July 31, 2018
MY WIFE, THE DO-GOODER
In the old days, if you screwed up your life, you could always pack up, move on, and start over. But those days are gone.
We live in an age, when every time you ever messed up – from skipping school in seventh grade to exposing yourself on Spring Break – has become part of your permanent record. All those acts, great and small, noble and pathetic, will be following you around for the rest of your life, no matter where you go or what you do.
What brings this to mind is that my wife Carmela has just begun working with women prisoners. To get the job as an unpaid volunteer, she had to go through days of filling out forms about our finances, her work history, any criminal record, and any involvement with illicit drugs whether it resulted in an arrest or not. It was six months before she was deemed worthy of becoming part of the Facility’s Re-entry program, and before she got her pass, she also had to sign a waiver that stated in case she was taken hostage, no deals would be made for her release.
Admittedly, the chances of that are slim – Carmela will not be working with hard-core felons – but the act of signing such acknowledgement emphasizes that what she is doing is serious and includes some personal risk.
She begins this effort even though she has been warned by some smart law enforcement people that she will be wasting her time.
The common cop wisdom is this:
There is little you can do for these people – they are not only lost, they are too lazy or stupid to ever change. That may in fact be true. “Common wisdom” is common wisdom because most of the time it is correct. And cops, unlike most of us, work around low-level criminals every day, so they know first-hand the sort of people with whom Carmela will be dealing.
But there is a self-fulfilling element to all this. If everybody agrees that there is no redemption for the folks in jail – and FBI statistics tend to reinforce that view – then the common wisdom becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
If you start out with the attitude that people are going to screw up, then the probability that they will becomes overwhelming.
The problem is that many criminals think that once they’ve served their time, they have paid their debt to society, but that’s not true. Serving your time is one thing. Being forgiven by other people – even people you may have victimized – is different. Criminals don’t win back their reputation by serving time. In fact, their reputation is probably worse than when they were sent away, just from the fact that now they are ex-cons – state-certified bad people.
Try getting a job with that hanging over your head.
The problem is if nobody forgives them, they will never be able to rejoin society and lead an honest and productive life. Carmela is going to be helping women prisoners learn the skills – and hopefully acquire the attitude – to prepare to look for work when they are released. She also hopes to give them a little encouragement that life can get better if they are willing to put in the effort needed to turn their lives around.
If they are unable or unwilling to put in that effort, then there really is no hope for them. And since most of the women she has met in jail are mothers, and a few are pregnant, the tragedy of their lives is passed along from one generation to another.
The challenge for the ex-prisoners is to convince people who have already made up their minds about them to reconsider. They need to acknowledge that they were wrong and ask society to forgive them. Anybody who has ever been through a 12-step program understands how important it is to accept responsibility and be willing to make amends.
Most of the prisoners probably will not, but some of them may – and those are the folks that Carmela hopes to help.
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