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America’s prisons: Is there hope?

June 6, 2009

In November 2008, I visited the San Bruno jail and sat in on an RSVP
session. A group counselor and about fifteen inmates sat on plastic
chairs in a semicircle, while a white twenty-eight-year-old bank robber
named Don described a fight he had been involved in eight years
earlier. While the other prisoners looked on and asked questions, two
inmates analyzed his story, writing down every incident of
violence—physical, sexual, and emotional—that Don reported, from
selling drugs at the party, to cheating on his girlfriend, to yelling
at the girl he cheated with, to slugging a fellow party-goer with a
beer bottle and then kicking him as he fell. The session took two
hours, and by the end the entire blackboard was filled with details,
not only about whom Don had hurt and how, but about the ways in which,
in telling the story, Don had attempted to minimize what he had done or
blame others for his actions.

“I left out a lot of stuff,” Don told me when I talked to him
afterward. Although some inmates volunteer for RSVP, most, like Don,
had never thought of themselves as violent before they were assigned to
the program by the jail administration.

“I knew I had a problem with drugs,” he told me, “so I didn’t mind
being in drug rehab. But violent? Me? No way.” After sitting through a
few mandatory RSVP sessions and watching other men describe their own
violent acts, however, Don told me he began to realize something about
himself that he had never known before. He saw how badly he had hurt
other people, not only the men he had punched and beaten up over the
years but also his own family, who became so terrified of his angry
rages that they all but avoided him. When he entered RSVP, he had been
in jail for ten months and had barely heard from his parents, and had
not spoken to his sister at all. Thirteen weeks later, he was speaking
to his parents once a week and to his sister once a day.

Read the whole article.


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