Crisis or epidemic?

Before writing this post (sometime last year), I did a Google search on “opioid crisis.” In .41 seconds the search turned up over 20 million hits. I followed with a search on “opioid epidemic” and got over 17 million results in about twice the time.

I suppose a greater number of sources, academics and advertisers think we have more of a crisis than an epidemic. In other words, it’s bad.

Nicholas Kristof, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, published a breathless piece last October titled, “Drug Dealers in Lab Coats.” Teeing off from the previous Sunday’s “60 Minutes” and Washington Post joint investigation, Kristof wrote, “The opioid crisis unfolded because greedy people—Latin drug lords and American pharma executives alike—lost their humanity when they saw the astounding profits that could be made”

While I appreciate the effort to call American pharmaceutical companies to account for their part in shipping various and sundry opioid pills by the tractor-trailer load to vulnerable populations here and there across America, Kristof, in his perhaps justifiable outrage, oversimplifies and misses the big story.

Canadian physician, Gabor Maté, offered a far more timely assessment in his riveting book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction: “The question is never ‘Why the addiction?’ but ‘Why the pain?’”

I had watched the “60 Minutes” piece and was attempting to summarize it for the dozen or so men sitting around tables at the county jail shortly after it was aired. Some seemed disinterested but most listened intently. When I finished presenting the indictment of Big Pharma the two media companies had handed down, one of the participants offered a contrary opinion.

“If anyone thinks that disrupting the supply of opioid pills will end the opioid crisis, they obviously don’t know how far an addict will go to find something else to relieve his pain.” Another inmate quickly agreed. The first speaker continued, “I can tell you from experience, you will do anything and everything you have to in order to just get through the day.”

Recalling Dr. Maté, I nodded.


If you have read my blog posts or followed my thinking over the past couple of years, I wouldn’t be surprised if you believe you are hearing the unmistakable sound of a broken record. Fair enough; you could be right.

But I do try to keep balance and perspective in how I analyze what I see and hear when among those I meet in the county jail or the federal prison whose sentence has something to do with drugs. For example, I know that these men and women had a choice in whether to break the law or violate their parole. I know that some of them have a brother or sister who grew up in the same home and who did not abuse drugs or alcohol or steal to support a habit or break laws on drug possession or dealing.

This is a strong argument, one used by Stanton Samenow in his well-regarded work, “Inside the Criminal Mind.” Simplified, his thesis is that people don’t become criminals because of childhood experiences, poverty or any other environmental cause. No, they become criminals because they think differently from the rest of us. They buy into a host of “criminal thinking errors” and make most of their choices and decisions based on them, leading them to actions that victimize innocent people and break laws established for the good order of the community. In other words, it is not outside forces that turn people into criminals. They become criminals by pushing rational thoughts aside and believing irrational thinking errors.

Samenow notes how frequently he hears criminals cite alcohol or drugs as the source of their criminal behavior. Since upwards of 80 percent of those incarcerated abuse drugs or alcohol, Samenow acknowledges the temptation to connect addiction and criminality. But he offers this dispute:

Criminality…does not reside in the bottle, the pill, the powder, or in any other substance. Drugs bring out and intensify only what already exists within a person; they do not transform a responsible person into a criminal. If ten men get drunk, all ten will not rape, rob, or kill. They may fall asleep, become boisterous, or grow argumentative. Their behavior depends on their personality before they took the first sip.

William Raspberry, an African-American former columnist for The Washington Post, apparently had an ongoing feud with Samenow. Raspberry could not abide Samenow’s stubborn resistance to the role poverty has in incubating future criminals. Samenow acknowledged the disagreement in the last chapter of his book:

When this book was first published in 1984, syndicated columnist Williams Raspberry stated; ‘I’m prepared to offer Samenow a deal: I’ll give up the myth that criminals are caused by their environment if he’ll give up the myth that they are cured by psychiatry.’ Raspberry got the right idea about the ‘myth’ of the environment as creating criminals. However, he got the wrong idea about the rest of it.


Since 2009, when I first walked the long corridor of the federal prison in Waymart, I have seen enough to make me largely sympathetic to the thesis put forward by Stanton Samenow. But “largely” is not the same as exclusively. And in the midst of the opioid crisis that by all accounts is sweeping the nation and destroying tens of thousands of lives each year, I insist that the Gabor Maté question will not go away and demands as much attention as Samenow’s thinking errors:“Why the pain?”

I ask this question—or some form of it—with regularity nowadays. A few weeks ago I was talking with a new addition to my classes at the local jail. I recognized his last name and asked if he was related to a young man who’d been in my class a year or so earlier. Indeed, they were brothers. (His was the third situation I’ve encountered in the local jail where two brothers raised by the same parents have both been incarcerated, in two cases incarcerated at precisely the same time.)

As we talked, we closed in on the reason for his present incarceration—a parole violation. I asked if it was drug-related and he answered that it was. I asked about his history of drug use. It reached back to his teenage years and, as if to anticipate my next question, he noted how many times he’d been in rehab and then relapsed and how many times he’d been incarcerated. Both numbers staggered me.

I then asked Dr. Maté’s question: “Why the pain?” He clearly was not anticipating it. I said, “With the history you just provided, you must also have a history of pain and I’m guessing it didn’t start with a back injury.”

Looking down, he said, “I don’t want to talk about it right now.”

A couple of weeks later, I’d just arrived and taken my seat at the table. The men were already there. As I was getting my papers out and starting the signup sheet around the table, the same inmate began to tell me that all this “cognitive stuff” (part of the Smart Recovery® class I’d come to lead that day) wasn’t going to help him.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “this CBT [Cognitive Behavioral Therapy] approach is good for some things. But it doesn’t even begin to get to the level I’m at.”

“I know,” I replied. I told him that from the moment we met and he told me that his drug addiction began in adolescence, and he didn’t want to talk about the pain, that I suspected that he likely had adverse and/or traumatic childhood experiences that still to this day are just too painful to talk about. I asked him if that was so.

He nodded, and I lamented aloud that the program we were both participating in (the prison’s recidivism-reduction program) was not really set up to do much more than allow him to acknowledge the pain. In other words, this wasn’t a group therapy session. He laughed and I asked him why he’d laughed. He then told this story:

“When I was going through intake here, they were asking me a bunch of questions. So I decided to tell them about some of my experiences. No sooner did I get into the gory details than the officer stopped the interview, called another CO who came into the room and put me in shackles and the two of them took me down the hall to a room and put me on suicide watch.” He paused and added, “That’s how much they want to hear about your pain around here.”

Once again I lamented the limitations of a place where confinement, rules, order and the needs of the prison itself overshadow any effort toward healing of deeply wounded souls. All I could say at that point was, “My colleagues and I want to do our best for you while here and be there for you when you get out.”


I felt uneasy having to reply in such a bland, even if sincere, manner. Isn’t this the place where the Christian teacher assures the pained inmate that God can make everything okay? Isn’t it here where we talk about the problem of sin and the solution in the death of Christ?

When I got involved at the county jail and expanded my involvement at the federal prison, I made a bargain with my overseers that my program would not be overtly faith-based and that I would not seek to evangelize those who participated in the class. It would be okay if I cited scriptural agreement with what I said about forgiveness or integrity, but my major point of reference would not be the Bible.

It was a bargain I accepted for the privilege of having access to men who either would not show up for a distinctly Christian program or who had been mandated by the courts to participate in the program in which I agreed to teach. While recognizing the limits of the bargain, I have not regretted the opportunity to be the believer I am and to hope that Christ is seen in me even when I am not naming the Name or reciting scripture.


I recently completed the class on integrity at the federal penitentiary. Two of the 12 chapters are on “woundedness and healing.” In the original edition I placed them in the middle of the book. When the revisions are finished, I’ll move them up toward the front of the book, for I am aware of nothing more likely to tear at integrity than unresolved pain, trauma and shame.

One of the participants in the course is an inmate I’ve known for at least three years. He had previously participated in the studies I’ve offered there and even comes on most occasions when I preach at the Christian services, even though he is the leader of another faith group at the prison. I consider him, in the words of Jesus, as being “not far from the kingdom of God.”

Due to repeated lockdowns and a couple of federal holidays, I ran into difficulty finding available time to finish the 12 weeks. So I made a deal with the class members that we’d get as far as we could and they could then take the remaining chapters with them and work on them until I could return, review them and award completion certificates to those who’d done the work.

The two chapters on woundedness provided the inmate I mentioned above an opportunity to let me in on more of his story. I knew he was serving a life without parole sentence for two murders, since that was public information. I also knew he had been a gang member before coming to prison. But that was the extent of my knowledge. When he turned the course work in, I learned a bit more, admittedly from his perspective.

He wrote about being forced into street life at the age of 14 where he “had to live by all means necessary.” He lost his childhood and his innocence as well. He wrote that when the gang took him in he had to do what everyone else did—sell drugs, murder, steal, rape and rob—or else be killed in retribution. All the while, he wrote, “I was a child!”

One of the chapters in the book has a section on trauma that includes questions about small traumas and large traumas the participant might have experienced. On the question about the small traumas, he wrote, “I don’t believe I suffered any small traumas. Everything in my life was get it done or DIE.” I was “in jail with a life sentence before I finished adolescence.”

He wrote in detail of the guilt and shame he experienced “What I lived is beyond shame!” He added, “But the guilt caused me to learn what a Man, Father, Friend, Adult is and to never [again] be who I was.”

Finally, he wrote, “I started the journey around 16 years ago and everyday I am trying to heal and understand.”


Anyone whose knowledge of this man is limited to the crimes for which he was prosecuted and received a life without parole sentence would be grateful that such a criminal will spend his life behind bars. Justice was served and there’s nothing more to discuss.

I would have had the luxury of such a thought had he never engaged with me on the importance of forgiveness and the challenge of rebuilding integrity in a life that had been disintegrated, and had he not listened intently to my preaching and thanked me afterwards for it. Could he just be blowing sunshine my way? Of course, and he wouldn’t be the first inmate to do so.

I know he has an active appeal in the courts and I have been told there’s a good chance his life sentence will be overturned. I wouldn’t mind that outcome for he certainly could be one of those prisoners who, if released, turns his life to the good and makes the world a better place.

He is one of a lengthening parade of men who have confided in me, sharing their stories of pain, dysfunction, addiction, criminal thinking and criminal activity. Some were nowhere near ready to repent and seek genuine healing and redemption. Some were. It is those prodigal sons who need—and deserve—more help than they are receiving from a nation that has grown weary of drugs and crime and seems to know but one response: incarceration.

If the statistics are right about this full-blown opioid crisis, our work has just begun and we all need to learn to ask the Gabor Maté question, “Why the pain?” and help the wounded find healing.


The bottomless pit of pain

My last post ended with the suggestion that in this one I would muse on what we should be doing in our work with inmates to help them have a chance at a better life upon their release. Before tackling this question, some background reflections.

Like lots of other Americans I am trying to digest the electoral results from earlier this month. More than one friend suggested that I read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance as I tried to process the outcome. So I made use of many hours of airport terminal and flight time traveling to North Carolina to visit my father for Thanksgiving by reading this remarkable book.

Mr. Vance has written a deeply engaging memoir, as the subtitle suggests, of his family and the culture in which he was raised. Every page kept my attention.

But what really focused my mind was Chapter 14. Here, Mr. Vance steps back and engages in a frank analysis of the family and culture that proved, simultaneously, to both add to and detract from his personhood. Acknowledging the slow-moving train wreck of dysfunction his childhood and adolescence had been, he sought understanding and help.

“I tried to go to a counselor, but it was just too weird. Talking to some stranger about my feelings made me want to vomit. I did go to the library, and I learned that behavior I considered commonplace was the subject of pretty intense academic study. Psychologists call the everyday occurrences of my and Lindsay’s [his sister] life ‘adverse childhood experiences,’ or ACEs. ACEs are traumatic childhood events, and their consequences reach far into adulthood. The trauma may not be physical. The following events or feelings are some of the most common ACEs:

  • being sworn at, insulted, or humiliated by parents
  • being pushed, grabbed, or having something thrown at you
  • feeling that your family didn’t support each other
  • having parents who were separated or divorced
  • living with an alcoholic or drug user
  • living with someone who was depressed or attempted suicide
  • watching a love one be physically abused.”

This wasn’t the first time I have seen this list of ACEs. In the book I referenced in my previous post — In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts — Dr. Gabor Maté also writes about the dreadful impact of ACEs on the addicts he treated in Vancouver, Canada.

“The statistics that reveal the typical childhood of the hard-core drug addict have been reported widely but, it seems, not widely enough to have had the impact they ought to on mainstream medical, social, and legal understandings of drug addiction.

Studies of drug addicts repeatedly find extraordinarily high percentages of childhood trauma of various sorts, including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse…. Their research, the renowned Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, looked at the incidence of ten separate categories of painful circumstances — including family violence, parental divorce, drug or alcohol abuse in the family, death of a parent, and physical or sexual abuse — in thousands of people. The correlation between these figures and substance abuse later in the subjects’ lives was then calculated. For each adverse childhood experience, or ACE, the risk for the early initiation of substance abuse increased two to four times. Subjects with five or more ACEs had seven to ten times greater risk for substance abuse than did those with none.”

It’s a wonder J.D. Vance, along with all else he struggled with, did not also have substance abuse problems. But plenty of those he knew did, including his mother, whose presence in the memoir is relentlessly saddening.

In my teaching on forgiveness and integrity at our local county prison, which I’ve been doing for almost three years, I use a video that includes a chapter on a remarkable woman named Judith Shaw. “I thank God for forgiveness,” she says at one point. At another, “Forgiveness saved my life.” There was much in her story that would destroy a life — alcoholic parents, childhood sexual abuse and a husband who infected her with HIV. In describing her childhood she said that her family portrait was “that perfect picture, but scratch behind the canvas and total chaos.”

“Total chaos.”  What a spot-on description of the lives of children like J.D. Vance and the drug addicts Dr. Maté treated. It is also a description well over half of my county prison inmates agree aptly nails their own childhood. “Total chaos.” I have repeatedly heard all ten of Dr. Maté’s categories of Adverse Childhood Experiences from the inmates in my classes. Actually, I have heard more than ten.

Which leads us back to the original question: What ought we (volunteers, staff, the criminal justice system) be doing to help those currently incarcerated have even half a chance at a meaningful life once they get out of jail?

Every facility in which I current work offers some programs for at least some inmates. Chaplains, churches and other faith groups offer religious services and faith-based programs that make a difference for some inmates.

Someone sent me a news story from the website of National Public Radio (NPR) about a psychologist who conducts a weekly one-hour class at the infamous San Quentin penitentiary in California. His program is called GRIP — Guiding Rage into Power. The waiting list is 500 names long. Fifty-one men have graduated from the program and none has returned to prison.

I sent the link for this article (here) to a colleague I respect whose ministry is present in numerous county, state and federal facilities here in Pennsylvania. We had been emailing each other about our mutual experiences of encountering so many emotionally wounded men in our respective ministries. She, a trained counselor, wondered (just as I do) how volunteers can address the deep wounds we all regularly encounter inside prison walls. It’s a hard question.

In the workbook on integrity that I wrote and am now using, I included two chapters on woundedness and healing. It seemed important to acknowledge the reality that woundedness tears at integrity. But it also seemed urgent to exhort my classroom participants to turn from mere pain relief and pursue the much more difficult journey of true healing. But even as I wrote about this and urged it on these men I come to care deeply for, I had to wonder if true healing was even remotely possible.

So I recently asked the men gathered for my integrity class at the federal penitentiary if psychological counseling or therapy was available to them. Some said yes; some said no. But one inmate offered his own experience with a staff psychologist at the prison as proof that it is available and, at least for him, was immensely helpful. I watched the rest of the class watch and listen closely as he shared about how the twelve sessions with the psychologist made a huge difference in his self-understanding and his ability to make better choices.

Another inmate immediately offered his story of successful therapy with a counselor after his PTSD nearly destroyed his life. Again, other inmates watched and listened.

At the end of it all, I distinctly heard two other men in the room muse aloud that maybe they, too, could benefit from some counseling.

What I have begun to conclude is that our prisons are bottomless pits of pain alongside equally bottomless pits of serious criminality. I am comfortable saying that the two pits are frequently connected, though not in every case.

I have concluded one thing more: After almost seven years working closely with prison inmates, I know where the investment needs to be made, at least by me. With all the resources provided by faith, God and the good insights of social science, I want to see real healing in the lives of the men with whom I work.


A rather disturbing class session

In the Forgiveness Project I use video material to help stimulate discussion. I try to insure that these discussions are not abstract. Rather, I want the video material to help all of us reflect on our own questions and issues surrounding forgiveness.

To this end I recently showed the chapter, “The Language of Anger,” from the video “Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate,” a film by Helen Whitney. (By the way, this entire video is just excellent, addressing so many of the relevant questions many people have about forgiveness).

The chapter I showed was about a brutal assault that took place in the late 1970s near Redmond, Oregon against Terri Jentz and her roommate, who were journeying across the country by bicycle. In the video, Terri Jentz describes the ordeal, the trauma she experienced, her anger and, ultimately, her effort to find some closure by returning to Redmond and trying to find the man who assaulted her. He had never been caught or prosecuted even though several members of the community felt sure they knew that he was guilty of the crime.

Terri Jentz’s story raises many important questions about the place of anger, evil, forgiveness that is granted too easily or quickly, and injustice. For the most part, the discussion following the video was constructive.

Toward the end, however, the conversation took an unexpected turn when one participant began to import into the discussion his doubts that Terri Jentz had told the truth about what happened to her. He admitted he had no basis other than his own speculations for doubting her story. But he suggested that she had known the perpetrator, meeting him in a bar and “rubbing up against him,” only to probably spurn his advances when he assumed she wanted to get intimate. Within a couple of minutes, the inmate had made Terri Jentz the cause of the man’s anger and violent action, which he implied were understandable, if not justified.

To be truthful, I sat there stunned. But it wasn’t over just yet. I looked around the table at nine other inmates, a few of whom were nodding in agreement. As I opened my mouth to respond with whatever came to my mind (and I had no idea what that was going to be) the recall announcement came over the public address system and the class abruptly ended. All I could say as they left the room was, “We shall continue this discussion next time.”

So now I have a week to ponder how someone can think  the victim deserved what she got and that her own story about a years-long journey wrestling with questions about anger, evil, forgiveness and justice is nothing more than an effort to shift responsibility onto someone else.

Stanton Samenow, in his seminal work, “Inside the Criminal Mind,” offers the thesis that irrational thinking is largely the basis of criminal activity. He dismisses, virtually out of hand, the popular idea that criminals are the products of environmental factors such as poverty, broken homes or lack of opportunity. Samenow’s extensive work with men in prison gives him confidence to assert that criminals can be reformed, but it takes a fairly radical change in the way they think. Samenow’s method is confrontation — criminals must be confronted with their irrational thinking and be helped to recognize it as the cause of their criminality and imprisonment.

Next week, I will dig a bit deeper with the class participant whose interpretation of the video so shocked me. Look for a follow-up blog post on it.


The road back

At one facility we are in the 10th week of a forgiveness project. We’ve watched  videos of people talking about bad things done to them and describing how they have — or have not — been able to forgive. We’ve read and discussed similar stories. And we have interviewed each other about our bad decisions and how they have sometimes led us into situations where others did us wrong and we were confronted with the question of forgiving.

GH has been a relentless interviewer at such times. He bores in with questions that make you squirm. More than once I needed to remind him that we are more interested in the future — which we can change — than in the past, which we cannot change. Forgiving, I always say, has great potential to write a new narrative for the future of all of us. We learn from our past, hopefully; but we cannot change it.

I had been asking GH to let me interview him in front of the class. He declined at first but later relented. We sat facing each other a week ago and I asked the question with which we always begin such interviews: “G, tell us about being wronged by someone in the past.”

He looked at me and smiled. “I am not going to tell the story you think I am.” I knew that G’s son had been shot and killed by a police officer and, indeed, this is the story I expected him to tell. He continued, “I am going to tell you how I have harmed myself.”

I truly was not expecting this, but I invited G to proceed. In less than a minute, he was deep into the story of his multiple and repeated failures to do the right thing. Once, previously, it had landed him in a county jail. Now, again, he was back in prison. But he was more anguished over all the bad choices that hurt him and people close to him, even if he escaped arrest and prosecution.

His eyes filled with tears and he became very self-conscious. I, and other caring men in the room, offered tender words and wise questions that seemed to help G climb on top of his emotions and gather his thoughts again. At one point he said something like to this: “What worries me  most is the thought that I am, at heart, a criminal and will never be anything else.”

In almost five years of work in prisons, I have never heard anyone say something like that. Many will affirm the injustice of their arrest or prosecution or sentence. Once in a  while someone will say he is looking at imprisonment as the chance to turn his life around. I had never heard anyone worry aloud to me or a group of inmates that he was afraid that he would always do the criminal thing.

Another participant, GF, echoed GH’s worries. He said he wondered if he, too, was somehow doomed to repeat the past. But he affirmed, correctly in my opinion, that the ability to even ask the question was a sign of progress that held hope for the future.

Another participant raised the forgiveness question: “G, have you been able to forgive yourself?”

“Not entirely,” G responded. “This is something I am still working on.” I suggested that the forgiveness question is related to the worry that he will be a career criminal. G agreed.

Toward the end, G made the hopeful statement that he was glad to still have some time left on his sentence to work on things. “I am not ready to go back home,” he said. “But I very much want to be ready when the time comes.” I have two more sessions with him to do my part. But I know that his willingness to take a six-week forgiveness class, followed by a 13-week forgiveness project says hopeful things about his chances of success.

As we were adjourning, G turned to me and said, “You thought you had me when my eyes got watery.”

I replied, “G, you know I’m not here to get anyone. We are all in this together.” He smiled, shook my hand and walked away.


Former federal inmate returns to prison

In 1987 Michael Santos was sentenced to 45 years in federal prison for a crack cocaine conviction. He earned his release after 26 years of good behavior, while also earning undergraduate and graduate degrees. He now returns to prisons to speak to inmates about his story and how their story can change. What does it take? In Santos’ own words, it takes a “100 percent commitment to rejecting the criminal lifestyle…100 percent commitment to preparing for success upon release.”

You can watch the story here.

Guilt and innocence

In a memorable scene from the film “The Shawshank Redemption,” Red explains to Andy that every inmate at Shawshank is innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. Such assertions,usually with minor caveats, are more common than one might think: “I did not commit the crime they prosecuted me for. I did break the law at other times, but I did not do what they sent me to prison for.” Or this: “I did not deliberately break any law. I made some wrong choices, took some bad advice. But I did not set out to commit a crime.”

A prison sentence, regardless of the length, brings awful consequences to the life of the convicted and his family. I understand why a man in prison wants to diminish or deny his guilt. It is surely a defensive mechanism that somehow enables one to cling to some hope that a perceived injustice will some day be righted and an especially lengthy prison sentence will be ended on successful appeal.

Still, I am often distressed at the patterns of denial I observe among the men to whom I minister at Canaan. To believe many of them one has to believe that the entire criminal justice system mostly gets it wrong or, worse, is completely corrupt. For me that is a bridge too far. Yes, sometimes the system does get it wrong. Yes, sometimes there is racial bias. Yes, more often than not, the sentences for non-violent offenses are too long. But at the end of the day, most men in prison broke the law. Owning up to that fact without caveats and self-justification, for many, is difficult.

But I am beginning to discover that honesty can emerge when the setting is safe. In one of the recent Forgiveness Project sessions, I turned the class over to the participants, allowing them to interview one of their number about a time when someone did him wrong and how he responded to it. I provided basic questions, but the class participants asked many additional questions. In addition, they offered a number of insightful observations about the interviewee’s decisions and judgments before, during and after the incident. I was struck by the honesty that emerged, as well as the empathy expressed be all the interviewers. No one criticized or judged. The mood was of a group of men who have all made bad decisions and suffered the consequences, including a prison sentence.

What really encouraged me was the way several participants honestly acknowledged some of the mistakes that derailed their lives and listened as others sought to help them redirect their thinking toward a more hopeful future. I am sure that I could never have succeeded in producing such honesty if I had conducted the interview.

Lee Boyd Malvo: ten years later

I remember it well. My eldest daughter was in graduate school in Washington DC. We talked about precautions she should take when fueling her car or crossing a parking lot. This did not have to do with a rash of purse-snatching. No, a sniper was shooting people with deadly accuracy and frightening regularity in suburban Virginia and Maryland.

We were greatly relieved when John Allen Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo were captured while sleeping in their car at a rest area in Maryland and the killing spree was ended. I followed the trial closely enough to know that Malvo got a life sentence while Muhammed was sentenced to death (and has since been executed). I remember hearing that Malvo was spared due in large measure to how young he was and the evidence that Muhammed exercised a controlling influence over the teenager.

Now ten years later, Malvo spoke to a Washington Post reporter from Red Onion State Prison. Today’s Post carried the story as well as an hour and fifteen minutes of the recorded phone interview between Malvo and the reporter, Josh White. Here is the link.

Prison provides plenty of opportunity for reflection and analysis. Malvo spends 23 hours a day in a segregation cell. He has no physical contact with other prisoners and is allowed one hour a day to shower, exercise and perform menial tasks outside his cell. Malvo has clearly thought a lot about his life, his association with Muhammed and the people he killed.

“I was a monster. If you look up the definition, that’s what a monster is. I was a ghoul. I was a thief. I stole people’s lives. I did someone else’s bidding just because they said so. . . . There is no rhyme or reason or sense.”

How did Malvo fall so completely under Muhammed’s influence? Why was he willing to do literally anything Muhammed told him to do? In the recorded interview, Malvo says this: “He gave me his time.” Not once or twice does Malvo emphasize this. He says it three times.

Not surprisingly, Malvo’s home life in Antigua was not good and there was apparently no meaningful relationship with his father. Muhammed stepped in and filled that role. To a kid starved for a father’s attention, Muhammed was a savior. But as Muhammed’s anger and bitterness over losing access to his own children increased, his manipulative control over the impressionable Malvo also increased. The young teen became completely immersed in Muhammed’s desire for revenge.

“I was unable to distinguish between Muhammad the father I had wanted and Muhammad the nervous wreck that was just falling to pieces. He understood exactly how to motivate me by giving approval or denying approval. It’s very subtle. It wasn’t violent at all. It’s like what a pimp does to a woman.”

Is Malvo sorry for what he did? Stanton Samenow, the clinical psychologist who specializes in the study of criminal behavior (and about whom I wrote in an earlier blog), testified as an expert witness for the prosecution at Malvo’s trial. Later, in prison, Malvo watched an educational television program in which Samenow described how the  actions of a criminal not only impact the victim’s family but also the victim’s neighbors, community and anyone else the victim knows. Absorbing this insight, Malvo said:

“Once I began to list the victims for every single possible crime that I could think of, the number, quickly, it was like multiplying by seven. It just exponentially grew. The enormity of it. When you’re in the midst of doing the shooting, that was my sole focus. I didn’t give it thought. . . . You never get a grasp on what exactly you actually did and what the ramifications were for others.”

In my experience at Canaan, I rarely hear an inmate acknowledge the impact of his criminal activity. It is a curious and troubling omission. I neither desire nor expect the men with whom I work to wallow in guilt. Still, in all the one-on-one conversations I have had, as well as countless small group discussions, it almost never comes up. In my work at a women’s substance abuse rehab center, however, I see the victims of drug trafficking everyday. The road of recovery and return to a useful and productive life is long and arduous. I wonder if the effort to help inmates get in touch with the impact of their crimes needs more attention.

In the recorded interview, Malvo spoke about forgiveness. I am “working on forgiving myself,” he said, and then added, “There are different layers” to the process. Indeed, working through forgiveness, whether of self or others, is like peeling an onion. Every layer of onion skin brings a pungent scent. So, too, with forgiving. Just when we think we have finally worked through it, something happens to peel back a new layer and, once again, we are back in the middle of the process.

Finally, the Post article included Malvo’s own assessment of how the families of his victims should seek to move forward, realizing that his own apologies and remorse will never be sufficient:

“We can never change what happened. There’s nothing that I can say except don’t allow me and my actions to continue to victimize you for the rest of your life. It may sound cold, but it’s not. It’s the only sound thing I can offer. You and you alone have the power to control that. And, you take the power away from this other person, this monster, and you take control. . . .

“Don’t allow myself or Muhammad to continue to make you a victim for the rest of your life,” Malvo said. “It isn’t worth it.”

Incarceration and justice

“Putting the rapist in prison is not justice.”

The man saying these words is a participant in my classes on forgiving at the high security penitentiary at USP Canaan. He was responding to my suggestion that a rape victim who forgives her assailant could also appropriately desire that he face justice for the crime. It is a point I make during these classes and one I personally affirm: when we forgive we do not have to give up on justice. In the example under consideration, justice for the rapist and, perhaps, for his victim would be his incarceration.

The class member who disagreed was quickly joined by at least half a dozen other inmates, none of whom thought the imprisonment of a rapist was justice for the victim or the offender. My astonished look signaled that I needed an explanation.

Summarized, their point was this: A prison like Canaan and most others in the country offer a much-too-easy life for someone who has done a serious wrong. Inmates receive three meals a day, a place to sleep, educational opportunities, work for pay, visits by family, and no demands other than compliance with the rules. For someone who assaults, rapes and injures a female, prison is nowhere near the level of punishment he deserves or the justice to which the victim is entitled.

“So,” I asked, “what would justice look like?”

Here I will quote the answer because it was indeed unforgettable: “The woman’s brother or father should murder the rapist. He needs to be permanently removed so that he will never again injure a woman.”

Yet another fresh insight into the thinking of the men to whom I am taking a message about forgiving. In this case, however, part of the underlying sentiment voiced by several of the inmates is the inherent injustice of their own incarceration for drug offenses. (No one convicted of a non-drug related offenses spoke up to offer an opinion about the justice or injustice of his sentence). This is certainly not a new message; I have heard it often from inmates who are serving unbelievably lengthy sentences (including life) for drug offenses. And, yes, most of them are men of color.

In an earlier post or two I have referenced Michelle Alexander’s recent book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Alexander cites depressing statistics about the arrest and incarceration of young black men for drug possession and the life-long impact of having a felony drug conviction. Black men, Alexander affirms, are deliberately targeted by police for “stop and frisk” encounters and arrested at extraordinarily higher rates than whites for drug possession even though minorities are no more likely than whites to possess or use drugs. Alexander sees a sinister racism at work — a new version of the old Jim Crow efforts by whites to control and disenfranchise blacks. (Heather Mac Donald, a John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, takes severe exception to such a thesis, arguing that high arrest rates and drug convictions among black American men in no way suggest racist policing or criminal justice. Rather, they indicate the disproportionate criminal activity taking place within black communities. You can read her point of view here).

Without believing that Michelle Alexander got it completely right, I am in sympathy with her thesis, and I therefore do not assume that every black or Hispanic inmate I meet who was convicted on a drug possession charge should necessarily be in prison or be serving a lengthy sentence. This does not affect the way I teach nor prompt me to take up the cause of reforming the justice system. But it does prompt me to think about what other means might lead us to the ends that justice would require.

On May 28 the New York Times published a story by Adam Liptak about federal Judge John Gleeson in Brooklyn. A former federal prosecutor, Judge Gleeson led the team that got a conviction of Mafia boss John Gotti. From the other side of the judge’s bench, Gleeson is now troubled by how the Justice Department handles small-time drug offenders. The law permits a prosecutor to call for a mandatory minimum sentence based on the amount of cocaine in the possession of the person arrested.

Judge Gleeson was required by the law to sentence “a young, small-time street-level drug dealer’s assistant” to a mandatory five-year sentence because he was caught with just over 28 grams of cocaine. (That’s equal to about 1/10 of an ounce). The law behind such sentences assumes (rightly or wrongly) that the amount of drugs in one’s possession indicates whether the offender has a “leadership role” in the criminal drug activity.

Liptak’s article points out that 74 percent of defendants charged with crimes involving crack cocaine faced a mandatory minimum sentence (in the year ending this past September) even though only 5 percent of them “led or managed a drug business.” Liptak also reports that prosecutors use the threat of a mandatory minimum sentence to get guilty pleas and thus avoid a trial. I also know from talking with inmates that prosecutors use the threat of a mandatory minimum sentence to secure an offender’s testimony against another drug offender. (One inmate I know refused to testify in exchange for a 20-year sentence, went to trial, was convicted and received a life sentence).

Let’s return now to the men in my class on forgiving who seem to think that a prison sentence for rape is not justice. On the one hand, those of them serving time for a drug conviction believe their own incarceration is not justice. On the other hand, they see prison life as too easy and therefore inappropriate for a rapist. One gets the impression that prisoners quickly come to the conclusion that prison is an injustice for just about everyone.

My response was this: “That very much depends on which side of the prison wall you are living. I can assure you that most everyone on my side of the wall sees this much differently than you do. Most of us do not think that rapists should be murdered or executed; almost all of us believe they should be sentenced fairly for their crime. At least then, we won’t worry about the rapist claiming another victim.”

One of the class members then reminded me that since women are serving as prison staff, it is possible the rapist could rape again — in prison. Another argument, no doubt, in favor of the non-incarceration extreme justice some of them advocated.

Finally, back in May the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, Patrick Fitzgerald, announced his impending resignation. Fitzgerald made a name for himself in two prominent prosecutions. First, he was the Special Prosecutor who investigated and brought charges against Vice-President Dick Cheney’s top lieutenant, Scooter Libby, for perjury and obstruction of justice in the Valerie Plame case. Then, he gained even greater notoriety for his prosecution of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.

According to National Public Radio, Fitzgerald spoke about his prosecutorial victories in this manner: “You did a fair trial, you won, and there’s an empty feeling in your stomach when you realize that someone else is going off to prison. That doesn’t change,” he said. “Imprisonment is just not a good thing. It’s a necessary evil at times, and I use those words meaning both words.” NPR added this: “Fitzgerald says criminals must be locked up but that anyone who thinks prison is a productive use of anyone’s time is deluding themselves.”

Those charged with maintaining law and order have been incarcerating people convicted of crimes for a very long time. So much so that the word “prison” has become a synonym for “criminal justice.” As Fitzgerald said, it surely is, at times, a “necessary evil.” But from the standpoint of one ministering inside a prison, I also agree with his hint that there surely must be more productive ways to deal with criminals and secure justice.


Taking responsibility for our decisions and actions

I recently participated in a two-day workshop on “Criminal Thinking from the perspectives of Cognitive-Behavorial Therapies” (and I have the certificate of completion to prove it). I’ll be writing about some of the content in this and the next couple of blog posts.

On the second day we watched a video of a group session in a Texas prison where inmates helped one another begin to get in touch with the damage their drug addictions and criminality had done to themselves and others. One inmate volunteered to be interviewed by a counselor in front of the entire group.

The counselor asked probing questions about how drugs and crime had impacted the inmate’s life. He spoke of physical and emotional damage, of ruined relationships with wife and children and of time spent in prison. He showed signs of guilt, shame and sadness as he spoke.

Then the counselor asked for a member of the group to volunteer to be the inmate’s wife. Sitting opposite him, the female who had volunteered spoke to the man in the voice of his wife about how his decisions and behavior had dashed her dreams, destroyed her trust and pretty much ruined her life. As he listened, the inmate struggled to remain composed.

Next, the counselor asked a member of the group to role-play the inmate’s oldest daughter and to talk about the impact of her father’s addiction and criminality on her. She spoke of her lost childhood, of the shame she felt being his daughter and of her complete loss of trust. The inmate listened with difficulty.

Another group member was recruited to role-play the woman who was raped by the friends of this inmate while he watched. She spoke of being brutally violated, being injured, losing confidence, being fearful to even leave the house, and not being able to trust men. Again, the inmate listened with great difficulty.

Then, the counselor asked for yet another volunteer from the group to role-play a member of the woman’s neighborhood and to talk about the impact of the crime on the community. He spoke of fearful residents, people keeping doors locked at all times and the sadness that had come over everyone.

Finally, the inmate was asked to talk about what he learned during the role plays about the impact of his decisions and actions. He said that the exercise had heightened his awareness of the cost of his criminality. Other group members were invited to respond. Several said they had almost stopped listening to the role play as they entered their own mental and emotional worlds trying to absorb the impact on others of what they had done.

As I minister in Canaan, I become increasingly aware of how little the inmates I know seem to have thought about the impact of their crimes. A few have talked about how being in prison has affected their lives. I cannot recall hearing a single inmate talk about the victims of his criminality, though some have mentioned estrangement from their children and their wives.

Last night, as I led a group session on taking personal responsibility, I asked about the meaning of the term “personal responsibility.” How did the group members apply this to their own lives? Every single member of the group spiritualized it — talking about being responsible to pray and read the Bible and come to chapel and do other things to improve their lives as believers.

When my turn came to speak about it, I talked about taking personal responsibility for the bad decisions I have made and for the wrong things I have done and for the people I have hurt. I hoped to plant a seed. No one responded; no one chose to follow my lead. Perhaps it is too painful. Perhaps they are in denial.

I left the seed laying on the ground.

It may yet take root.