Seven years in, here’s what I’m thinking

My first experience inside a prison took place seven years ago this month. I had reluctantly accepted an invitation from my neighbor, Bob Blatz, now deceased, to join him in a faith-based reentry program at the nearby federal prison. That first visit to USP Canaan began a transformative process in me.

Over the years my views of what kind of people convicted criminals are have changed. Years ago it was easy to paint with a broad brush and see all criminals as really bad people. The annual refresher security training we receive at the federal prison only reinforces the image of the typical criminal as a manipulative, unrepentant and unredeemable cancer on the collective body of society.

This is undeniably true of some criminals. I have met men I would not want living in my neighborhood. In truth, it might be best if some of them are never released from prison.

But it is not true of all. In my opinion it is not true of the majority of men I have met in any of the three facilities I regularly visit: the federal penitentiary, the federal minimum-security prison camp and two county jails.

As I teach forgiveness and integrity classes in all these locations, I ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. Some of the answers involve a short life history. Many of these stories are as profoundly disturbing as the rap sheets that tend to define our stereotypes about criminals.

In a recent forgiveness class at a county jail, I led a group of about six men through a forgiven or unforgiven exercise I included in the workbook I wrote. In a two-column chart, they listed on the left side the names of people who had harmed them that they had since forgiven. On the right side of the chart they listed names of people who wronged them that they had still not forgiven. As we went through the exercise, I asked that they report on just one person who had wronged them.

In turn, I approached each inmate and asked the question, “Forgiven or Unforgiven?” When they answered, I then asked this two-part question: “What happened and why have you forgiven (or not forgiven) the person?”

Over the years of teaching forgiveness, I have come to understand that people forgive or refuse to forgive for reasons that seem reasonable and appropriate as they consider the harm they experienced and the person who did the harm. Hearing the story and the reason forgiveness was granted (or withheld), enables me to ask further questions that shed further light on what is going on inside the men I serve. This is where, increasingly it seems, the stories I hear are profoundly disturbing.

In that class I mentioned above, I came to an inmate whose first answer was, “Unforgiven.” So I asked my follow-up questions, “What happened and why have you not forgiven?” The story went something like this:

“When I was six years old, my mother put me in the car with her and started driving. After we had gone some distance, she stopped the car, opened my door and told me to get out. I got out. She got back in the car and drove off. I didn’t see her again until I was married with a child of my own.”

I was silent for many seconds. Then I asked why he had not forgiven her. He looked at me as if to ask, “And what planet are you from?” He then said, with obvious emotion, “Something like what my mother did to me is not forgivable. By definition, abandoning a six-year old child is unforgivable.”

I nodded, affirmed how unacceptable his mother’s actions were, and thanked him for being truthful. I turned to the next inmate. Same question: “Forgiven or unforgiven?” His answer was intriguing: “It’s both. “ So I asked, “What happened?” His story went something like this:

“My mother gave birth to me when she was sixteen. She was not ready to be a mother and my earliest memories are of her beating the crap out of me. She did this until I was big enough that she couldn’t do it anymore. But I have forgiven her for this.”

I asked why. “Because she was young and not emotionally ready for motherhood. Because of that I have forgiven her for physically abusing me.”

What, I asked, had he not forgiven her for? His face was instantly flushed with pain. He struggled to answer. After a few seconds he continued his story.

“My mother refused to tell me who my father was. I asked her over a period of many years and she refused to tell me. And for this I will not forgive her.”

I asked why not. He went on to say that he was furiously angry with her because he had to find out who his father was from someone else. I waited.

“After I turned 18, I learned that my father is actually my grandfather.” His eyes grew moist. His face was still flushed. The room was still. Every eye was on him.

I ventured to speak. “Are you saying that your grandfather sexually abused his own daughter?”

His answered took me aback. “For all I know it was consensual because my mother is a slut.” The cellblock remained very quiet.

Taking the conversation to a level I knew could be risky, I said something like this: “It makes sense to me that your mother would not want it to be known by anyone what her own father had done to her, and especially that it resulted in a child.” I continued, “Childhood sexual abuse is a horribly traumatic and shaming experience. Your mother’s silence is understandable. Many victims of childhood sexual abuse cannot talk about what happened.”

He listened. I waited for a response. After a few seconds he said, “She should have told me. It was wrong for me to have to learn this from somebody else.” I nodded and decided to move on to others in the group.

Later we watched a video segment about a man who suffered what he considered to be an unforgivable wrong when he was 52 years old and remained bitter about it for the next 30 years. I led the group in a consideration of his story. We focused particularly on the pain and shame he felt, as well as the anger he could not seem to effectively manage.

Every story of unforgiveness I had heard earlier in the session was also a story of pain and anger. So I asked how many in the group had turned to alcohol or drugs in an effort to deal with their emotional pain. Every hand but one went up. I do not know for sure, but experience suggests to me that every man who admitted to turning to alcohol or drugs to deal with his pain was now incarcerated on a charge of drug possession, drug distribution or a DUI.

In his excellent—and profoundly disturbing—book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, Canadian physician Gabor Maté writes this:

“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.” Maté goes on to say, “…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.”

Long before I encountered Maté’s book, I had begun to wonder about the connection between the childhood, drugs and criminality of the inmates I got to know in the facilities where I serve. As the connections became clearer, I began to ask myself how the relatively small amount of time I’m allowed to spend with inmates is going to be best spent. I also wondered about what investments our society should be making in its criminal justice budgets to give prison inmates a fighting chance to put their lives back together before they are released.

I’ll speak to these questions in my next post.



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