On June 1st I wrote about an organization called AVP Alternative to Violence Project. This organization began in New York and has since spread to 36 other states. It is a group of volunteers who hold workshops inside prisons with the inmates who want to learn a better way of living – a better way of dealing with their emotions and making positive changes in their life. Eventually almost everyone gets out of prison. Recidivism back to prison is overall 70% after five years. Even people who aren’t incarcerated want to make changes to their lives and find it isn’t easy and we have many options to choose from to try and make it happen. Coming from inside prison and then expected to live among society again, there is no family to soften the blow. That makes it very hard to create a life of value.
There is a lot of anger in a prison. There are some men, and women, who have been given a raw deal with sentences that are ridiculously long for the crime committed. Many have been inside more than once. Many have lost their family, spouses and children and some had a lifestyle they know they don’t want to go back to, but don’t know any alternative. Many come from low income neighborhoods where if they had an attorney who actually had their best interest at heart they might not have gotten the years they were sentenced to. There is nothing fair about prison.
Knowing someday Jamie will also get out of prison, and also knowing he knows very little about how to live on the outside, and most of all, knowing he has a problem with anger he has been working on, it’s been important to me to find ways to help him. Completing your sentence and getting out is only half the battle. Staying out and having a life you are happy with is another.
I found out first there are mediation services that help inmates reintegrate into society by helping with relationships that have become difficult. It isn’t unusually for family to stop writing and visiting less, especially if the sentence is long. Wives and girlfriends find new relationships. There is often anger at being left to raise children alone. Children might be angry at their parent not being there for them and also there might be a gap because they don’t know each other. Mediation helps bring them together and work out the issues. This is why I try so hard to find out how Jamie’s son is doing in school and send pictures. My daughter tells me she doesn’t care and to not speak of him again. She has a man in her life so it has made it a problem. Jamie is afraid of losing his son. That is fine for her, but nothing can erase the fact he has a father. This is one reason why I want to learn as much as I can. I think they will need mediation when the times comes when Jamie gets out.
AVP is a different organization of dedicated facilitators who volunteer to go into the prison each month and hold workshops. These initial workshops have 2 steps. Each step is 3 days long. An inmate has to want to indicate they want to sign up for it. They can stop at this point, but if they want to become a facilitator themselves they can continue on with the training. Total hours of training is 55. It would be the same for me. I have to attend both series of workshops and do the training
I was able to contact a husband and wife team, David and Nancy Hutchins and told them the reason why I wanted to get involved. I was sent a packet of papers to fill out and send back to get approval to be inside the prison with the inmates. July 21st was the yearly AVP Facilitator Recognition Night and it would be a good introduction to the group as most of them would be there. Also at the meeting would be the old and new inmate facilitators. I live in Pa, close to the Maryland border so the prison was only about forty miles away. There were quite a few people waiting to sign in and go through the metal detectors. Everyone was retirement age and many have been doing this for a long time, 20-25 years. I wasn’t ready for what was waiting when we went to the room where the meeting was being held.
I didn’t count the inmates but there had to be total of 40-50 people there, more inmates than outsiders. The inmates either had on white t-shirts or one that indicated they were facilitators. I have never seen so many smiles in one room! We walked single file into the room with inmates on the left and right as we went down the aisle. We exchanged names, hugs and handshakes. One man said he was so happy to be in air conditioning because it had been a long time. It’s been a pretty hot summer this year and it is easy to take for granted that we can always get out of the heat if we want to. I know from Jamie, in Texas, that heat is a big problem and each year there are at least a few who die from the effects of heat. At the Wynne Unit in Texas they now have a big fans out in the corridor but it doesn’t do anything for ventilation in the cells. All at does is blow around hot air. If they have the money they can buy a little plastic fan in the commissary.
After everyone introduced themselves the meeting began. Fortunately I had a front row seat. The Master of Ceremonies was “Tenacious Tillet” aka Selvyn Tillet. Everyone has a second name and that is what everyone calls each other. James Dyson is “Joking JD”, Rigo Mena-Perez is “Respectful Rigo”, Nancy Hutchins is “Knowing Nancy”. The inmates are quite at ease with these other names. Tenatious Tillet started out with the motto of the organization, “Making a Difference One Person at a Time” How true that is because the change in a single human being can change the world.
Assistant Warden Lyons spoke and what he said was very positive. He said, Everyone has value. Everyone has worth. I looks for those who will make good leaders; those with the ability to say no and those with the ability to swim upstream against the norm. Change brings change.”
I have had very little positive to say about the prisons in my writings, but this evening, if he means what he says, these inmates are fortunate to have him there. I know it can’t be easy to run a population of people who make prison their home, either by a mistake, a deliberate crime, someone mentally off-balance or a repeat offender who knows no other way of doing things. But his desire, he says, is to bring down the recidivism percentage at the Maryland Correctional Institute which currently sits at 40% within three years. The highest percentage is in the first three years. Nationwide it is 70% within 5 years. Those who honestly try to live right find it extremely hard to find jobs and rent apartments and resort to crime or old habits to survive. There needs to be changes for those inmates who are sincere about living a better life. If they have repaid their debt to society then they should leave with a clean slate. If you have to tell everyone you are an ex felon, no one is going to want to take a chance with you on any level.
Christopher Shank, Director at the Governor Office of Crime Control and Prevention, talked about a bill being passed that would shield low level non violent crimes when they get out, to lessen the stigma of being an ex-con. They are gathering the data to look at the mix of how many are locked up for technical reasons like parole violations rather than new crimes. When people come back, what is it for? But talk is easy. Let’s see what actually happens. There is still the fact of the 20 year contracts with the prison corporations who expect the prisons to be 90-100% full or the government has to pay them for empty beds. That is a very expensive catch 22 for the inmates.
“Joking JD” did a presentation about what they teach in the workshops. It is a five step process that starts with 1. Affirmation 2.Communication 3.Cooperation 4.Conflict resolution 5. Problem solving
“Respectful Rico” gave an experience and said the workshops taught him how to interact and how to express himself. He wouldn’t even speak at the first meeting. He said he’s learned to think before he reacts. When he finished with the workshops someone said they saw something in him and asked him if he wanted to train as a facilitator. This might not seem like a big thing to some people, but this might have been the first time he had a reason to feel proud of himself and other people thought he had worth.
“Excellent E” said, “I always reacted with violence, especially when alcohol was involved. In 2008 I killed someone and got 33 years. At first I lost it, and then I worried about my kids. I needed to make a choice. AVP was life changing for me. Now I have the tools to make my life work. Now I no longer curse when I’m mad. I’ve been with AVP for five years.”
I was sitting next to “Humorous Hutch”, David Hutchins, and he explained to me that almost every inmate who walks through the door on the first meeting is scowling with their heads down and they don’t talk to anyone. By the time they get down with the third day of the 2nd part of the workshops they are completely different people, laughing and joking and making friends. The transformation of a human being when he learns he has value and doesn’t have to be wary of the person next to him is incredible. They take these new attitudes and insights back into the prison population and it encourages the next group of people to participate. Sometimes people get out, sometimes they get transferred to another prison and sometimes they are on lockdown and the meeting has to be changed. Being able to participate in these workshops gives them something of value in their lives – helping other inmates.
In addition to the workshops with the outside facilitators, the inmate facilitators carry on with workshops throughout the month. I know there are other workshops for different areas such as music. Being a piano teacher, that is of interest to me. This is just the beginning for me. I’m hoping that what I learn here I can use to help Jamie in some way. But this is a medium security prison where Jamie is in maximum security. I think it would take a good attorney to see if that could be changed because as long as he is being held the way he is he isn’t eligible for anything. This is one way they keep from paroling them. He can’t do anything to improve himself so it is a catch 22 situation. This is one reason why I am writing his story, “Inside the Forbidden Outside”, in the hopes of being able to put money together for him. But it’s a ways off and still being written. I keep chipping away with everything that needs to be done one day at a time.