Motivating Prisoners to Make Positive Changes

By · Monday, February 9th, 2009

In the fall of 2008, Forbes.com invited me to contribute an article on the concept of Power in Prison. As a long-term prisoner, I considered the opportunity a privilege. Intrigued with life inside the society of felons, readers issued a top ranking to the article.

My wife, Carole, periodically checks the article and prints comments that readers have posted. Since prison rules prohibit my direct access to the Internet, Carole sends copies of the reader comments for me to review.

In November, a reader who identified himself as Nisanjael, wrote that he worked in a federal prison and that he “learned one very important thing… Unfortunately, the majority of inmates I have seen these past 18 years are not ready to make positive changes.”

Nisanjael’s statement classically represents the view of those who set the policies in these caged communities. Administrators of the Federal Bureau of Prisons like to call their staff members correctional officers. Yet they set policies that create infrastructures where failure proliferates. Ironically, the entire industry of “corrections” operates under the mistaken assumption that the majority of those in prison “are not ready to make positive changes.”

To accept the premise that the federal officer Nisanjael asserts, readers must believe that the majority of people in prison want to live as society’s outcasts. Rather than evaluate the consequences that come with policies that extinguish hope–policies that are quick to punish bad behavior but resist rewarding good behavior–prison administrators cling to ridiculous assertions that prisoners embrace failure.

I suppose such positions make it easier for those who preside over these institutions to shun responsibility for the high-recidivism rates that our nation’s prison system perpetuates. “Don’t blame correctional policy for our revolving-door prisons,” prison employees like Nisanjael claim. “It’s not the fault of corrections. Most prisoners are not ready to make positive changes.”

Correctional officers like Nisanjael refuse to acknowledge that prisons condition failure. Instead of encouraging those locked inside boundaries to reconcile with society and to prepare for the challenges that will follow confinement, prison policies brilliantly rip the will out of individuals by reducing each man to sameness.

Classification policies do not offer mechanisms through which prisoners can distinguish themselves in positive ways. Neither academic accomplishment, publishing credentials, pursuit of job skills, building strong networks of support in society, nor maintaining clean disciplinary conduct play any role in advancing a prisoner’s status. All that matters to those in corrections is the turning of calendar pages and the crime for which the offender stands convicted. Exposing prisoners to such policies for years or decades while everything in his world crumbles invites defiance rather than encourages redemption.

I have been a prisoner since 1987, and I expect to remain a prisoner for several years to come. Over the 21-plus years that I have served thus far, I have lived in the midst and under the control of numerous federal prison employees who hold the same perspectives as Nisanjael. When they encounter me, they express shock and surprise that I have been incarcerated for so long. They wonder what happened. After so much time, correctional officers expect prisons to crush the human spirit. Rather than applaud, celebrate, encourage, or reward positive adjustment, they wonder what went wrong.

Like all human beings, prisoners want to advance their lives. Of course they want positive change. They want to build closer ties to their families. They want to bring meaning to their lives. They want to feel as if they can earn freedom through merit, or that they can somehow reconcile with society. Prisoners want what all Americans want. They aspire to something more; they want to live as one with society.

Yet the corrections system I have known for virtually all of my adult live cultivates these factories that breed failure by extinguishing hope, by ripping away each prisoner’s sense of efficacy. Prisons block individuals from access to meaningful education or job training; they erect barriers to disrupt ties to family and community; they enforce policies and a culture to preserve the sanctity of institutions rather than the promise of redemption.

In Transcending the Wall, I wrote about the ways that mentors helped me overcome the attitudes of federal prison employees like Nisanjael. Those societal leaders who generously invested their time with me understood that encouragement and guidance were far more effective motivators for positive change than tight controls and a steel boot to the head.

One Response to “Motivating Prisoners to Make Positive Changes”

  1. Daisy Gonzalez says:

    February 25,2009
    Mr. Santos:
    In your article entitled “Motivating Prisoners to Make Positive Changes” you have indicated that many prisoners are not ready to make positive changes in their lives. While being in prison they are just flipping the pages of the calendars and they don’t have and motivation to succeed in life.
    My questions to you are , Do you think that the correctional system has an influence on the decisions of the prisoners regarding on making positive changes in their lives? Do you think that the influence on the family could contribute on the prisoners decision to make positive changes in their lives?
    I enjoyed reading your thoughts and concerns about this issue. I thank you for all the time you’ve contributed in my understanding of Corrections.
    Daisy Gonzalez