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Novel ideas for rehabilitation

With nationwide budget crises making a surge in releases inevitable, novel rehabilitation policies are becoming more attractive


At an Alabama facility, inmates embark on an intense silent-meditation course, a strict vegetarian diet, no smoking or drinking coffee, and no conversation.

AP photo

By Joe Serio

The stats are staggering. Approximately 7 million people – juveniles and adults – are in some form of correctional custody. Some 2.3 million people are in jail and prison, while 4.2 million are on probation and 784,000 are on parole. More than 600,000 men and women are released from state and federal prison each year. From 1980 to 2000, the nation’s prison population increased by 500 percent and the U.S. incarcerates at a rate five times higher than the world average.

Insanity, it is said, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. These trends will largely continue unless we do something different.

There are people who deserve to be incarcerated. Indeed, there are those who should never see the light of day again. But by and large, 90 percent or more of inmates will be released and once again will live next door to you and me.

I’d rather not have an un-reformed individual released into my community and, in any case, once they’ve done their time they deserve a chance at a future. This isn’t about being soft on crime or coddling inmates. It’s about reasonable and smart public policy while providing individuals hope for a future.

And so it was with great interest that I read about the innovation at the Donaldson Correctional Facility, Alabama’s highest-security prison, located outside Birmingham. With 24 death-row cells and a third of the 1500 inmates serving life sentences, the prison houses some of the state’s most violent offenders.

The administration took the bold move some years ago of transforming the gym into a Vipassana meditation hall. Under a voluntary system, inmates embark on an intense silent-meditation course, a strict vegetarian diet, no smoking or drinking coffee, and no conversation. They are left with their thoughts, which reportedly over time chips away at their defense mechanisms and helps them to acknowledge responsibility and accountability for the acts that led them to prison and their behaviors while inside. In short, they discover a different way of being.

In an interview with National Public Radio, Warden Gary Hetzel notes changes in the inmates. “I could see a significant decrease in behavioral problems, acting out. The inmates that participated in those previous Vipassana programs seemed to be much calmer, much at peace.”

Reportedly, the program has resulted in a 20 percent reduction in disciplinary action. More than 430 inmates have gone through this unique program and there is a waiting list.

Around the same time I learned of Alabama’s program, I came across the efforts of Jerry Gasko in Colorado. Back in 1996, as Director of Prisons for the state, Gasko introduced Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People as a program for inmates, with the basic reasoning that inmates are people with the same fundamental wants and needs as the rest of us.

The administration designed the program so that selected inmates who had gone through the program then became part of the “core group,” a small contingent that then played an integral role in training other inmates. Interestingly, about 25 percent of the “core group” were “lifers” with no chance of parole, yet teaching the 7 Habits to others gave them a sense of purpose in their lives. Since 1996, 1500 male inmates have gone through the program. Colorado reports a dramatic reduction in Code of Penal Discipline offences. After retirement, Gasko returned to the program and is still overseeing it today as a volunteer.

While these programs need to be subjected to scientific evaluation, by and large we know the fundamental needs and wants of people. They want to be respected, they want to be heard, and they want to be loved. Without acknowledging that and building it into inmate programs, we can expect to do the same thing again and again and get the same result. That’s insane.

Dr. Joe Serio is a popular and sought-after criminal justice speaker and trainer. He is currently delivering a series of classes on time management, emotional intelligence, leadership, customer service, and other topics at the Harris County (Houston) Sheriff’s Office Training Academy. Dr. Serio is a featured speaker at SHIELD, Sheriff Institute for Ethical Leadership Development, at the Travis County (Austin) Sheriff’s Office Training Academy. He also speaks at adult and juvenile probation departments as well as police departments.
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