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In working with juvenile lifers (JLWOP) preparing for their resentencing, I am struck by how often these long-confined inmates state that “prison saved my life.” I’ve asked every man who has said this, if they felt that way from the beginning of their state incarceration, which for most happened decades before at about the age of eighteen.  My question is usually met with a chuckle, followed by “no.”  My next question is, “ok, then, how did you come to this conclusion?”  Just about every JLWOP I’ve asked describes a series of events or experiences that happened over many years.

Coming into the prison system as kids, not a one believed or understood that adult prison was going to be their home for life.  Each JLWOP indicated that they believed their natural life sentence was going to be overturned or shortened to just a year or two.  Several said early on they were just biding time waiting to get back to the streets to keep on doing what they’d been doing.  They thought a lot about their friends still running the streets, flush with cash from selling drugs, able to afford anything they wanted; fancy clothes, jewelry, cars. Most JLWOPs were initially not at all interested in “rehabilitation,” with more than one ridiculing the whole idea of treatment or learning to be prosocial, as if anything were “wrong” with them.  But after two or three tumultuous years where many JLWOPs were involved in fights with other inmates, received sanctions for their behavior including being housed in solitary confinement and transferring from one prison to another due to separations from other inmates or general security considerations, their thinking began to change.

One client, K. noted that while he was in restricted housing for a serious assault on another inmate, an older inmate in segregation for years, challenged him.  The older offender asked K. what he was going to do with his life.  He yelled to K. from the adjacent cell, “Do you have anything else in you besides the ability to hurt people and play some handball?” (which K. did in the one hour a day he was in the yard alone).  K. reported feeling disrespected and angry, but he said the remarks did make him stop and think.  K. expected to be back home but there he was in solitary, still believing he’d be released, but not as strongly as he once did. K. had seen many fellow inmates from his cell block and throughout the multiple prisons where he’d been housed, be released on parole, some returning to his neighborhood.  K.’s life wasn’t changing all that much.  The words of the older inmate, “is that all you got?” stayed in K.’s head after he’d been released from restricted housing back into general population, and while K.’s behavior didn’t change overnight, he gradually began thinking about what lifetime incarceration really meant for him.  K. had support and connections to family members and was especially close to his grandmother.  She too asked K. what his legacy was going to be. K. thought more and more about the victim of his crime and how his behavior caused pain and damage that could never be undone.  The death of K.’s grandmother was a seminal event for him.  While K. was grieving her death, long suppressed memories of abuse and witnessing violence overwhelmed him.  K. sought help from his corrections counselor who connected K. with prison psychologists.  At about the age of thirty after more than a decade of continuous incarceration, K. was participating in treatment programs, had a prison job and was active in inmate organizations like the LIFERS Association.  He earned favorable housing and work reports and began reaching out to offer support and guidance to younger inmates. A few years later, K. was organizing events inside prisons to raise money for outside charities including those working with at risk youth and children with serious health issues. He spent more and more of his time trying to “do good,” trying to make amends for taking another person’s life.  K. also said he was ashamed at how selfish he’d been most of his life.  He wanted to find a way to make a difference for people struggling.

As the body of brain research strongly indicates, full maturation with ability to control impulses, resist negative peer pressure and consider alternatives and consequences of actions, doesn’t happen until our mid-twenties.  Tracking K. and other JLWOP’s behavior, treatment and education involvement in prison, there is a remarkably consistent trajectory that in their early prison years they tended to be impulsive, acted out, weren’t all that interested in furthering their education, or participating in treatment programs.  They also thought mainly about themselves. Over time their thinking and behavior slowly changed. K. said that had he been back on the streets in his early 20’s he has no doubt that he would have picked right up where he left off and very well might have been murdered or committed another violent crime while in the community.

There is no doubt that the environment in some of our nation’s jails and prisons is unsafe, not conducive to rehabilitation and in the worst cases dangerous and violent. Thankfully, that isn’t true everywhere.  The PA JLWOP’s I’ve spoken with said there are multiple resources and opportunities available to help them change.  In addition to their families, many reported that correctional staff everyone from block corrections officers to counselors, work leaders, teachers, counselors, chaplains and Deputy Superintendents and Superintendents in     Pennsylvania’s prison system took an interest in them and offered guidance and support along the way.  Just about every JLWOP also pointed to at least one other inmate who became a trusted confidante and model for a way to be better.  At first most reported no interest in treatment programs but over time most JLWOPs had a change of heart participating in intensive interventions that forced them to think deeply about their triggers, motivations, impulses and past actions.  Some said that treatment was very difficult because it caused them to “confront their demons,” but every JLWOP who had significant treatment experiences said they learned skills to help them deal with anger and frustration better.  Several JLWOPs became integrally involved as mentors in programs like therapeutic communities.

People can and do change.  Biology, brain development, maturation, or however you prefer to state it, has a heck of a lot of influence on readiness to change, motivation for change, whether any intervention no matter how well designed and executed can really “stick” for a person in their late teens or early 20’s prior to full maturation.   What are the implications of this for the large numbers in the prison population between 18 and 24 serving short prison sentences who will return quickly to communities?


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