Saturday, September 3, 2011

Hard Time

My young friend (I spoke of him in March’s blog “Stand By Me”) was sentenced for his recent offences, my great fear was that he would be given a “habitual offender designation” and they would keep him locked up forever so as to protect society. Fortunately, he was given 5 years (after 6 months served)…. 18 months longer then his last sentence, which was longer than the one before…which was longer than the one before….and so on and so on. You get the idea. If prison time was going to fix anything his recidivism would have ended a decade ago.
I watched this young man struggle for months to cope with the many issues that drove him to ultimately relapse and return to the criminal behaviours which were his survival for so many years. The judge handed down the sentence with the words “people need to be protected…”  I submit that rehabilitation will better serve the safety of society then incarceration.  When someone wants to change their life, it is for us to provide them with the tools and skills needed for them to succeed. Sadly such help is not readily available to an EX-con. There are many psychosocial programs (and some educational programs) within the correctional system, which is a good thing.  Such programs are either not available on the outside or waiting lists are discouragingly long.  My friend tried to get a doctor’s appointment to treat an anxiety issue (part of a larger mental health issue) the clinic took 3 weeks to call back with an appointment, scheduled for 4 weeks after that. Seven weeks to see someone who may very well have referred him to a psychiatrist, resulting in a further delay. Once rearrested my friend was treated within 24 hrs and showed significant improvement in less than 2 weeks. Ok we now know why he wasn't able to carry out his much desired transformation. But why didn’t he get help the last time he was in prison? Or the time before or the time before or the time before or when he was in juvee or when he was in foster care?
It is a complicated Catch 22… much like what I have discovered about the services we offer through the shelter system. The programs in prison are voluntary; the inmate must ask to be included.  Perhaps I should illustrate with a personal story… I was raised in public housing, chronically poor families, single parents, alcohol abuse, etc. It was expected that girls would grow-up to marry and have babies… success was marrying a guy who could hold a steady job and didn’t beat on you. College and career was an option that never entered my mind. The way many inmates have lived and were raised, leads them to believe that the life they have is all they are capable of or deserve. Before rehabilitation can work an inmate must believe they have value, believe that they deserve better and that a better life is within reach.
For that to happen someone must first value them as individuals… it is not enough to hear the words, it must be felt, experienced by someone actually caring. This is how we all learned to value and respect ourselves. Someone in our early years (for me it was my granny) maybe a family member, teacher or social worker; cherished us (if only for a moment) and we felt worthy.
I’m not asking everyone to go out and adopt a felon… just think before you mentally write someone off as irredeemable. Support prison programs that include esteem building… and if you can spare a couple of hours a week commit to Big Brothers & Big Sisters or some other local organzation targeting disadvantaged kids/youths.  Maybe if someone had valued my friend when he was a child he would not have wasted so much of his precious life behind bars. Have a joyous day.

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