Here’s a startling concept. Maybe we all have a lot to learn from our prisoners. I say “our” because we, as a society, have decided to keep certain people imprisoned, against their will, in the name of justice and public safety. We have institutions across the country full of people, at great cost. Probably close to 100.000 on any given day. Most of these prisoners have not even been found guilty – are only presumed to be guilty or they would not be kept prisoners.
There is probably much to learn from those being held against their will who are not yet convicted. That’s for another day. But aside from them, what could we possibly learn from these other criminals, and deviants, and “hopeless” cases? I suggest that there is much that we can learn. We have no problem accepting that we have much to learn from people who have been held prisoner for political reasons in other countries. People have long written popular books about their terms of imprisonment as victims of abduction or because they are later found to be “innocent” of their crimes. We marvel at their ability to survive and we admire the qualities and skills that enabled them to survive.
Thousands and thousands of our brothers and sisters have survived those same, or similar, experiences in our prisons. But, do we honour those abilities and admire their perseverance and courage in those violent, often abusive prison ranges? No. And, more importantly, we do not admire and honour and learn from those who have struggled through a process of transformation, against all odds, with only societal contempt for their well-being and survival. I’m not suggesting we honour or disregard their crimes – their mistakes. But, how they have survived and changed holds valuable lessons for all of us.
Example one: Abraham. Respected police officer and community leader. In a moment of drunken passion, he accidently kills his wife. Ostracized, abandoned by family and friends, loses everything, told that it is hopeless, abused by guards and threatened by other prisoners, traumatized by events he witnesses. And then, he works and works and perseveres, and gradually transforms himself against all odds with no support or encouragement. After getting the help he was begging for over many years, Abe gradually changes his beliefs and thinking so as to completely minimize ever making such a mistake again. He has to find a new career. He studies each day and eventually is able to begin to qualify for a career change. Despite these efforts, he is repeatedly refused release by the politically appointed members of the parole board because of the high profile nature of his case. Eventually Abe is released and become, once more, a contributing and responsible member of society. He is blessed with the opportunity to begin reconciliation with his family.
Do we allow ourselves to learn from this man ? The potential lessons seem obvious. With all normal supports and status either withdrawn or lost, Abe learns to find an inner strength which allows him to persevere against all odds. He demonstrates that change is possible and that there is such a thing as transformation available to all of us when we will make major mistakes in our lives. Abe shows us that this transformation is possible with hard work, over a long period of time, with expert help, and by the grace of God.
That is one man. There are hundreds of thousands of people in our communities who are currently surviving our punishments of them and transforming themselves, or who have survived our imprisonment of them.
There is no need to let our shame at imprisoning so many people stand between them and us. There is no need to hide, in our collective guilt, for treating the least amongst us in often inhumane and cruel ways because of their mistakes. We can, and hopefully will, allow ourselves to learn from these people who have survived the worst mistakes they could make, and also the worst punishment we have deliberately inflicted on them. Many are working hard at change, a difficult challenge, or have transformed themselves when everyone said it was impossible.
What can we learn from our prisoners? And, how will we do it?
In my work with those involved in the criminal justice system, I have always suggested to young colleagues that they ask themselves 2 things at the end of the work day. What did I learn about the client?, and what did I learn about myself? I suppose that could be a start.