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Is Rehab Possible in Our Prisons?

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Jason Goudlock, an African-American whose mother was addicted to cocaine, grew up in Cleveland and went to prison in 1993, when he was eighteen. His first conviction drew a six-to-25 year sentence for assault and robbery with a mandatory nine-year "firearm specification," and he has been incarcerated for more than 20 years.

In prison Goudlock read The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), and Douglass's account of his escape from slavery and work for abolition moved Goudlock to write his own story. When he had written some 200 pages and was beginning to rethink his own predicament, he fought with another prisoner and was put in isolation. Released from "the hole," he returned to his cell to find his manuscript gone. Discouraged, he stopped writing and began to argue and fight with other prisoners. In 2005, he was charged with assaulting an officer although Goudlock's legs were fastened in irons, his hands cuffed behind him, at the time of the alleged attack. He was transferred to the Ohio State Penitentiary, the state's "supermax."

At first Goudlock responded badly to 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement, which has been called a form of torture. He shouted obscenities at correction officers and their superiors. But he also came under the influence of a fellow prisoner, Siddique Abdullah Hasan, an African-American imam sentenced to death for his role in the 1993 prison uprising at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. Hasan played a crucial role in negotiating an end to the violent uprising in Lucasville. (See Staughton Lynd, The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising, 2011.) When Hasan was exercising in the dayroom in front of Goudlock's cell, they began to talk. The imam, Goudlock writes, told him, "You don't have to meet every situation with aggression. It's like when a bug keeps flying in your face: you don't have to kill it. All you have to do is just swat it away." Goudlock listened, and he read some of Hasan's essays. He stopped shouting and began to write again.

This time he decided to write a novel based loosely on his own experience. But isolation began to work on Goudlock. He started to shout again, to argue relentlessly with men on his cellblock, and he stopped writing. In June of 2008 I received a letter from Goudlock, who had read an essay of mine about isolation as torture. He introduced himself, mentioned my essay, and told me of his idea for a documentary film about the challenges he would face after he was released. In our sixth exchange of letters, he mentioned his novel, and I volunteered to help.

There were interruptions in the months and years that followed. Goudlock was denied parole four times, and he struggled with anger and depression. He was moved to a cellblock where three white supremacists tried unsuccessfully to attack him while he was in the shower. Then he was moved out of the Ohio State Penitentiary and into the Toledo Correctional Institution. As he adjusted to moving among other prisoners again, he became increasingly concerned about a change in Ohio law that causes problems for inmates sentenced, as he was, before July 1, 1996. New sentencing guidelines reduce periods of incarceration and don't require inmates other than convicted murderers to go before the Parole Board, but the new guidelines don't apply to "old law" inmates. Most importantly for Goudlock as he moved out of isolation, the 1996 law created a growing class of inmates who can pick fights with "old law" inmates without risking any change in their own sentences. The "old law" inmates, on the other hand, are likely to be denied parole for fighting. Goudlock has been denied parole four times, and he has become a crusader, opposing the injustice caused by Ohio's sentencing guidelines. (See "Fighting the Repression of the Ohio Parole Board on Behalf of Old-Law Inmates" at FreeJasonGoudlock.org.) One of Goudlock's supporters has created a group-funding website for publicizing the old-law injustice. (See www.youcaring.com/freejasongoudlock.)

Despite interruptions and crushing disappointments when he was repeatedly denied parole, as well as time he spent crusading for the rights of "old law" prisoners, Goudlock pushed on with his novel, and in 2012 he completed Brother of the Struggle. But his incarceration became more difficult. After he was transferred to Toledo Correctional Institution he was moved to Mansfield Correctional Institution and then to Trumbull Correctional Institution. In Trumbull he was put in isolation for photocopying and distributing a flyer about a Cure-Ohio protest against the Ohio Parole Board. Returning to his cell, he discovered his young cellmate had taken his property. The next day his cellmate and another inmate ambushed him in the cell and knocked him unconscious. Later that day, after he and his cellmate were locked in the cell together, they fought, and they both were put in isolation although Goudlock first had to spend a night in the infirmary to get his scalp repaired with surgical glue from the earlier ambush.

As a teacher and student of our criminal justice system, I see a familiar pattern in Jason Goudlock's story. He has begun to educate himself, and we know education in prison decreases recidivism -- knowledge that, unfortunately, our prison system too seldom acts on. But he is considered a troublemaker for questioning authority, regardless of the valid points he raises.

I once asked Goudlock in a letter what keeps him going after so many years in prison and so many disappointments. He mentioned longing for a relationship with a woman and for success as an entrepreneur, and he added this: "My main motivating factor is my desire to help at-risk youth avoid making the detrimental mistakes that I once made, which ultimately led to being incarcerated." As idealistic as it sounds, the sentence captures something increasingly evident in his writing: he is moved by the influence his own mistakes and the failures of Ohio's criminal justice system have on others. His growing inclination to take seriously the well-being of people beyond himself tells me Goudlock has been rehabilitated. His ideas for a documentary film on the challenges that await him when he is free also tell me he probably understands the level of difficulty he faces.

Goudlock holds firmly to his own strong convictions. His growth as a writer in the last seven years seems to be a result of his continued reading and his perseverance. His increasing maturity owes much to the passage of time, and ironically one of his most important mentors has been Siddique Abdullah Hasan, a man the state of Ohio is preparing to kill. (See "Ohio's Mumia Abu-Jamal" at FreeJasonGoudlock.org.)

Others who agree with me that Jason Goudlock has earned the right to be free have signed a petition.

William Nichols has served on the Ohio Criminal Justice Committee for the American Friends Service Committee and visited prisons in several states. He has written about isolation as torture in the Friends Journal, and published essays in American Scholar, Antioch Review, Kenyon Review, and Orion. He taught for more than 30 years at Denison University in Ohio and most recently at Dartmouth College.