Final class night. We began the cycle on March 13. It’s been a long course.
Distributed several handouts, one in particular–the quote from the novel The Exorcist— generated a great deal of discussion on how prisoners view themselves and how they might deal with those they do not get along with. The answer, so said the men, is in breaking the cycle of violence and being willing to help your enemy if they ask for your help. Two students spoke on how important communication is in these situations, and how prisoners tend to overlook effective ways of talking out interpersonal conflict.
One student spoke about how he felt that Tolkien was gearing The Hobbit toward courage, and how when you’re faced with ‘fight-or-flight’ it is sometimes the courage to walk away that takes control. Another man felt that the courage to walk way was a conscious decision one had to make, rather than relying on instinct or habit.
Another man said he has stopped second-guessing himself over the character of his associates, and now will only befriend others who are on the same change-based path. He finished by saying “For me to backslide is to commit suicide.” I reminded him that backsliding will always be a concern, because we who need to change are in a daily struggle with our old nature. The backsliding does not define one who struggles for a better life– the struggle to do better defines him. For some in your association, it’s not that they cannot mature, it’s that they refuse to mature. He who acknowledges his immaturity and still struggles forward on the right path is the man you need to walk alongside.
The PPT generated discussion about transferring into society and dealing with bigotry and prejudice against an ex-felon. When job interviews were mentioned, one man said “I’m going to produce every certificate I’ve earned during my time inside to point out the positive changes I’ve attempted to make.” He said he may not receive the trust from fellow employees or supervisors at first, but that trust is earned and “if I stick with it, the trust will come.”
The class also spoke on the anti-corrective attitudes of officers and other administrators. Some treat prisoners as untrustworthy because they refuse to see them as people. This is how some men will be seen when they try to find a job. The class agreed that dealing with that attitude while incarcerated is preparing them to handle it on the outside. One man used the balancing scales analogy: today the scale is balanced and all is well. Tomorrow, something happens to throw off that balance and the imbalance points to a problem. “Some in society paint ex-felons with the same brush-stroke: if one ex-felon is given a chance and screws up, then to them ALL ex-felons are screw-ups and not worth their time.”
Another student said “Take the focus off your conviction when job-hunting, and instead focus on the qualifications of those with whom you are competing for the job. You may not get the job, but it’s probably because the guy who did was better-qualified. Also realize that when 12 apply for the same job and you don’t get it, that means there are 10 other people who are heading back home, too, just like you. Stop getting caught up in you.”
We then turned to the remaining 28 slides of the PPT presentation — and actually got through all of them. Seven handouts, 28 slides, and constant discussion, all in two hours. It was the most productive final class night in eight years of running the program.
Finally, certificates of completion were distributed. Everyone was grateful for the three extra copies that they could use to send home. Many men mentioned over the course of the two months that they had family who were proud of their ABLE MINDS participation. Some even had family members following the reading in The Hobbit using their own copies of the novel.
‘Victor’ and I received many compliments, smiles and thank-you’s to end the night. Productive group.