A Vision For the Future
By Mick Whitlock
As the steel door slammed shut behind me, I realized that a new chapter in my life was about to begin. And though the uncertainties about my life and my future seemed enormous, deep in my heart I knew that I would be going to prison. My feelings of helplessness were overwhelming. What the future held for my young family was unclear. As my mind drifted between memories of the past and thoughts of what might have been, feelings of helplessness began to change to feelings of hopelessness.
I was forty six years old at the time of my arrest. I had never been in jail before and was completely unaware of the jailhouse culture. Of course certain stereotypes stood out in my mind about what I had heard about jail. Watch your back. Don't snitch. Don't trust anyone. Feelings of paranoia began to overwhelm me. I could only sleep after reaching the point of sheer exhaustion. After two weeks, I realized that I simply could not go on living in this manner. I had huge black circles under my eyes and was completely exhausted. I was nearing the point of both a physical and mental breakdown. I knew that something had to change and change quickly. My very life seemed to depend on it.
Taking a chance, I confided in my cellmate who had been to prison and seemed to be headed there again. His advice was direct and to the point, and opened my eyes to the reality of the situation. He simply said, "Do your time, don't let your time do you." His message was simplistic, yet it made perfect sense. As I sat on my bunk contemplating his words, I began to view my incarceration in a more philosophical manner. I realized that, even tough I had lost my freedom physically, I still had control over my thoughts, words, and actions. And that by taking total control of myself, I could make the best of myself and a seemingly very negative situation. It was just what I needed. It gave me focus and drive. It gave me hope for the future. But most of all it helped me to maintain my sanity and my perspective.
After fifteen months in jail, I was sentenced to thirty six years in prison on a charge of "burglary with bodily injury." The fact that I was a first time offender had no apparent impact on my sentence. Neither did the fact that I was married and three of my children were still living at home. A crime had been committed and a price had to be paid. All that truly mattered is that I pay an enormous debt to society, regardless of the immense devastation my family would be forced to endure.
It would be very difficult to fully convey the profound impact prison has had on me. It has been both a humbling and mind opening experience of tremendous proportion. I vowed to maintain my self control and to continue to progress in a positive manner. I signed up to participate in every program that I qualified for. I accepted a job in the kitchen, though I was only paid fourteen cents an hour. I began to adapt to my surroundings and most importantly, the individuals that inhabited my surroundings. The inevitable consequences of my illegal actions had led me to a place I could not have conceived in my wildest nightmare. I fully intended to make the most of a seemingly dire situation.
It did not take long for me to fully realize that prisons are simply vast human warehouses. This is simply the end result of the institutionalization process. Few inmates are required to participate in any rehabilitative program and few do. Instead, they spend their time occupied with any number of mundane activities such as watching television continuously, sleeping, playing cards, or socializing with their "homies." In an environment that scorns the values of traditional society, any hope of a successful, law abiding life after prison is minimized. A criminal mentality and mindset is instilled in individuals that otherwise may be totally rehabilitatable. This cultural phenomenon is known as prisonization and it occurs after the institutionalization process is firmly intact. Prisonization is most prevalent in the youngest inmates where a team in prison is often viewed as a right of passage by the culture from which they came. Instead of spending their time involved in projects of rehabilitation, their days are spent honing their criminal skills. For these individuals, a life of crime is a given and a return trip to prison is guaranteed.
As my understanding of the prison system grew, my personal goals and ambitions were solidified. I enrolled in college at the first opportunity, even though it had been more than thirty years since I had been in a college classroom. By focusing my full attention in a positive direction, I was able to ignore the negativity that surrounded me. However, to say that I was initially intimidated would have been an understatement. I was concerned that I wouldn't be able to keep up with my classwork or comprehend my studies. The fact that I was old enough to be the father of nearly all of my classmates didn't seem to help! I simply vowed to do my very best and take it one class and one assignment at a time. i soon found myself leading class discussions and tutoring other students. My age and numerous life experiences proved to be incredible assets. At the end of the semester I had accumulated a perfect 4.0 grade point average and had made the Deans List.
Attending college was the greatest transformational experience of my life. Not only was I gaining knowledge about the subjects I was studying, I was gaining insight into myself and my behavior. I stopped trying to justify past actions and personal failures. I came to the realization that the only thing I could do about my past was learn from it. I began to fully understand the incredible possibilities that exist within myself and the world. The challenges and obstacles I was facing were made clear. My confidence level soared. But in my heart I knew that if my hopes and dreams are going to become reality, it could only happen if I were a member of a free society.
Meanwhile, my knowledge and understanding of the prison system was growing by leaps and bounds. In one of my classes, I had been assigned to write a term paper on recidivism. The research available on the topic was abundant and the facts concerning recidivism were nothing less than astounding. Perhaps the most amazing fact was the recidivism rate itself. A full SEVENTY PERCENT of those released by the American Prison System re offend and return to prison! No doubt contributing greatly to the number is the fact that twenty to thirty percent of the prison population is functionally illiterate! What are the odds of these individuals making a successful return to society? Minuscule at best I would venture to say. Also, eighty five percent of all inmates have a history of drug and alcohol abuse. Another interesting study said that a very small percentage of inmates have marketable job skills, and that most have a poor work history. The picture was becoming increasingly clear. Until politicians and prison officials alike are willing to address the issue of recidivism, very little will change. The bottom line is this: it costs between $25,000 and $35,000 to house, feed, and maintain each and every person that's in prison EVERY YEAR. When they are released, SEVENTY PERCENT re offend and return to prison. Shouldn't we be doing everything necessary to drastically reduce the recidivism rate?
Successful programs do exist. Programs that have proven to be effective in reducing recidivism are becoming more numerous. Taxpayers are simply tired of seeing a higher and higher percentage of their tax dollars going to incarcerate an ever growing prison population. Let's make SUBSTANCE ABUSE, JOB TRAINING, and EDUCATION mandatory for inmates that have deficiencies in any or all of these areas. For until we are able to kill the root of the problem, the problem will simply continue to grow.
Finally, another statistic stood boldly out from the rest. The recidivism rate for inmates with two or more years of college is less than ten percent. Why not give a college education to every inmate that qualifies and is capable of doing college work. My Bachelors degree from a prestigious midwestern university was completed with less than $10,000 of federal grant money! Yet there are politicians and prison officials alike that are against funding an inmates college education. I would argue that considering the reduction in the recidivism rate, giving inmates college eduction is the best use of taxpayer dollars within the prison system.
My vision is of a day when an inmate may enter a prison facility and experience an atmosphere of kindness, understanding, and compassion. A place where personal shortcomings can be identified, addressed, and overcome. Where lives are reshaped and molded in a positive manner. Where the seeds of potential are planted, fertilized, and encouraged to grow. Only then can we begin to harvest the full and abundant skills, talents, and abilities of the incarcerated by returning productive, rehabilitated, law abiding citizens back into society. For until we change the culture, environment, and opportunities available to the incarcerated, we will continue to reap what we have sown.
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