3.14.2006

The Island of Misfit Boys...

I've spent the last hour or so reflecting on my trip today to McNeil Island Corrections Center, and there is still so much to sort out still. Having never before been to a prison, I had my expectations dialed to the "minimal to zero" setting, and I found myself awash in a spectrum of emotions when I stepped off of the ferry: excitement, fear, uncertainty, intrigue.

Perhaps the most disquieting thing about the whole trip, at least initially, was feeling out of my element and especially vulnerable to the perceptions of others. The latter was most apparent when we toured the segregation unit where the inmates were under 23-hour lockdown, and the little windows into the cells were filled with the peering faces of the curious inhabitants. I found myself wondering what they were in there for, and what they would be capable of doing if they were suddenly able to get out, the way I sometimes do when I stand in front of a lion's cage at the zoo. Only it's more inherently disturbing when the "lions" are fellow human beings.

This institution is considered minimum security, and the general population had a very "campus" feel to it, with the "students" dressed in khaki pants and jackets, their ages ranging from quite young to quite old, and any number in between. With every face my eyes locked onto, I found my mind reaching out to them, wondering if they were going to get out of this place and if they could ever make a good life for themselves. I kept my heart in check, however, doing my best to remain impartial and be a casual observer. Until, that is, the opportunity came to meet a couple of them up close, and that is when my emotions began to breach the walls.

I know it probably sounds strange. A lot of people could care less what happens to folks behind bars, so long as they stay there, and in many cases those feelings are justified; there just isn't much hope for some people. When two of these men came in to speak with us, however, I observed that they were both people you could just walk by on the street and never know that they had done a long stint in prison. They possessed a certain amount of self-awareness that only years spent on a leash with a lot of time to think can bring out in certain people. Particularly the second gentleman, who was by all terms engaging, thoughtful, articulate, and smart as a whip, and despite all of the alarms in my head telling me this person was inside those walls for a reason, I found myself liking him almost immediately, wishing I could have spoken with him longer, feeling an overwhelming desire to understand this broken man.

Perhaps most evident as the day progressed was the underlying sense that most of these people were just not going to make it. They would get out with a few bucks in their pockets, with nowhere to go, and end up right back where they started because our society refuses to recognize the fact that giving a hand up helps us all.

Essentially, I left the island feeling absolutely helpless, like I needed to try and "fix" something. I have a stronger hope than ever that I will one day get that chance.

10 comments:

  1. Our prison system *is* very depressing. This society doesn't use prison as a rehabilitation mechanism, but as more of a way to forget about the troublesome people we're not sure how to handle. Then, just like you said, their time is up, they're shoved back out into the same situations they screwed up in before. Then when they screw up again, we blame it on them and don't ever decide to look at the root of the problem.

    And don't even get me started on wrongly convicted individuals - depressing isn't even the right word for that.

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  2. So why were you there? I mean I know why I would be there...but why you? Let me know!

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  3. Kristen- I couldn't agree more. You are spot-on, girlfriend!

    Jonathan- I was there for my forensic psyshcology class. My prof works at the prison. :)

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  4. As someone who spent 4 years with SEIU representing health care and social service workers within the Ohio Dept. of Rehab and Corrections, as well as the Ohio dept. of Youth Services, I have had the opportunity to visit every facility in the State of Ohio.

    The system should be called the Ohio Dept. of Confinement. With every budget crunch, the first thing to get axed is Medical and more importantly Mental Health services within the prisons.

    It is appalling. Many of the inmates suffer from mental illness, but with only little means to diagnose and even less for treatment they have no chance for rehabilitation....

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  5. Okay, so somebody, for whatever reason, CHOOSES to rob a bank, or rape a woman, or repeatedly drink and drive... what would YOU do with them? There has to be a deterrent. I'm curious. Is it the fact that they are sent to prison that's an issue (rather than, say, serving their "time" out, but getting treatment, etc). Or is it what is done with them while they are in prison?

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  6. I just saw matt-man's post and hope you don't mind if I direct a question to one of your posters.

    Is it all prisons that are affected this way? That is to say, when the decision is made (for budget reasons) to cut Mental Health Services, is it done across the country? Or are some still allowed? Again, curious ...

    I would think that something like that is so utterly fundamental. It would be akin to cutting out one meal a day. Or the availability of religious teachings in the jails. But I'm sure if that was done there would be an outcry.

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  7. Dusanka- it's basically a cycle we've gotten ourselves into where we continue to create our own crime by way of not attempting rehabilitate criminals. Studies that have been done on programs that do things like offer released inmates work programs and ways to get them back on their feet show a MUCH lower rate of recidivism than those who are just turned loose on the streets again. The current system (at least in Washington state) gives these guys $40 and whatever money they made while in prison (which at $.25/hour for most jobs doesn't amount to much) and sends them on their way upon release. If they have no one to go back to (and in many cases they don't), they usually end up going right back to their criminal lifestyle or running the streets. And the cycle just repeats itself over and over again. And it affects us all. The current system is not a deterrant, unfortunately. The help these guys get within the walls of the facility I visited yesterday is not a regular thing in most institutions and it is actually considered a privelege of sorts to be sent to this prison. But even this place can't reach them once they've left.

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  8. It sounds like its all an issue about priorities within the government. If they're not willing to fund programs, within the prisons, and then upon release. Kinda frustrating because I don't see those priorities changing any time soon. :(

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  9. interesting place to go. I think you are right on with what you said.

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  10. Very depressing! Strangely enough, I have no answers.

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