked for me, or if they’d caught my interest for another reason. But as a member of staff with regular prisoner contact , I was expected to contribute observations about their behavior to their files, and in doing so I learned their crimes.

If a prisoner wants to progress from a high-security prison to a lower one, he must follow a sentence plan which is designed by the Offender Management department, and reviewed on a semi-annual basis. In addition to staying drug-free, out of trouble and employed, the prisoners are set a series of other targets to achieve including taking a series of reducing re-offending classes. These classes are a key part of the “rehabilitation” process and are supposed to promote Enhanced Thinking Skills, anger management and victim empathy.

That latter requires that the prisoners discuss at length the circumstances surrounding their offense, their motivation and their thoughts and feelings about it now. Their interviewers take meticulous notes and the information is accessible to any member of staff who may need to be aware of the contents or contribute to the files.

For prisoners who are appealing against their conviction or their sentence, it is not in their interest to discuss the crime with the staff, even though this perceived lack of cooperation may stall their progression through the system for years.  And unless they took some sort of plea agreement, most of the guys start out on appeal. This is probably why it takes a few years for the new prisoners to settle down into the routine of prison life.

Whatever their circumstances, those guys have plenty of time to think about how they got to prison. During the day, every measure is taken to occupy their time, to educate them or to elicit some kind of productive and purposeful activity, but still they spend at least 14 hours locked alone in a 6X10 concrete and steel box. For first timers, adjusting to this isolation is difficult. And for some, especially the mentally ill, coming to terms with their crimes can have a devastating effect. They lose their hair, double their body weight or halve it. They may harm themselves for attention, stop bathing, refuse medication, or stop communicating all together. 

But others take a more proactive approach. They read, learn a trade, earn some qualifications and mentor other prisoners. Their goal, in the words of one such prisoner, is to “be something other than older, when [they] get out.”

*This post was originally published at The Daily Theme on March 10, 2011

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