Reimagining Rehabilitation: “A Treasure in the Heart of Every Man”

07/20/2017 09:33 am ET

On July 20, 1910—107 years ago today—a young Winston Churchill, then Britain’s Home Secretary, threw down the gauntlet during a parliamentary debate on prison reform. “One of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country,” he said, is “an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man.”

Plenty has changed since Churchill’s day, but when it comes to giving criminals second chances, there is still much work to be done. Last year, in her annual agenda-setting speech at the State Opening of Parliament, Queen Elizabeth II picked up Churchill’s gauntlet, pledging, “My government will legislate to reform prisons and courts to give individuals a second chance.”

Since then, managing Brexit seems to have crowded out social policy. Prison reform went unmentioned in the Queen’s Speech last month. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has the highest rate of incarceration in Western Europe, and the number of people behind bars has grown 82% in the last 30 years. Overcrowding is a chronic problem. One in six people in prison is over 50.

The human costs of these trends are spelled out in a devastating report, released earlier this week, by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke. “Isolation, lack of purposeful activity, mental health problems, use of new psychoactive substances (NPS), bullying and debt” have led to increased rates of self-harm, suicide, and assault. In Clarke’s estimation, “our prisons are unacceptably violent and dangerous places.”

And what’s worse, the problem is not just with prisons in the United Kingdom. Many countries struggle to balance detention and rehabilitation; between rising prison populations and dwindling budgets, that balance is only harder to strike.

I don’t pretend to have the answers to such a complex set of problems. But, as someone whose life’s work is devoted to promoting social connectedness, it’s impossible not to reflect on a system premised on “othering” and isolation—isolation from society, from family, even from fellow prisoners—and to wonder if there might be a better way to reduce crime and promote the health of society.

I share UK Justice Secretary David Lidington’s view, recently expressed in an open letter, that “As well as depriving people of liberty, our prisons must also be places of reform and rehabilitation to support offenders to turn their lives around.” For this to be possible, I firmly believe that prisons must enable connectedness. Human beings are social creatures. We all need meaningful relationships to thrive. Just as important, we all need to know that we are seen, that we have worth, that we belong.  

A number of countries have experimented with correctional facilities that exemplify this approach; a good overview can be found in the June 2017 report by Jessica Jacobson and Helen Fair of the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Birkbeck, University of London: “Sense of self and responsibility: a review of learning from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Prison Reform Fellowships—Part V.” These models may not easily be replicated, but I believe their experience is instructive.

Take Kwikwèxwelhp Healing Village in Harrison Mills, British Columbia. This minimum-security prison is home to roughly 50 inmates who work with Elders from the Chehalis First Nation to learn, to grow, and to heal. As filmmaker Hugh Brody, who made a documentary about the facility called The Meaning of Life, explained in an interview, “I had the sense throughout the filming that Kwikwèxwelhp was an extraordinary place for many (though not all) of the inmates because it really did offer respect and a sense of the possibility of redemption that came from the attitudes and spiritual teachings of Chehalis.” In the words of Rita Leon, an Elder featured in the film, “I just give them unconditional love.”

Another compelling—even revolutionary—example is Halden prison in Norway, which New York Times journalist Jessica Benko describes as “the physical expression of an entire national philosophy about the relative merits of punishment and forgiveness.”

The maximum-security prison’s very design reinforces the goal of rehabilitation. It is surrounded by a forest, in recognition of Norwegians’ deep bond with nature. Inside the prison, trust and mutual respect are the norm, with every inmate granted a private bathroom, television, and mini-fridge. The building is made of kiln-fired brick, brushed metal, and untreated wood, with cells painted a calming, mossy green, and workspaces a cheerful orange. The emphasis is on normalcy, in anticipation of returning to society. 

Halden encourages interaction among prisoners and officials. Guard stations were deliberately designed to be small, so that everyone would socialize in common rooms instead. Not only does this approach benefit prisoners, but it also helps the staff. Connection is a reciprocal gift, even when it happens behind bars—something prison workers in other countries confirm as well.

Mary Brenner, for example, left a comfortable life in California to become a nun in Mexico, where she devoted her life to caring for inmates in La Mesa Prison in Tijuana. Known by her charges as Mother Antonia, the Prison Angel, or simply “Mama,” she told her biographers Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan:

I’d been on the outside helping people on the inside, whether it was in Africa or Bolivia or anywhere else. […] Once you’re on the inside it’s so different. I felt that I had joined the suffering. Somehow the prison was the place where I finally experienced the freedom to be myself, to really be myself. I think the prison freed me.

Kwikwèxwelhp, Halden, and Mother Antonia exemplify the power of humanity inside a prison. But to prevent a prison sentence from condemning individuals to a lifetime of social and economic isolation, we need to think about people’s future outside the prison as well.

That’s where innovative programs like The Clink come into play. Founded by chef Alberto Crisci, The Clink Charity is a nonprofit that has opened restaurants in four prisons across England with a mission of reducing recidivism rates by teaching prisoners marketable skills like cooking, hospitality, restaurant management, and horticulture. Inmates are recruited, trained, and mentored to ready themselves for finding employment. Graduates of the program have gone on to work in top hotels, and even Michelin-star restaurants.

I recently had the pleasure of dining at The Clink at HMP Brixton. While getting into the restaurant required more rigorous security than you’d encounter in a traditional establishment, the well-appointed dining room, attentive service, and delicious food rivaled any restaurant in London. In fact, it was recently ranked number one among more than 18,000 London restaurants on TripAdvisor.

Initiatives like The Clink break down the myth of “the other,” and help the inmates to see themselves as more than a stereotype, which I think goes a long way toward how the rest of society sees them. As The Clink’s chief executive Chris Moore told a Bloomberg reporter last year, “Prisoners get the chance to learn practical skills with which we can try to help them get jobs. But the soft skills are as important: Confidence, motivation, pride and waking up in the morning with a sense of purpose.”

And maybe, just maybe, what we think of as “soft” can unlock the answer to our hardest problems. A recidivism study found a 41% drop in the likelihood of re-offending for prisoners who went through The Clink’s training.

Every life that is turned around can be levered to help many more. Finding the treasure in the heart of every man—and every woman—can enrich society, too.

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