What I’ve learned in jail

This was my sixth week teaching Basic Life Skills to the H.O.P.E. Pod at the Allegheny County Jail. It was an awesome class. My co-instructor and I have had to mix what existing curriculum there is with our own ideas for what these guys need. It’s been a lot of work this first time through, mainly because, like any first-year teacher, you are doing everything for the first time, but also because we want to go the extra mile for these guys by integrating some creativity instead of just being a talking head. That means coming up with group games or exercises and — their favorite — movie clips. This week was on Getting a Job. There was no material for this. I had to invent it out of thin air. I just know that there are a lot of things you learn in a middle-class upbringing about applying and interviewing for jobs that are probably never taught to those who come from more challenging circumstances. I’ve also noticed some things by being on the hiring side of the interview. So we talked about where to find jobs, how to write a resume, how to approach a job interview, how to answer the tough questions (even about having been in jail), and a little bit about starting your own business, although I am far from an expert about doing that. I even wrote a comical little skit about a disastrous job interview. When I asked the guys what I did wrong in the interview, they picked out stuff I didn’t even know I had put in there.

So, although I’m no expert after only six weeks, here are a few things I’m learning in jail:

The turnover rate. You have to get used to guys coming and going. Some who were there in week one have already been released. At least one had his appeal denied and was sent to a state penitentiary for a longer sentence. Each class, there are new faces. One week, there were about seven guys who were new. That’s 10% of the class. I guess it’s one of those things where you toss a lot of stuff at them and hope that some of it sticks. The thing is, most of these guys are battling a whole lot more than just a knowledge gap.

These guys are sponges. They take it all in. Many of them take notes. They ask questions. They give their own examples. And they so appreciate everything we give them. It’s like bringing a big vat of cold water into a room of desperately thirsty men. Last week, one guy asked if he could have my speaking notes so he could read them all week.

Rehabilitation isn’t the goal of the state. Jail, and especially prison, is much more about incarceration than rehabilitation. And when budgets are slashed, any efforts at rehabilitation are the first things to go. This is just “people storage.” Rack ‘em and stack ‘em. Outside programs like ours are pretty much all there is.

These are broken men, not bad men. The first time you buzz that pod door, it unlatches, and you enter in, there is a bit of shock value. There you are, surrounded by seventy men in red jump suits. You’ve seen prison movies and TV shows. You are expecting something from Con Air, but in reality, it’s a lot more like Shawshank. Now, it’s like walking into a school cafeteria. These are just men who have made mistakes. They aren’t psychopaths. They’ve been beaten down by life. That’s not to make excuses for their behavior. Certainly, not all of those who have had rough upbringings end up in jail, but many do. For the most part, the way they think has been broken. Their cognitive abilities have been damaged by past abuse, lack of family structure, lack of education, or health problems. This takes them down the path of anger issues, substance abuse, and a hopelessness that all lead to poor choices. Breaking free from this cycle of bad thinking can be a monumental task.

Caught in a system. I try to make no judgments about their guilt or innocence. It doesn’t matter to me. I rarely ask them about their offenses unless it is pertinent to what they are going through. Most of these guys did a crime for which they are doing the time. But there are some who are caught in a system that does not serve them. Some will be in jail for months for a crime that a man with means and a good lawyer would be able beat or plead down without ever having to spend a night behind bars. Jerome is a guy who is being held on some very shady charges, according to those who have seen his chart. He’s been in there almost a year now, waiting for a court date that never comes. In a way, this is the closest thing we have to the old debtors prisons in England, where they would throw you in a cell for not being able to pay your bills. Today, it’s for not being able to afford bail and a good lawyer. And lets face it, some are in there because they were pulled over (why?) and found to be in possession of a small bag of marijuana. Don’t get me started on why downing several shots of  vodka (the rich man’s drug of choice) is perfectly legal while a small baggie of pot (the poor man’s drug) will land you in a cell.

They are strong. Each week I find it a bit overwhelming that I get to leave at 7:30. As I walk out into the sunshine and start my car, I wonder what those men would give to be able to walk out and drive home. I try to imagine what it must be like to stay there and have that metal door to your cell close and latch each night. I imagine what it must be like when your only connection to the outside world is a bank of payphones — as long as the power to the phones doesn’t go out, which it often does. Most of these guys have stories that would break your heart. For many, jail is the best living situation they have ever known. Although they may complain about the justice system and their charge, they do not whine about their lives. They are survivors. They have a strength that can either be turned to anger and destruction or to a determination to build a better life. Either way, the odds are against them, but that’s the way it’s always been.

They are grateful. Almost to a man, they are so appreciative that someone — anyone — is taking the time to invest in them. I imagine this is not something they are used to. They come up to you afterward and they look you in the eye and you can see their sincerity. My little ninety-minutes of blabbing means the world to them. It makes me want to bring them more and better things each week.

Their future is not over. I think of James, who asks me to pray with him at the end of each session. His father has cancer and only has a few months to live. He is in his mid-twenties and much more in need of counseling and a short-term mental health facility than jail. He has studied to become a paramedic. Dennis is my AV man who sets up the computer, video projector, and operates any media. This young man is smart and competent and friendly. God, I want for him to make it. Michael is deep waters. He thinks long and is slow to speak. But when he does speak, there are great nuggets of spiritual wisdom there. His dream is to create a business in the black community that incorporates a barber shop, a grocery store, a daycare center, and a church in one sort of mini-mall. You can tell this dream keeps him going. I hope it happens.

I have to keep reminding myself that this is jail, not Hollywood. They are not all going to be happy endings. For now, however, I have to treat each man and his dream as something that will happen. The H.O.P.E. program has to plant seeds and water those crops. As I see it, it’s the only way that some of them will ever reap a harvest.

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About carpetbagger

Tom and Jean are just a couple of Chicago transplants in Lawrenceville, a neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

Posted on July 18, 2012, in Faith, Pittsburgh and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. I love reading about what you’re doing in this program. its so inspiring and heart warming.

    I read a book some time ago called “the new jim crow” and I think you’d find it deals with a lot of the same issues you come up against in the work you do.

    I also think we are well overdue for a book/life discussion!

  2. There is a woman I know who teaches classes on scripture at the local prison and she relates many of these same things you do. Attendance is overwhelming, the questions are flowing and these men are hungry for knowledge.

    I imagine it would be hard for me not to dig and ask questions about their crimes, but it’s probably for the best. Jail for marijuana is simply insane to me, but jail for sex crimes? I would have a hard time being fair. Kudos to you for doing what you do.

  3. Linda Covert Campbell

    Good for you!!…For doing what you do….and writing about it so well.

  4. I could have cried when I read your blog…….I did, sort of. We take SO much for granted. –mom

  5. Hello! Have I commented here before? I can’t remember. I’m certainly aware of you through Bluz, though, and I’ve certainly read you before, but something (not Jesus) made me click over here today specifically. And I think it was to make you become friends with my jail-mentor friend Gayle: http://mylifeinthemiddleages.blogspot.com/

  6. Sometimes I get jaded about people in jail, even though I know that not everyone in prison is “bad.” I’d like to think people would be a lot more compassionate if they read these postings. Thanks both for doing a much-needed service and for writing about it.

    Remind me (because I am too lazy to go back to your previous postings): Are these prisoners put into this program or do they volunteer to be part of it? And if the former, who gets in and why? And I guess I have, more or less, the same question if it is the latter.

    • They definitely have to apply to be in the program. There is a strict set of behavior rules to stay in. Some get into the program simply because it is a much more pleasant way to do time than in general population. I’m not sure how they choose guys or if they have to turn some down. I think they just have to have good behavior records.

  7. Amazing, dude. Just amazing. A lot of people give lip service to making a difference. You go out and do it.

  8. I hang on your every word when you write about this, Tom. This is fantastic. I love what you’re doing. I also love the fact that you hold no judgement over these men. And it is such a broken system. It’s just plain sad.

  9. Hi, I did a google search on ways to volunteer at the allegheny county jail and your blog popped up. Could you help me get involved?

    • Small world, huh?

      Yes! I work with the HOPE program, which serves both male and female inmates. They have a pre- and post-release program.

      My friend Caitlin Rohrer is the director of the program. She would be a great source for you to connect with. Let her know what you are interested in doing (drop my name, of course) and I’m sure she’d love to steer you in the right direction.


  10. If you really think all these great things about the worst sector of our society you must be stupid or being played.

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