Prison populations continue to rise while rehabilitation efforts, if they even exist, continue to fail.

We can do so much better. The Washington state prison system might just be onto something really, really good. They’ve begun using inmates as ecological assistants in conservation efforts to sa ve endangered species. Inmates are ideal for this wor , with a controlled envir onment and lots of time to dedicate. Perhaps most importantly, the wor allows inmates to feel they are contributing to a broader social good. I have probably spo en to more inmates than any doctor or psychiatrist nown to me. Granted, th ey have all been in the state of California but I refuse to believe they are ver y different elsewhere. When I as ed most of them what they were in for, the ans wer was “parole violation.” I tried to get them to tell me their “index” or original vi olation but that was li e pulling teeth. Most of them could not remember very m uch, or were evasive, or told me they had spent long expanses of time behind bar s. They had self-esteem you could have trouble scraping off the floor. Sometime s they would have “wor shops” in things li e upholstery or auto repair. I have seen them do private wor for the warden, li e upholstering his cabin cruiser. I ha ve seen them get depressed when various wor shops were closed for financial reas ons. Mostly, I have seen them unable to imagine life outside of bars. The one t hing they have is time. The different ways they use this time is amazing. A fe w, the “intellectual” ones, may write boo s, run businesses with outside help, or ta e some ind of correspondence courses. But my experience tells me this is rare . I would tell inmates things. I would tell them how some great writing was done in prison, including the writings of Marco Polo. Most of all, I would tell them that as far as I was concerned there are no bad men, just good men who do bad t hings. So the best thing I could wish them was to pay whatever debts society ha d imposed upon them, be good, and move along. I thought this was obvious, but I was surprised how often it resulted in some pretty tough loo ing guys crying, g etting down on one nee, and issing my hand. I did not thin what I said was th at extraordinary. They did, for they had been bombarded with messages that they were totally useless. The idea that they could do something, anything, after t hey got out was delirious and radical. Many turned to religion to help themselv es feel good. It was good stuff for some, but rang hollow for others. I have ne ver, ever, heard of a wor project more powerful in helping inmates feel good ab out themselves than this project in Washington State. These inmates have nothin g but time on their hands to do some time consuming wor to eep endangered spec ies alive. Bravo. This is refreshing in a sector that is only growing and does little or nothing in the way of “rehabilitation.” Trust me, I’ve wor ed in about a ha lf dozen prisons and have not laid eyes on it yet. But finally, somebody who is seemingly unencumbered by habitual ways of thin ing is doing some profound huma nitarian good.























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