Ending Violent CrimeIntroduction | Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Epilogue
The Next Step
What I have been describing is a model that we now have in place for a positive change in our correctional systems. It is a model which has proven itself for those who have participated in it, which are still a small number of prisoners. It remains to be seen how far we can expand the program within these prisons and to other prisons. I believe the theory and methods to be sound, and that programs can be developed to make this model adaptable and accessible to any group, any prison, in any culture. More thinking needs to be given to that, but, as I said, a good model is in place to observe, and it is working well.
What we do not have yet as an adjunct to this program is a place for ex-convicts after they have been released. Since recidivism is so high, and so much of our prison population is composed of repeat offenders, continuing such a successful program on the outside is now our highest priority.
In most states there are pre-release institutions with considerable freedom and some opportunities for continuing education and vocational training, as well as alcohol and drug treatment programs. There are also state programs for the rehabilitation of sex-offenders. The success rate of these programs is, to be frank, dismal on the whole.
There are also sometimes half-way houses that allow the emerging prisoner a closer interaction with society, providing a place to stay and contact with programs. For those released by the parole board on probation, there are probation officers assigned to keep track of the ex-prisoners and monitor how they are faring in building their lives again on the outside. With the growing numbers of parolees, these departments are overworked and understaffed, and only the barest minimum of contact can usually be maintained.
As men begin to get close to their date of release, "getting short" as they say, their anxiety will begin to show and they will need time in the circle and probably counseling time to deal with their fears. Some of them will be going home to families that have been difficult for them in the past, and from whom they have been long estranged. They may be facing problems at home that are harder for them than any they have had in prison. If they are very fortunate they may have a job waiting, but most will not and will face great insecurity in that area.
For long-term prisoners there are two great fears: to die in prison, and to be released to that terrifying world that once before had twisted their minds and wills in incomprehensible ways that led them to prison. A very large number of men in prison have no home, no family they can go to. Stepping through the gates of freedom with a few dollars the state has given them, they will face a world that has greatly changed since their incarceration, alone and with no support. They are terrified they will fall into new and unknown traps, or be helpless without support when old demons approach again, and they will find themselves returned to die behind those walls.
At this time all we are able to offer is the possibility for ex-prisoners to come to the circles and sweats we try to provide once a month, and to call when they have problems, which, despite our encouragement, they rarely do. They are reluctant to place any further demands on me for my time and attention, knowing how thinly spread they are. I try to keep in contact as best I can, and a few of them are very regular in coming to circles at our place in the woods of New Hampshire, even though it is not easy for them to get to.
But I have a vision. It is clear to me at this point exactly what our next step should be, and how we could go about it with the organization and support that would be required. I don't believe it would take that much, in terms of money and people, to realize that vision. What is needed, of course, are a number of places in different parts of the states involved, where we can have our own half-way houses, staffed by the ex-prisoners themselves, where newly-released prisoners can have the ongoing support of a circle. Going from a circle in the prison to a circle on the outside would be an easy transition for them, within a way that is familiar and empowering. Here the men would find counseling, to understand their way into the new social world, to relate to their families and friends, and to find employment and housing.
There are some models for this at this time, the strongest of which perhaps being Delancey Street, a private non-profit organization which began in San Francisco and has opened other branches in other states. Delancey Street is managed and operated entirely by ex-convicts. The programs for ex-prisoners are based on the Twelve-Step programs. They own an entire city block in San Francisco, where they have reconstructed the buildings and rooms, and run a number of ex-con operated businesses from there.
This is an excellent model for what I would like to see. For my vision there are two additions I would make in such a post-prison program. I would like to see, in addition to city spaces, places away from city environments as the first place for prisoners to come who might have a difficult time of re-entry into urban life. I would want a time of quiet and retreat in a natural environment, with possibilities of learning and employment in such fields as agriculture, forestry, and wildlife management, for instance.
The other addition I would make, of course, is to have ongoing circles at the heart of the programs and management. I have great respect for the advances and accomplishments of the twelve-step movement, but we have many prisoners who have not benefited from them, for reasons I needn't be concerned with here. Our experience of the circles, however, is that they are completely involving, that the men become devoted to them, loyal and protective of them. It is something that belongs to the men, a way of life of which they are proud. They go to AA and NA often because they need to have that in their jackets before the parole board will consider them for probation, or because it will get them good time. They continue those programs outside as a factor of probation. But men in the circle really look forward to the weekly circle in prison even though it gains them nothing with the parole board, and eagerly hope to find a circle on the outside. They want to introduce their families and friends to circles, and to teach circles to young people in schools and on the streets.
The men who have been in the circles for some period of time generally credit them with turning their lives around, and they are immensely grateful for that. Often, very often, I have heard men say they are so glad they got this "bid" or sentence in prison, because it gave them the chance to find out about and get into the circle. They say if they hadn't found the circle they would probably be dead. They would have continued their downward spiral and destructive life style until they killed themselves or someone killed them. So they say the circle literally saved their lives.
They look back at what they were before and cannot believe the things they did or the ways they thought and felt. Some of these men killed without thought or feeling, some of them believed that a big roll of money was all that was important, was what made them a man, some just couldn't face or comprehend any of the world they had to survive in, and so just stayed stoned as much of the time as they could and felt and thought nothing.
They know they did and thought and felt all that, but it seems so unreal, so absurd that they should have been that way now. They want to show their gratitude, to pay back for the great gift of their lives they have received, and they know instinctively without being told that the best way to do that is to give it to others. Their first thought is usually for the young people, especially the boys on the streets, in schools, in gangs, in the juvenile justice system. They know how all that is, and what it does to a young person.
They want to reach out to those young people and show them the blessing of the circle. They know the gangs are substitute families to these boys who don't have real families, supportive blood families, and they understand that everyone needs a family. They want to show how much more powerful and supportive and close a circle is than the gangs they cluster in. They want to tell them about the progress of life through drugs and crime and in and out of prison, because they have been there. To a young man it's a badge of honor, a rite of manhood, to do jail time. A circle of men who have done hard time would be like heroes to these boys, and such men could tell them a lot about the "honor" of prison time. They could get to those boys' feelings, they could be the fathers, uncles, big brothers those boys need.
Another ambition these men have for their new life outside the walls is to be able to come back inside the walls as a volunteer, to provide circles for other prisoners as we have provided circles for them. They know, because we have not always been able to be there for them every week, that volunteers are hard to come by. They remember how much it meant to them that the elders took time from their lives to go in to give them circles and sweats and counseling, and they want to show their appreciation by carrying on and spreading that work.
A number of the men looking forward to getting out really want to have a way to do those things, an organization that can help all that to happen, that can give them a place to go, a place to welcome other prisoners coming out and help them get started, create a circle to support them, jobs and housing and counseling when needed. They want to start businesses that can employ ex-cons, to teach them skills, help them get to college. They want to find jobs that can help the environment, planting trees, recycling, working with animals. And they want to help young people, create work opportunities for them too, and camps where they can teach about nature and environmentalism.
The prisoners talk about creating alternatives to the state juvenile systems. Providing homes for young people at risk which would function like a circle, with love and support and respect and safety and openness, but with firmness and the understanding of areas of drugs and alcohol and sex and crime that their special perspective provides.
These prisoners know the score. They have been shunted around from foster home to foster home, from institution to institution, being taken into those places only because the people were being paid to keep them, not because they were esteemed for themselves. No one ever had the time or the skill to try to get close, to understand them, to help them, they just issued orders and punishment when they weren't obeyed. Or they were left alone completely because the foster care parents hadn't a clue about what to do with them when they acted out their distress, of which life had supplied an abundance. They found in the circle what had been lacking in their childhoods, and now they know how to give that to others.
The first step in realizing this vision is simple and do-able. I have always been a "just-do-it" kind of person who gets something going on a shoestring and then figures out how to keep it going with the barest minimum of funds. That's the story for the programs now, and what we have at our place, but to go ahead now some money and some organization is needed, but not a lot, to make a beginning. We would want an old farm or some buildings in the country in Connecticut to start, and a small staff. The biggest initial work would be to get the politicians, the state administration, the courts, corrections and probation departments get behind it as an experiment. Ordinarily former felons are not allowed to consort with each other on probation except in state half-way houses or AA or something like that. We would expect to be monitored by the probation department but given a bit of leeway. That shouldn't be too hard in Connecticut where the experience of our programs has been long and positive.
The real work of the place would be done by the ex-prisoners themselves. The circles are so tight that everyone in them is transparent. These men have seen all the games, and they might be able to run games on straights but not on each other. And they would be fiercely protective of their program, wanting it to work, wanting it to be a model for the world. No doubt unforeseen snags will arise, problems no one has thought of, but these men are smart and caring and I am confident they can take any new problem into the circle and work with it and solve it, with the encouragement and insight of elders to assist.
That's the beginning of the vision. The first step. I can envision its growth, I can imagine a vast system based on these principles that could eventually all but do away with prisons as we know them today, by reducing crime and helping distressed perpetrators turn their lives around and provide useful service to the community, including compensation to victims of their crimes. Perhaps I am give to grandiose dreams, but I believe in digging in with the possible and practical, getting to work, and seeing what happens. This step is possible and it is practical. It now needs only a few other visionaries like me to help make it concrete, and we're on our way. Maybe to a whole new world.