Often Dr. Phil says to his guests, “How’s that workin’ for you?” We snicker because as members of his television audience, we can readily see how those being interviewed are screwing up. We often don’t see that someone can be pointing the finger at us, indicating that we, too, are making bad choices.
When I was president of Lee College in Texas from 1986-1991, I periodically went to the prison units in the Huntsville, Texas, area where the college offered programs to prison inmates. My previous experience in teaching in a woman’s prison in Ohio prepared me, to a degree, for what I experienced in my trips — guards with assault rifles, watch towers, razor wire, abominable libraries, worn-out facilities. I also observed excellent facilities, inmates eager to learn, beautiful art, faculty who knew effective teaching strategies and with some changes which I found necessary to make administrators who understood on the deepest levels the fine line they needed to walk in an environment that is designed to punish and rehabilitate, populated with men who know all the scams in the book and men who tire of their past lives and seek something better.
I wrote in last week’s column about receiving a copy of Second Chance, a publication on the Lee College prison program.
With major budget issues at the local, state, and national levels, some are talking about the tremendous cost to taxpayers of incarceration. Citizens want to be relieved of that financial burden at the same time they want to feel safe from criminals. Some might have the tendency to take a simplistic approach to the problem of offenders (Put ‘em in jail, give ‘em bread and water and throw away the key) instead of using statistical data about what works and with bipartisan support enact legislation and fund programs that produce better results.
Although some might think that criminal activity is rampant in Harlan County (and I don’t have that data), Kentucky is one of the states with a decrease, according to a 2010 report by the Pew Foundation. A decline of 1.3 percent in the Kentucky state prison population is significant. And Representative John Tilley represented Kentucky in a forum on December 4, 2012, in which he and representatives from other states with innovative programs discussed the importance of prison reform.
Intelligent, thoughtful leadership and collaborations are essential as we examine who is offending, what can be done to rehabilitate those who are able to be rehabilitated, and how can we support and fund programming that works as we train, identify and employ persons who can do this important work.
The Hope Center in Harlan County is one such program. As I think of the women incarcerated there, I wish them well. Some of us know that many of them have the power to change their lives in positive ways, to learn to make different choices.
My time in working with inmates has come to an end, but I have a few former inmates in the college classes I now teach, and I have hope for them. My understanding of their situations, limited as it is in spite of my work in the largest prison programs in Texas and Ohio, provides me with special insights denied to so many college faculty.
In conclusion, I’ve received many cards and letters in my time in higher education, but the note that I received yesterday from the dean of the Lee College program at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Donna Zuniga, warms my heart: “I wanted you to have a copy of the Second Chance magazine. After all, you are still a part of this program! Thanks for being a part of keeping it alive. I miss you.”