Leading By Example
Adam B. Clausen
Professor Tony Gaskew, Ph.D.
September 20, 2012
Abstract: This paper examines the habits of two men whom have successfully re-entered society and shared their stories with the world. They prove that the criminal justice system is not inescapable and give hope to all those whom are interested in following their footsteps. "Getting Out and Staying Out" along with "Law Man" are two valuable resources that should not be discarded or discredited. Both authors are part of a small minority of men whom have NOT returned to prison so their words have more merit than those still incarcerated.
The modern American Prison Penal System is intended solely to incarcerate and not to rehabilitate anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves entrapped within it. The concept of "crime and punishment" has greatly evolved over the centuries but arguably at no point in history have sentences handed down been as draconian as the ones commonly received in this day and age. The reason for this many likely stem from the public's view of only the "effects" of the punishment without witnessing the means by which they occurred. It was not so long ago that the punishment of the law was carrie out right before the eyes of the public so everyone was much more keenly aware of the consequences which resulted from breaking the law. Nowadays men and women are tossed behind walls and left to their own devices for years, and often decades, at a time and shown little concern for their future well-being. As long as criminals are safely separated from society, the current penal system has been successful in its job.
It is indisputable that black men comprise the majority of the prison population in the United Sates. However, the suggestions made by ex-offender Demico Booth in his book Getting Out and Staying Out are useful to not only men of color but to anyone who is sincere in their desire not to return to prison. Mr. Booth lays out a wide path for others to follow and even points to certain mistakes or troubles he encountered along the way. There are certain aspects of what he suggested that I may not completely agree with but I understand that I am not within his target audience. I believe that the men Booth was targeting were those that spend their days playing games and watching TV instead of exploring ways to better themselves and improve their chances of a successfully re-entering society once they are released. The majority of men in prison have no vision of what a positive future beyond prison might look like and Booth is able to provide that for them.
According to Booth, rehabilitation while inside prison requires a serious desire and dedication to change both yourself and your circumastances. Reading, specifically non-fiction, is his primary prescription for self improvement. He claims to have read over 500 books and copied the entire dictionary twice during his 12 years in prison, and although that's likely to be an exaggeration that certain people will use to assail his character, his recommendations remain sound. Reading undoubtedly accumulates knowledge and that knowledge can prove to be extremely powerful once it is accompanied by supporting action. Countless men and women have been released from prison and become productive members of society, but we're unlikely to ever hear about them. Unfortunately, the media is more drawn to the tragic and often sensational consequences of crime so, we frequently hear of the recidivists but rarely hear of the success stories as Booth and others.
Another former federal inmate by the name of Shon Hopwood recently published his success story under the fitting title of Law Man (Aug. 2012). Like Booth, he served a lengthy term in federal prison and began his own successful journey down the road to redemption while still on the inside. Neither man ever claimed that the path they had chosen was easy, but both achieved their goals and in doing so proved that the "revolving door" of the modern penal system could, in fact, be avoided. Each man has become a success in their own regard and deserves a great deal of credit and respect for their willingness to share their stories with the world. Booth's and Hopwood's stories should serve as inspiration to all of those men and women that aspire to lead happy, fulfilling and productive lives once they have finally been released from prison.
The suggestion that the criminal justice system is inescapable has been disproven by not only the published accounts but also the countless success stories which never made it into print. A successful re-entry into society means attaining a "normal" life like that which is enjoyed by most citizens every single day. That life does not need to be deemed extraordinary in order to be considered a success. Remaining outside of prison is the chief object and each day that continues to occur should be deemed a success. Fame and fortune are not true measures of success for anyone but rather are measures for one's own ego. Getting out and staying out is a simple and realistic goal for the undereducated and underprivileged majority that dominate our prisons today. Implying that the criminal justice system is a modern "caste" system, as Michelle Alexander contends in her book, "The New Jim Crow," suggests that there is no hope of escape. The truth of the matter is that there must have been specific laws broken in order to gain entrance into this system. Likewise, it requires certain actions, this time positive, to be released back out into society. Hopwood and Booth are proof that exodus is attainable with noble actions.
Conspiracy theories concerning government misconduct and manipulation of the masses will always exist and it remains imperative to always question the work of government so that it never grows too powerful in any regard. However, what is most desperately needed at theis juncture is a positive plan of action. Instead of criticizing those individuals brave enough to suggest such plans we all need to come together and make our own contribution to the effort. Words without actions become meaningless and the future will judge us by our ability, or inability to act in a meaningful way. The most powerful means by which to move the masses is to plead for those persons of influence to lead (the masses) by example. Speaking out against the current draconian sentencing schemes w hich hae
Who's Winning The War On Drugs?
The War On Drugs is responsible for reshaping the entire modern criminal justice system in America. Since the War began back in October 1982, state and federal prison populations have exploded, law enforcement budgets here ballooned and poor inner city communities have been let decimated. It's extremely difficult to accurately gauge the progress of this war, especially when the rate of drug possession and usage has remained steady throughout the country despite an incredible number of arrests. Current estimates put the number of casualties of the War On Drugs in excess of 31 million Americans. Few people can claim not to have been touched by the ongoing battle in some direct or attenuated manner. The media certainly has done its part to ensure that the public sees the heroics of law enforcement played out on the nightly news, providing that the war is at least being hard fought, if not won.
Since everyone seems to know about the War On Drugs, why then do the casualties continue to mount? One theory is that poor people believe the potential rewards of the drug trade simply outweigh the risk of getting caught and going to prison. Another theory is that those individuals who decide to enter into the drug trade don't understand the current and highly relevant "Rules Of The Game." Few motorists on the road today can tell you anything about "search and seizure" laws. All those individuals already in "the game" that are out on the roads with drugs in their possession should know their legal rights but likely do not. If they did, they would know the Supreme Court decided Terry v. Ohio back in 1968 and has since allowed law enforcement officers the right to "stop and frisk" but NOT the right to search without "consent." Individuals who are not involved in any sort of illegal activity might not appreciate the inconvenience of a "Terry" stop, but most view the encounter as just that, an inconvenience.
Once an officer explains to any law-abiding citizen that the search is to ensure the officer's personal safety, they generally understand and comply. The more frequently these encounters occur, the more acceptable the practice becomes amongst the masses. Since 9/11 the general public has become more and more desensitized to the regularity with which personal rights violations do occur in most public spaces. Each video or photo shown by the media of yet another criminal being lead away in handcuffs only reinforces the public's need to give up their personal rights in order to remain "safe."
Interstate and intrastate roadways have long been the key "pipelines" of concentration for law enforcement officers hoping to engage the enemy in the War On Drugs. Throughout the mid to late 1990's New Jersey State Prisons were overflowing with men whom had been arrested with drugs while traveling along the NJ Turnpike. Many of those men were from out of state and traveling back from New York City to their homes in other states. Law enforcement officers were frequently accused of racial profiling in those days, but nearly everyone of the accusations made against them came from motorists whom had been stopped, searched and found to be in possession of drugs. Despite the fact that the search itself may have been a violation of personal rights, the law abiding public remained relatively unmoved by the accusations due to the presumption of guilt placed on the motorist. The media's portrayal of these events strongly sided with state law enforcement, so public support continued for the War and prions remained overcrowded with drug offenders.
In her book, "The New Jim Crow," Michelle Alexander addresses not only the illegality of many pipeline case searches but also claims that certain sweeping search procedures often used are illegal and ineffective as well ("The New Jim Crow," Michelle Alexander, 2012. p.64). One of the Supreme Court cases she cites is Florida v. Bostick. The Court affirmed a cocaine trafficking conviction because they believed that the defendant had "consented" to the search while on board a Greyhound Bus. Obviously, defendant Bostick was unaware of certain "Rules Of The Game" that applied to him at the time and likewise should not have been sleeping while on the job. Alexander's claim that these sweeping search procedures (of buses) yielded few arrests simply is not true. To support her claim she gives the example of one case where "a sweep of one hundreds buses resulted in only seven arrests." However, that 7/10 arrests converts to a greater that one arrest out of every twenty buses that are searched. So if an officer is working an eight hour shift, and searches little more than two buses an hour then he or she is going to make at least one arrest during every, single working day. That equates to 20 arrests a month or 240 arrests each year. That officer could become solely responsible for the occupants of an entire prison within just a few short years. Those numbers are far from meager and inconsequential.
While attempting to discern who, if anyone, is really winning this War On Drugs it's imperative to consider the full magnitude and scope of the war. It is being waged well beyond our borders and has affected literally millions of lives worldwide. Our military has been enlisted to fight this war in distant countries throughout the Middle East such as Afghanistan by destroying poppy crops inside that country that could have eventually produced heroin, which was later transported to and sold within the United States, as a means to finance extremist Islamic terrorists intent on waging holy war against this country. The drug trade continues to thrive worldwide and that is largely the result of our consumption of illegal narcotics right here in the United States. We are the greatest consumers of these drugs and therefore must accept responsibility for many of the collateral adverse affects of the drug trade felt worldwide. Javier Sicilia's son was murdered i Mexico by hit men from the Gulf Cartel ("A Father's plea: End the war on drugs," Javier Sicilia, September 2012, CNN.com). Although this father laments the loss of his son, he is merely on of more than 60,000 people that have been killed siince Mexican President Felipe Calderone joined the Unites Sates War On Drugs six years ago. Sicilia claims that these deaths would not have occurred had Mexico and the United Sates pursued a bilateral agenda to decriminalize drugs and regulate tehir use. It's impossible to know what might have been, but it's indisputable at this stage of the game to discount the heavy casualties which have resulted on account of the War On Drugs. No on ecan claim to be "winning" this War On Drugs which has now be raging fo
Get Out and Stay Out
The criminal justice system in America is surprisingly easy to enter and incredibly difficult to escape...if you are a criminal. Our system was designed in this way to best ensure the public's safety. When an individual has violated the laws of this country the general public has a clear motive to monitor their actions for a brief period to ensure future compliance with those laws. A consistently high rate of recidivism supports this practice and reinforces the assertion that all criminals need to be monitored until they prove they no longer need to be.
When a person is released from prison they are likely to be filled with a sense of euphoria. Inevitably the sobering reality of daily living in the world outside of prison comes crashing down around them. Any person whom has served time in prison is expected to know "The Rules Of The Game." Their accumulated experiences, coupled with the stories they heard from others in prison, leaves them no excuse for not knowing what their role is within "The Game."
"Criminal associations" are a clear violation of the terms of the parole and probation but what happens when a parolee lives in a crime infested neighborhood where there is seemingly no way to entirely avoid the criminal element of that environment? The answer is that it becomes the parolee's responsibility to know who all of the players are in the Game and to avoid them at all costs if they hope to succeed. Maintaining a constant awareness of one's environment is an essential life skill that should have been honed in prison for self preservation and can now be utilized out in the world. Demico Booth wisely suggests formulating a "positive plan of action" as a means of avoiding these types of troublesome situations once released. Adhering to that plan, even during times of great hardship, and recalling the discomforts of prison, can greatly reduce the likelihood of recidivism. Also, deciding to make "family" a top priority in one's life is an intelligent way to remain focused on those things that truly matter the most.
The only way a parolee ends up back in prison is if they break that law or violate the conditions of their supervised release. Knowing the tactics employed by law enforcement is an absolute essential element of survival for anyone wrapped up in"The Game," including all recent parolees. The strategies and methods used by officers to combat the War On Drugs are constantly evolving but can all be traced to what is known as the "Enterprise Theory." For over sixty years, law enforcement has relied upon the "Enterprise Theory" as a means to dismantle criminal organizations both large and small. Officers focus their attention on "gutting the ground floor" of an organization in order to bring the next tier above them down. By eliminating those lower levels of the organization, law enforcement is able to not only disrupt business but also to bring themselves closer to the top tier criminals leading the organization. Certain criminal enterprises, such as drug distribution and sales enterprises, are clearly more susceptible to this technique due to the addictive nature of their product, which causes people to act more unscrupulously.
Hollywood movies, rap lyrics and music videos all contribute to the glamorization of the Drug Game. The risk for rewards and inevitable consequences are all equally embellished to paint a picture that does not accurately depict reality. The implication is that the potential rewards will all be worth it no matter how briefly they may last. This pervasive mentality has been perpetuated throughout pop-cutlure and made it incredibly easy for law enforcement officers to remove legions of aspiring young criminals from the streets. Once they are taken into custody, their cooperation with law enforcement officers and prosecutors is almost a foregone conclusion. Cooperating has actually become so commonplace that it is no longer holds the stigma, nor fear of retribution, that it once did. Clearly, "The Rules Of The Game" have dramatically changed and the boundaries are not neatly defined as they once were.
Nowadays prosecutors unquestionably wield the most power within the criminal justice system. If a person has committed a crime it is the prosecutor who will then likely determine how much of their life must be traded for repayment. Judges have been basically relegated to the role of "referee" during most court proceedings. Since the prosecutor retains the right to determine which charges a criminal defendant will face, he or she is able to hold a near infinite amount of time over each defendant's head. Their job is simply to attain as many criminal convictions as possible and they most often attempt to do so by whatever means necessary. Frequently, they can be heard boasting to the media about their "conviction rate" and the number of total years they have managed to accumulate against criminal defendants. This attitude does not represent the true (theoretical) interests of justice.
As the Rules Of The Game have changed out in the street, so have the practices of prosecutors across the nation. Anyone attempting to play by the Old Rules Of The Game is at a severe disadvantage and likely to be made into an example. Those few criminal defendants who dare not to cooperate with prosecutors can expect to receive astonishingly harsh treatment. However, these situations so rarely occur in this day and age that when they do hardly anyone even takes notice. American pop-culture icons have repeatedly proved that it is now socially acceptable to destroy the lives of everyone around you if it is necessary to avoid a lengthy prison term.
Traditional media sources tend to target a more mature audience, but their message is not that dissimilar from one found in pop-culture. Much attention has been paid to the recent mass murder which occurred in Aurora, Colorado and what might have been done to avoid it.
Tighter laws, harsher penalties and the expanded use of law enforcement techniques have all been suggested as a means to prevent another similar event in the future. This dangerous expansion of the criminal justice system could have dire consequences for every citizen if left unchecked. It has boldly been suggested that a law "that would make it easier to treat and institutionalize violent paranoid-schizophrenics without their permission" (How The Gun Won" by Joe Klein, Time. August 6, 2012) might have prevented Senator Giffords' shooting in Arizona. The media is attempting to manipulate the general public and win their support for a greatly expanded criminal justice system, which could be used to ensnare citizens who have never even broken a law. No mater how dire the situation my seem, recall the months following 9/11; if such an expansion of the law were permitted to occur, the facade of "law and order" along with the "exit door" that currently awaits parolees at the end of supervised release would cease to exist.
At times our current criminal justice system may appear largely ineffective, especially when viewed from a distance. However, the view changes once you begin looking from the Inside Out. Down on the ground, deep in the trenches of the War On Drugs, it gets "grimy." Not everyone is prepared to deal with the dirty reality of what they find and fail to realize that the grime can be washed away over time. This system, as it currently stands, may be easy to enter but there is still a way to get out and stay out without compromising your core principals and beliefs. Remaining down in those dirty, filthy trenches of the War remains and individual choice. Any person who instead chooses to comply with the laws and conditions of their parole thus becomes responsible for a recused rate of recidivism and likewise a decreased dependency upon the criminal justice system. Until the recidivism rate declines, the media will remain in a position to suggest that more laws and greater law enforcement is necessary. In order to change the current Rules Of The Game and halt any further expansion of the criminal justice system, those individuals currently entangled in the system have to make every effort to remove themselves from it. The future will be determined by their ACTIONS above all else.
Knowledge Is Powerless Without Action
Studying the history of any era or situation allows us the opportunity to make better informed decisions whenever similar circumstances arise in the future. However, once we find ourselves already entangled within a situation where injustice and inequality have become the norm then it becomes or responsibility to take action. Those actions will then be judged by all those who study our history. Without action, all of the knowledge that a person possesses becomes powerless and meaningless. It is absolutely imperative that we act when the time arrives. So our focus then must shift at some point from simply accumulating knowledge toward knowing when to act in response to that knowledge.
No matter what a person's involvement is within the American criminal justice system, today they have a moral responsibility to try and improve its effectiveness. The system was intended to protect society from all those persons who had proven that they were unable to abide by the law. Their temporary removal from society was itself seen as sufficient punishment. As the severity of punishment has increased over time, primarily with the inclusion of stiff mandatory minimum sentencing schemes, so too has the number of recidivists returning to prison each year. The obvious difficulty in rejoining society after having been long and far removed from it is an issue that clearly needs to be addressed with greater consideration and resources. If the actual punishment was intended to be only that initial time served in prison, then why is it that so many men and women end up serving so much more additional time inside?
"The Federal Bureau Of Prisons 2020 long-range capacity plan projects continued growth in federal prison population from fiscal years 2013 through 2020 with system wide overcrowding exceeding 45 percent through 2018: (Federal Legal Center quoting the Government Accounting Office's study on prison population on September 14, 2012). The United States leads the world in the rate at which we incarcerate our popultion. Most of those men and women are casualties of the War On Drugs, which continues to rage to this very day. The Federal Bureau Of Prisons has clearly stated their plans for continued expansion despite the contradictory claims of commitment to rehabilitative programs that effectively reduce the rate of recidivism. Plans to expand prisons instead of community release centers, for which there are ample qualified candidates, erodes the fragile confidence of all those involved with the current re-entry effort.
Black men comprise the majority of men in prison and have clearly been hit hardest in this War On Drugs. However, the reason for this disparity may be less sinister than many scholars suggest. Logistically speaking, urban areas are much easier for law enforcement to target due primarily to the density of the population but also due to the proximity of urban structures. Conversely, a group of law enforcement officers venturing out into a suburban or rural area have far more ground to cover in much less camouflage to hide their surreptitious activities. The urban War On Drugs is quite simply the easiest one to fight when faced with a system that is results driven. Drugs are prevalent wherever you go within this country so finding them is never difficult Law enforcement simply concentrates their efforts in those ares where they are able to make the most arrests. Apprehension is their only concern. After that the charges become a matter of the court system, where another issue entirely arises.
The crack to cocaine sentencing disparity that previously existed was undisputedly excessive. However, the current 18 to 1 ration is seemingly much ore accurate but many sentencing reform advocates claim that it is still too excessive. Since I have not found any statistics to support the new ratio, I feel compelled to interject my opinion which is the result of my own indirect experiences with both drugs. My attorney and close friend had a serious drug addiction that he battled for many years. Frequently, I would receive calls from his law partner or secretary inquiring about his whereabouts after he had missed a court appearance. On many occasions, I had to track him down and physically remove him, along with whatever was left of his belongings, from a known North Philly crack house. The scene was generally the same no matter where I found him. What I witnessed inside of those places was deterrent enough to prevent me from ever trying crack cocaine myself. However, this same attorney friend was capable of remaining relatively sane whenever he used powder cocaine in my presence. Since I sold and consumed powder cocaine for a lengthy period of time, I have ample experience with the effects of the drug. Never once did I see anyone exhibit the same erratic behaviors while on powder cocaine that I frequently witnessed when someone was smoking crack. In my opinion, a clear distinction should be made between the two drugs. Crack cocaine is much more physically and emotionally devastating than powder cocaine, so I understand why there is a sentencing disparity and have to agree that there should in fact be one. The severity of that disparity however remains open to debate.
The matter of who uses these drugs is also open to debate. Law enforcement is admittedly biased in their decision about who they choose to actively investigate and apprehend and those tactics warrant analysis. In my opinion, there is a very logical reason why the stereotypical "white frat boy" that Alexander refers to on page 132 of her book, "The New Jim Crow" is not a target of law enforcement. College students in general, regardless of their race, are all permitted certain privileges as a result of their anticipated future status within society. College is generally an accepted time of "experimentation" for those young adults who are likely to become the community and business leaders of tomorrow. Drugs are common on most college campuses but law enforcement chooses to ignore these obvious infractions of the law because society takes no issues with their "experimental" activity. Conversely, society is frequently outraged by stories of innocent victims caught in the crossfire of gun battles related to inner city drug turf wars. if violence, addiction and death were as prevalent on our college campuses today as they are in our inner cities then the War On Drugs would be raging there as well.
Statistics never tell the entire story. If numbers are too closely relied upon and over examined, then the human element in this war is greatly diminished. The War On Drugs has torn many urban communities apart and left millions of men and women incarcerated for decades instead of years. Until this point most efforts to improve rehabilitative services, and thus reduce the rate of recidivism, have been largely ineffective. The criminal justice system desperately needs an influx of progressive young men and women knowledgeable with the history of the system whom also have a sincere desire to make things better. Anyone that has such knowledge also has the power to affect change regardless of their personal circumstances. Whether a person finds themselves on the outside looking in or on the inside looking out they already know that "knowledge is powerless without action."
Acceptance Of Responsibility
Statistics clearly demonstrate that inmates who are serving life sentences are the least likely to recidivate. "Lifers" comprise less than one percent of the 2.3 million inmates currently incarcerated across the United States. It is unknown precisely why these men and women are so much more successful than their contemporaries when given the opportunity to return to society, but a few things can be inferred from other pertinent statistics. First, any person who has successfully completed a life sentence will have inevitably surpassed 40 years of age. Current statistics indicate that the rate of recidivism for both men and women drops dramatically beyond the age of forty. Secondly, most Lifers were convicted of crime where a loss of life occurred. Due to the finality of those crimes it can be safely assumed that they are much more likely to have seriously considered the cause and effect nature of their actions. That sort of introspective analysis, in turn, is likely to result in the eventual acceptance of responsibility for all their individual actions both direct and indirect. The weight of that responsibility undoubtedly serves to influence all of their future actions.
No matter how large or small the duration of incarceration a persona may face, that term will greatly affect a persona's outlook on the future. If that future seems too distant and incomprehensible, then that person must find some purpose for their current state of existence in order to maintain a sense of relevancy and self-worth. Conversely, all those men and women who are serving terms that they perceive to be relatively brief and inconsequential will simply mark off each day on their calendar in a perpetual countdown to their release. Therefore, it is literally impossible to calculate how any specific term of incarceration might ultimately affect an individual's thought process and subsequent actions. However, when a life sentence is imposed, that individual is consequently forced to confront themselves and the resulting damage of their actions - possibly, probably for the first time. Accepting responsibility for the impact of those actions on family, friends and associates is a difficult but necessary part of the cathartic process. All lifers must confront these situations at some point in the time simply because they have no other choice. Everyone else serving less time is denied that impetus to confront the full scope of consequences for their actions and remains unmoved toward positive change.
Occasionally, statistics themselves can provide the necessary impetus for change. Consider the fact that the current conviction rate in the Federal Court system is 97 percent. Nearly all of those convictions are the result of plea bargains with federal proecutors. Almost half of those people who agreed to plea bargains later received a sentence that was below the recommended sentencing guideline range. The overwhelming majority, 66 percent, of those personals receiving sentences below the guideline range received that reduced sentence on account of the "substantial assistance" that they provided to prosecutors. It's safe to say that those persons who provided such assistance did so as a matter of self preservation and not due to some sudden crisis of conscience. This practice has led to a deeply flawed system that is now predicated upon opportunistic criminals seeking greatly reduced sentences at any cost. It is not merely the system that is flawed, but the character of all those who have chosen to sacrifice their principals and reputations is also deeply flawed. When the punishment is diminished as a reward for compromised principles, it draws into question any perceived good that might have resulted from it. A simple acceptance of responsibility for one's actions and the completion of any subsequent punishment will unquestionably preserve the character and integrity of that rare individual. Any person with a strong sense of personal integrity is not only going to take responsibility for their own actions but he or she will also want to influence others due to the same.
The rate of recidivism has long remained steady at a staggering 70 percent. Popular culture has, thus far, only served to encourage young men and women to live outside the law with no consideration of the consequences to their actions. Mob figure Sammy "The Bull" Gravanno admitted to murdering numerous people but served only a few years in prison because he cooperated with the government. Rap artist and reality TV show actor T.I. was arrested while in possession of numerous automatic weapons, with silencers, and received only one year in federal prison instead of a life sentence. As long as young people continue to believe that there is an escape valve which will allow them to avoid punishment for their actions, they will not be rightfully deterred from entering into a life of crime. Those young adults unfortunate enough to eventually be caught and convinced will inevitably cooperate with the government in exchange for leniency and thus not even be deterred from committing future crimes. These young men and women have no need o desire to look inward upon themselves and discover how deeply flawed their character has become. As a result they are likely to recidivate and help sustain that previously noted 70 percent mark.
An effective means of combating the existing negative pop culture would be to focus greater attention upon the 30th percentile of the prison population that is least likely to recidivate. Those men and women who are serious about altering their habits and improving their lives have the ability to create an atmosphere conducive to change. Science has already proven that something as simple as a smile is contagious. If 30 percent of the inmate population were to find themselves having a reason to frequently smile, then the remaining 70 percent of the population is likely to be encouraged to smile as well. Not everyone will be susceptible to such an atmosphere of change but the underlying culture will create an improved likelihood that others will also embrace change. When dealing with individuals who have not had many reasons to smile, a little compassion and kindness can make a world of a difference.
The most influential inmates in nearly every prison are lifers. Despite the fact that they comprise such a small percentage of the population (in most prisons) they wield an incredible amount of influence amongst their peers, simply because of their sentences. Time should not dictate respect nor admiration, but inexplicably in prison it does. As a result, most lifers learn to embrace that leadership role and with it accept the accompanying responsibility of that position. They realize that they have the ability to inspire and positively direct all those inmates that are around them. When prison administrators want to reach the general population and affect systemic change it is wise for them to utilize the leadership of those lifers. Giving these men a sense of purpose and empowering them to help others is an invaluable resource that should be utilized at every opportunity. Lifers, along with members of the favored 30 percent, can and will create a culture of change that is likely to reduce the rate of recidivism.
"Changing a strongly held belief has little to do with actual facts." This opening quote from a recent article in the New York Times captured my attention first and then my imagination. The assertion, which was supported by multiple studies, is that we tend to side with people who share our identity regardless of the facts. Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than the microcosm found within a prison. Inmates gravitate toward other inmates of similar beliefs and allow themselves to be defined by the group. What is most dangerous about this phenomenon is how the group can disregard the "facts" when they do not coincide with their beliefs, thus creating a blatantly distorted reality. Conversely, this same group dynamic can be extremely powerful and positive when used to promote an agenda that benefits everyone, but those circumstances are relatively rare and need to be capitalized upon whenever they do occur.
Every group has either a designated leader or certain members who clearly wield more influence than the other memers. Identifying those leaders and targeting a specific message to them improves the likelihood of the group's receptivity to that message. Leaders have the ability to move the masses toward either a positive or a negative action. The most horrific atrocities committed throughout history were perpetrated by people commanded by extremely charismatic leaders, Hitler being the most obvious example. He managed to move the minds of an entire nation and although their actions now seem incomprehensible in retrospect that merely proves how powerfully influential the perceived identity of any group can ultimately become.
Julius Caesar is a prime example of how positive leadership can influence a nation on such a scale as to having a lasting impact upon all of human history. Ancient Rome's prosperity and appreciation for the arts were born out of his leadership, and monuments celebrating the success of their glorious society have withstood the ravages of time and war. Caesar empowered other leaders within his nation to rise up and speak for the people they represented in the Roman Senate, a predecessor to our current democratic government here in the United States. He was greatly loved and admired by the masses and that ultimately lead to his assassination. The voice of one, or a select few, cannot be underestimated in its potential to move the minds of the masses.
Leadership is both a privilege and responsibility. When the minds of the masses are under the influence of a leader it is his or her moral responsibility to act with their best interests in mind, even when it does not serve his or hoer own personal interests or desires. The words and actions of any leader will be scrutinized by their opposition and emulated by their faithful following. Whenever an opportunity arises to further the education of any leader it should be seized upon because, through his or her intellectual advancement, the masses will also be elevated.
Leaders should all strive to become adept teachers. As Henry Adam famously stated, "A teacher effects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops." Unfortunately, some people are unable to remove their own sense of ego and insecurity to fail to assume their rightful role as either a leader of techer. Intelligence may be a powerful tool and education has the potential to be the great equalizer, but only when both are fully embraced. Men and women in prison are often reluctant to embrace and cultivate their intelligence because they will inevitably be ridiculed by their peers. In prison whenever a person of color is able to articulate their thoughts in an intelligent manner without the use of curses or slang, they are accused of sounding too "white." The full derogatory remark is usually something to the effect of, "You sound like you're white!" As a result, black and brown men frequently hide their intelligence from their peers and white men tend to adjust their normal speech to better assimilate to their environment. Accordingly, accepting the role of either a teacher or a leader inside prison is often a greater responsibility than most men and women are capable of handling.
A common characteristic among men in prison is their prior ability to provide for everyone who was around them on the outside. No matter if their crime involved a seemingly small amount of drugs, a violent act, or a wide reaching case of fraud, these men were the ones that family members, friends and associates frequently turned to in times of distress. These men were in a position to be of assistance to nearly all those around them and thus they enjoyed that sense of power and influence. Once inside prison that influence on the outside quickly began to dissipate and they realized that everyone around them had become so conditioned to their support that they were no longer able to fend for themselves, let alone anyone else. It is an exceptionally frustrating experience that often leads to feelings of depression and isolation. These men have the potential to become effective leaders and teachers on the inside if they are provided with the right tools and guidance. The characteristics which made them effective leaders within their circles of influence on the outside are the same that can now be used to promote a greater common good.
Criminals enjoy a certain type of lifestyle that can be more difficult to avoid than any type of drug or alcohol. When people choose to live outside the law there isa certain mystique that attracts not only the attention but the quiet admiration of even the most straight laced citizen. Their money and possessions may attract the initial attention but it's the blatant disregard and flaunting of the law that draws lasting admiration and affection. American history is full of outlaws who have been emulated and revered by the masses simply because they were non-conformists.
After prison many criminals find it difficult to stay out of the limelight and rejoin the masses after having experienced that sort of attention, despite the negative consequences they already endured. Clearly, there is a great hypocrisy present when our society glamorizes its criminals but then seeks to incarcerate them for the remainder of their lives when they recidivate. If inmates can be convinced that the same attention and admiration will be afforded to them when they choose to pursue a more positive and productive path within the confines of the law, it will not take long to begin moving the minds of many. As those minds are then moved the culture will itself begin to change and long held beliefs will slowly start to fade away. Intelligence an then, once again, come into vogue and education will be embraced as the great equalizer by all.
New York Times Magazine, "How To Move A Mind: Changing a strongly held belief has little to do with actual facts." August 19, 2012
The World Book Encyclopedia, 2004, "Hitler, Adolf" pages 264-268
The World Book Encyclopedia, 2004, "Caesar, Julius" pages 12-13
I'm definitely NOT just your average guy that's doin' time...According to the Federal Bureau Of Prisons I still owe them a couple more centuries before they'll let me outta here. Despite my current predicament I've decided to fully embrace the immortal words of my man, the O.G. of Cool, Mr. James Dean who said to "Dream as if you'll live forever and live as if you'll die today". I may be stuck physically here in prison but I sure as hell ain't dead yet...in fact I figure that I'm still about 60 to 70 years away from my final day but that won't make me change the way I'm living today. This blog is my window out into the world and while I'm looking out you may just catch a glimpse inside mine. Let me know if you like what you see... and if you don't, feel free to disagree and let me know what's really on your mind.