Posts Tagged ‘prison reform’

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Photo Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Suggest that the way to end recidivism is to reform the prison system, and you might be accused of caring more about criminals than the crimes they commit. It’s happened to me. Often when I write or give a talk about my work with minors in adult prison, I describe the deplorable conditions in which inmates live, and advocate for reform of those conditions. Inevitably someone comments (and not always politely) that I’m “soft on crime,” that I don’t care about victims. But this is how I see it.

Given our present prison system with its emphasis on punishment and retribution, everybody suffers. Inmates, correctional officers, victims, the average citizen and taxpayer.
Prisons are violent, toxic places. They are often overcrowded and smelly with the soup of open toilets, the effluence of crammed together bodies under stress with little or no physical or personal space. The noise is deafening. TVs blare (in English and Spanish); metal gates clang; the overused PA system squawks, and inmates and correctional staff shout over it all trying to be heard.

There’s no trust in a prison, no safety, just the constant threat of violence, intimidation, the need to never let your guard down, to “give as good as you get.” If an inmate wants to survive in prison that’s the way he or she must act. If they can’t, they find themselves in protective custody which translates as months of numbing isolation in solitary confinement.

When you look at these conditions honestly, without the filter of righteousness—“that’s what they get for breaking the law”—how could you not see that the present system (the very thing people insist will deter crime) only breeds anger and resentment, hostility and hopelessness in offenders, and finally leads to more crime?

And more crime means that victims are not only not served by the system but are further threatened by it, and that their suffering reverberates into their families and communities. More crime means that other citizens become victims until nobody feels safe, and the whole cycle starts all over again. A simple statistic: Kids handled in the adult system are 34 percent more likely to reoffend and their behavior to more quickly escalate into violence than those young people who remain in the juvenile system.

But there are other “victims” of the prison system and its harsh, dangerous, and degrading environment. Correctional officers operate under the same conditions as those locked up, many times for up to 16 hours a day as they choose or are pressed into working overtime. That point came home to me at the end of one school year. As temperatures soared, the heat in the hallways and cell blocks of the older buildings of the prison where I taught (luckily with an air conditioner supplied by the school program) was insufferable. Huge floor fans only moved the suffocating air around, offering no relief, and only adding to the noise. That’s when it first hit me that the COs I interacted with every day were as trapped in the same punishing conditions as the young offenders I worked with.

But it goes beyond the everyday level of physical discomfort for COs. The need to be hyper-vigilant, the defensive stance engendered by the institutionalized hostility of the prison power structure—“us” and “them”; the keepers and the kept—takes its toll not only on COs, but also on their families. Studies have shown that 31% of correctional officers meet “the criteria for full PTSD” (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder); that the average life expectancy is 58 years old, and that correctional officers have a 39% higher suicide rate than any other occupation.

Even those of us who are not personally caught in the web of incarceration are affected by the prison system. Our tax money is spent building and maintaining these institutions and supporting what goes on inside them. In many states these funds are diverted from basic, essential services such as education. For example California spends on average $47,421 per inmate a year while the average spent per student a year is only $11,420. (A telling tweet is going around Twitter that sums it up for many states, “The people of CA are tired of Cadillac prisons & jalopy schools.”)

So when I find myself labeled as “soft on crime” I have an old jail comeback: “Don’t take my kindness for softness.” Restructuring a broken prison system so that it protects and respects all citizens while holding offenders accountable is not “soft” but commonsense. We need to create prison conditions, both physical and psychological, that encourage cooperation on all sides and that supports change as opposed to conflict and calcification of negative behavior. Programs must be developed that challenge offenders to change their counterproductive behavior. Training in real employable occupations is essential. And support services must be established that help ex-offenders meet the demands of “going straight.”

Of course, the economic watchdogs will howl. But the human costs—to inmates, correctional officers, victims and society in general—are too high to be ignored. Reforming is better than warehousing people in prison for years, leaving them to await the next dead-end. You can call it soft. I call it the only way.

Originally appeared in Gandhi’s Be Magazine

I have been asked to become a contributor to the progressive journal Gandhi’s Be Magazine. The journal and the work  its supporting community does is inspired by the courage, the wisdom  and the philosophy  of Mahatma Gandhi. The magazine takes as it’s call to action Gandhiji’s challenge to “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” As you’ll notice looking at the magazine’s articles and the wide scope of the organization’s outreach and social action programs they are determined to do just that.  And so I’m honored (and more than a little humbled) to be invited to write for the journal’s opinion section.

I was recently interviewed via email by the magazine staff. It was an interesting opportunity for me to think about and clarify the roots of my own commitment to social justice. I’m happy to re-post the interview here on “Kids in the System” whose readers and guest contributors, so many of whom in their own work have taken Gandhiji’s words to heart, have become such an important part of my own community.

Profiles in Change

Editor’s Note: David Chura recently joined Gandhi’s Be Magazine. Teacher, Youth Advocate, and Author of the book “I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup,” David Chura blogs on youth incarceration and youth stuck in the social welfare system.

Tell us about your journey. From being a young boy to the environment you were raised in, and the adult influences that helped shape you both good and bad.

I grew up in a working class neighborhood and family where the shaping culture was an oppressive 1950s Roman Catholicism. Luckily I was a teenager during the early 60s, and so the rather closed world of 50s America was opened up for me by the Vatican Council’s social justice doctrines, the civil rights movement and eventually, the peace movement. It was in high school, a Catholic high school, that I became a fledging activist inspired by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, the teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. I wrote editorials for the school newspapers that the principal would pull, organized a tutoring program for inner city kids, and started an inter-racial council. In college my commitment to social justice strengthened and expanded; at the same time my Catholicism withered but soon was replaced by a growing interest in Eastern religions particularly Buddhism. While studying in college, I volunteered at and, for a time, lived in, a Catholic Worker house of hospitality which provided meals and shelter to homeless men. Eventually I gave up my student deferment to protest the Vietnam War and applied for conscientious objector status. My long held innate pacifism found firmer footing in the teachings of Gandhi and Dr. King. To my surprise (and, I think, to the surprise of the Selective Service Board) I was granted conscientious objector status and was assigned alternative service at a psychiatric hospital. It was there that I began my forty year journey of working, at various times, as a counselor, teacher and advocate with young people pushed to the margins of society by poverty, racism, violence, addiction, abandonment.

Running tandem to these life experiences was my struggle to accept myself as a gay man in the face of a condemning culture. While the years of prejudice, self-hatred, dishonesty, and fear were damaging, in many ways they are the foundation of my deep commitment and identification with “the outsider.”

The prison industrial complex is in a downward spiral with a generation of youth incarcerated. Can you share with us your feelings on this?

I’m often asked if I see any hope of change in the criminal and juvenile justice systems—the prison industrial complex. Sadly, I feel that any change that comes about will be the result not of commonsense or of humanitarian concerns but of economics. Unfortunately prisons are a big money making industry in the United States. This is apparent when states spend more money on building, maintaining and staffing correctional facilities than on schools. I recently was in an upstate New York town where a large Federal prison was the main source of income for the community. A local newspaper headline caught my attention: “We Care About Our Prisoners.” I was intrigued—and perhaps, naively hopeful—and bought a newspaper. At issue was not the welfare of the offenders housed in the local prison but the possibility that the facility might be closed. Needless to say that never materialized; it rarely does. But it illustrated to me the cycle of dependency that the prison industrial complex creates: Prisoners, especially young people, are a commodity. Communities count on there being a steady supply of that commodity so that the money continues feeding the local economy. This economic dependence is a strong deterrent to improving the criminal justice system. If change happens it will come about only under the crush of failing state budgets.

 Tell us about your prison experience.

My ten years teaching minors (some as young as 15) who were incarcerated in a New York county adult prison was a transformative experience. When I started working in the prison I was clear about who the “good guys” were and who the “bad guys”; the “us” and “them”; the “oppressors” and the “oppressed.” I saw the correctional staff—whether officer or administrator—as the enemy. I was there for my students and thought of them as the victims of an unjust system. But as the months went by I began to see the prison culture was based on a hierarchy of power and that I was doing exactly what everyone else did who was caught up in the penal system: I was taking sides, drawing lines in the sand, deciding who people were based on what I saw or what I thought I saw.

Over time as I got to know the correctional staff, especially the correctional officers, I began to realize that they were as oppressed by the toxic prison system as the inmates—they worked sometimes for as many as 16 hours a day under the same conditions: the close, foul smells of overcrowded blocks; the crippling noise and dirt; the constant threat of violence. As the COs began to trust me more, or at least get used to me, they shared their life experiences. In many ways they were not much different from the people they were charged with “overseeing.” For some, their lives mirrored that of the young people I taught—poor, from fractured families, struggling with addiction. The difference was that they had had enough resources or supports, perhaps just barely but enough, that saved them from the same path. They were as much, what I came to think of as, “children of disappointment” as my students.

Then as I looked around me I realized that those of us who worked there as “civilians”— medical personnel, chaplains, teachers, social workers—were also deeply affected by the same oppressive prison conditions. Until I finally understood that all of us, inside and outside prison walls, are “children of disappointment.” I saw that every person I knew had experienced hardships which they handled as best they could. This final insight is what made it easier, and intensely rewarding, for me to work in the prison system 5 days a week, 7 hours a day for ten years. It is what has supported my work to break down the barriers that separate all of us from each other.

There is a movement going on that includes “New Jim Crow” focusing on how there is a disproportionate number of African American males in prison, and the failure of the system in general. In your opinion, what can we do to change this revolving door and injustice?

The metaphor of Indra’s Net, an image that speaks to the interdependence of all experience, comes to mind when I think about our racist prison system. What happens in our prisons is a reflection of our society at large. The racism of our criminal justice system won’t change until we confront the bigotry of the larger American society; it won’t change until we confront poverty and violence in our communities. Our prisons are emblematic of our standard way of solving problems: instead of addressing the roots of crime we build more prisons, impose harsher, more punitive sentences, all in an effort to turn our backs on what is obvious and must be done.

I am a “personalist” and believe that change can only come about when each of us takes responsibility for what happens around us. One way that I can do this is to heighten people’s awareness of the inherent racism and brutality of our prisons. A phrase that I pointedly use more and more in my writing and in talking to people about our prison system and its culture is that these practices are “done in our name.” Prisons are built, more people of color are arrested and harshly sentenced, inhumane practices such as extended solitary confinement (in some cases for decades) are used even for young people. All these laws and practices are implemented and sanctioned by the legislators we elect and policymakers we listen to. A Buddhist meditation teacher I have practiced with urges his students, “Don’t turn away.” That teaching holds true for all of us as we confront the injustices in our world. This personalist approach is perhaps a slow means to change but it is the only one I feel can work, as each of us, person by person, confronts and takes responsibility for the actions of our society.

If you had one piece of advice to share with a young boy, what would that be? What would you share with adult men?

“Advice” can sound so lame but indeed is so true and profound: To a young boy I would say, “Hold on to your faith in life even when your simplest hope seems out of reach.” To an adult man I would say, “Kindness is your only true legacy.”

We have an initiative called “Boyz, Inc.” which calls for more positive mentors and role models, as well as getting our young men focused on character, values, and helping to create an awareness of the importance of a positive community to support our youth… What ideas and work are you doing that corresponds with this?

I’ve always been a teacher, it seems. In my 40+ years working directly with at risk kids, my efforts have been to crack open their rather narrow, constricted and impoverished lives and show them a different world. Likewise I’ve strived to do the same for the adult world by writing in various forums about the reality of my students’ lives and the things I have learned from them.

Recently I have been working with juvenile justice advocacy groups who on the state level are pushing for reform of the regressive laws that for decades have hindered the positive development and rehabilitation of young offenders. Through my writing and public speaking I’ve tried to educate a public that, when they hear about what it’s really like for a young person in prison, will often confess, “I had no idea.” It is that awareness and concern that I hope they will then express to their lawmakers.

Hope is a rare commodity in the juvenile justice field. So when I can, I also support and mentor people who are doing frontline work with youth in crisis by nurturing their commitment and enthusiasm, and by reminding them that although what they do every day to help young people is often unappreciated and disparaged it is essential and noble work. One of my favorite Zen sayings is that life is made up of “the 10,000 joys and the 10,000 sorrows.” I know that on some days people working with troubled kids can feel as though it is nothing but “the 10,000 sorrows.” But I like to remind them that at other times it is also “the 10,000 joys.” And most days it’s just a crazy mixed-up mess.

Tell us about the inspiration for your book “I don’t wish nobody to have a life like mine” as well as the ongoing discussion you have about the prison system.

I have written all my life. I enjoy capturing the everyday in words and trying to make what I see and feel real to others. As a result, I have written about the young people I’ve encountered over the years in counseling programs, psychiatric hospitals, homeless shelters, or schools. So of course when I started working at the prison I wrote.

The longer I was there, teaching in such an alien and difficult place, I began to see that my writing was a way to understand what was happening around me. The pieces I wrote focused on the young people I taught and the world they were forced to live in, inside and outside of prison. However, I wasn’t interested in writing political science or sociology. As important as that is, there was enough of that around. What I wanted to do through the writing process was to get to understand the people, young and old, “keepers and kept,” that I encountered every day. To do this I wrote the kind of literature that I knew from my own years of reading allowed me to experience and understand worlds very different from my own: I wrote stories that had all the elements of fiction—character, dialog, point of view—yet were true to what was happening; stories that put faces to all those statistics and studies about young offenders that periodically appear; narratives that would make people say, as they have said, “I had no idea.” Overtime the stories became I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup in which I not only shared stories about the people I met but also described my own personal journey of recognizing the common humanity I shared with everyone I encountered in the prison and outside it.

Do you have anything else to share with us?

My belief in the power of the written word to change the world and the people in it has grown and strengthened over the years. That power may reside in great literature, in an article, or even an email. An awareness of this power is something I have tried to share with my students, urging them to read, and to write their own stories and share their opinions. And I’ve tried to bring that power into my own writing in whatever form it takes.

Words have carried me through some very difficult places. I’ve often reminded myself, and others, of the lines from a Galway Kinnel poem, “for everything flowers from within of self-blessing/though sometimes it is necessary/ to reteach a thing its loveliness.” Or Rumi’s “This being human is a guest house. /Every morning a new arrival.” And finally, I like to pass on to people who are feeling discouraged about their work for criminal and juvenile justice reform these words of Barry Stevenson, executive director of Equal Justice Initiative, from an interview on The Root, “…if we’re going to be a just and fair society, the place where we test our commitment to the rule of law and human dignity is not in how we treat the gifted kids, the privileged kids, the talented kids, but really in how we treat the kids that are broken, that have failed and struggled and been condemned.”

One thing you take away from Crosswinds: Memoirs of a Jail Teacher by D.H. Goddard (a pseudonym for the author who is still teaching at the jail he writes about) is that the prison system, no matter where it is located, no matter what the setting—big or small; urban or rural; county, state, or Fed—is pretty much the same: inefficiently run, punitive in its approach, more interested in retribution and warehousing than helping people change their lives. Another thing that strikes you after reading this memoir is that in these toxic systems there are always people who want to make a difference in inmates’ lives, who understand that what we are doing is not going to cut down on crime but only increase it and in the process tarnish our national character.

D.H Goddard is one of those people. A high school teacher in a county prison in what he describes as a “cow paddy town” where cows outnumber people and “the major industry is incarceration”, he cares about the young people he works with, guiding them through the high school equivalency curriculum while motivating them to change the behaviors that got them locked up in the first place.

He doesn’t hesitate to share his frustrations and failures along with his successes. The reader sees him feeling his way through an arcane system that nobody bothers to explain to him. He gets no help from his supervisor who seems more afraid of his students than interested, or from the correctional staff who are, at best, hapless if not indifferent or obstructive. Yet Goddard learns as he goes along, developing respect for his students, recognizing the lost worlds they come from and trying to make a difference.

Interspersed throughout the book are the projects he instigates—a classroom aquarium and an ambitious unit on aerodynamics, both serving, it seemed to me, as metaphors for these young people’s lives in and out of prison—as well as the risks he takes to engage his students in discussions that might help them see beyond the block, the razor-wired walls, and a world defined by abandonment and defeat.

Crosswinds: Memoirs of a Jail Teacher is filled with the author’s efforts to educate and engage students, to connect with them and mentor them as one of the few adults in their world who not only cares about them but also enjoys their company. What might happen to our penal system if every incarcerated kid—whether locked up in a cow paddy town or in an urban swelter—was given the same opportunities?

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Numbers are tricky. Studies are done. Reports are written. Statistics released. And then people take the numbers and run with them, waving them like protest placards claiming how the numbers prove or disprove some long held “truth.” The Right does it. The Left does it. We all do it. Maybe there’s a tiny toggle in the human genome that manipulates us to manipulate the numbers. That’s why I’ve never liked numbers, never trusted them.

I saw this all play out in a recent Boston Globe OpEd piece about the high rates of recidivism in US prisons. Using the most recent data from the Bureau of Statistics, the numbers roll out: Within six months of being freed 28% of former prisoners were arrested for a new crime; three years, 68%; five years, 77%. 29% of the returnees had been arrested for violent offenses; 38% for property crimes; 39% for drug offenses; 58% for public order crimes. I think everyone would agree that the numbers paint a pretty bleak picture.

But this is where the numbers get tricky. The article insists that these statistics prove that efforts at prison reform and rehabilitation don’t work. Criminal justice experts have been searching for the “holy grail of rehabilitation” for years—40 according to one expert quoted—and nothing has worked. The article then goes on to suggest that since this holy grail is so elusive, since so many criminals leave prison “only too ready to offend again,” we have no option but to continue our present practice of mass incarceration, thus maintaining the US’s global position of locking up 25% of the world’s prison population while being only 5% of its general population.

This is why I don’t trust numbers. In these studies and reports people are treated as mere chits in the final count. No one notices that each one of those hatch marks is an individual, a real person—prisoner, inmate, offender, criminal, con, whatever you want to call them—living a life behind bars that few of us can imagine. That is the real story behind those numbers: a man or a woman, young or old, trying to survive in a prison culture that is designed—in the name of justice—not to nurture change but to demean; a system that punishes by deprivation: lack of proper nutrition; of adequate medical and mental health care; of physical, sexual and psychological safety; of meaningful work and education.

So where’s the mystery to recidivism? It is obvious—basic Social Science 101, basic parenting or human interaction. How you treat people is how they will act. Living under present day prison conditions, day after day, for years, can only foster more bitterness, anger, and despair; can only result in more crime fueled by vengeful feelings upon release.

And that “release” is another crushing blow to the ex-offender’s chances of making it. Many find themselves barred from public housing, food stamps, certain jobs and the right to vote. In some cases Federal education loans are denied for certain crimes. None of these punitive restrictions are an incentive to becoming a productive member of society.

There’s not much forgiveness in American culture. It seems that ex-offenders can’t suffer enough or repent enough for our Puritan tastes. The shackles of restrictions and prejudices that they as “free” men and women drag around may be silent compared to the ones they wore in prison, but those chains still rattle loudly not only in their own ears but in the ears of the communities that continue to shun them.

The roots of recidivism are not that elusive and never have been. Things won’t change until we are willing to define our penal system not as a social solution but as a social problem, one that we tackle with the same determination and vigor as we do other social problems such as addiction, sexual and physical abuse, and inadequate education. What’s our choice: the sacrifice, cost and efforts of true prison reform or the continued warehousing of human beings and the waste of their potential? Look at the numbers.

Originally appeared on Huffington Post

 

When Americans think about the prison system, we think about the men and women locked up in them and the people who work there. But we rarely, if ever, think about inmates’ families. We should.

The Boston Globe had it right in its recent editorial on the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s putting a halt to the Bristol County sheriff’s $5 dollar a day fee on inmates for upkeep. As the Globe noted, since there were no work release programs or jobs at the jail, inmates’ families were the ones who had to pay the fee, placing on them “an even heavier burden” than they already carry. The Globe urged the Massachusetts legislature not to legalize that burden.

Visiting days were some of the hardest days to work at the county jail where I taught incarcerated high school kids. The lobby filled up with anxious mothers and grandmothers, and got a little raucous with toddlers and babies brought to see their daddies by wives and girlfriends who still found the fortitude to stand by their locked up men.

They got there early because they knew that the jail routine ate into their limited time with their loved ones. But getting there early meant an even earlier start from home, many coming cross county. Most visitors didn’t have cars, and so they took bus after bus after bus. Once signed in, they sat on cracked vinyl benches and waited, the way they waited for those buses.

Then, the slow crawl through security where papers were checked; belongings searched; where belts, boots, bobby pins, jewelry, even the occasional bra had to be removed to clear the metal detector. One glitch and the whole process ground to a halt. Except the clock. It kept ticking, robbing families of what little time they had together.

It was nobody’s fault. Things happen. Someone didn’t know they had to have a picture ID. A grandmother only spoke Spanish. And who would have thought that they needed the baby’s birth certificate?

Things like that happen. But that doesn’t explain the most egregious wrong of visiting days—the way the correctional staff treated visitors. Although the officers working the lobby were “polite” in that cardboard cutout way that people in charge can have, the suspicion and contempt with which they treated the visiting family members were as obvious as the print on an arrest warrant. It was as though those mothers and grandmothers, those wives and girlfriends were themselves criminals.

Those correctional officers, however, were only reflecting the general view that most Americans have about inmates’ families. “If you’d been a better mother.” “If you’d only raised your daughter right her son wouldn’t be here.” “Where’s the father?”  “What are you doing having that thug’s baby?”

Jail strips people of their freedom, their community, and their identity. But those family members who we accuse of neglect and complicity are the only ones who give inmates a sense (as tentative as it may be) of stability and self, of connection to a world they are cut off from.

And when inmates are finally released into a world they are expected to fit into, they return home to those same families we consider inadequate. They may not have much to offer the ex-offender, but what they do offer is a lot more than the plastic bag for clothes, the bus token, and the injunction to “stay out of jail” that most criminal justice systems provide. Imposing an upkeep fee on inmates  only adds to the responsibilities these overburdened families already carry.

By now I thought the shocked reactions to the Department of Justice’s report on sexual abuse of juveniles in detention centers would’ve disappeared. But articles and editorials from across the country continue to appear as states grapple with shocking numbers that won’t go away. Will all this worry and lament translate into change? Who knows?

The one thing I’m pretty sure won’t change is America’s fear of these new barbarians marauding our streets in hordes (except today we call them “gangs.”) Because that fear seems ingrained in our culture, kids will continue to be shut away in the very horrible places we condemn.

But if you’re going to continue putting kids in some kind of detention I have a solution: boot camp.

For several years during my ten year tenure teaching high school kids at a New York county jail I had the privilege (strange as that sounds) of teaching in a boot camp for teenagers serving county time.

When I was first approached about the assignment I turned it down.

They had the wrong guy. After all, I’d been a conscientious objector during Vietnam, and to this day am a staunch pacifist. The military approach to anything is not one I can, or will ever be able to endorse. Young guys? put in a boot camp? to be screeched at? humiliated? all in the name of “helping” them?

I wanted nothing to do with it.

Until I finally gave in and visited the boot camp on which county corrections would model theirs.

What I saw knocked the protest sign out of this old pacifist’s fist.

The boot camp was set in the Catskill Mountains, as far away from Brooklyn (where most of the kids came from) as you can get. Spotlessly clean and well cared for, the place was in stark contrast to the dilapidated jail where I taught.

Equally striking were the teenage boys I saw there with shaved heads; pressed paramilitary green uniforms, and polished boots. They went about their business with an ease that kids doing time, or even kids free on the streets rarely have.

But most impressive, and downright disconcerting, was listening to what these young guys had to say about themselves. They talked candidly about their lives in the hood; the crimes they committed; their endless stints in group homes, detention centers and jails; and the world they were hoping to make for themselves once they were out.

They talked about “core values” and the creed they lived by: “There is nothing I cannot do if I set my heart and mind to it. I am willing to learn,” a creed that gave them hope and the courage to plan for the future.

And the fact that they even envisioned a future for themselves was astonishing enough. So many of the locked up guys I taught didn’t expect to live past 21. They’d seen too many of their fathers and brothers and uncles and friends killed in the streets. Why should their lives be any different?

These “cadets” did something else I never saw in the county jail. They respected themselves and other people; recognized their strengths, yet acknowledged their weaknesses; and took responsibility for their crimes. (It’s pretty common in prison to hear guys say, “I caught a charge,” as though crime was just an H1N1 variation.)

To help them make these leaps, kids in the boot camp had weekly counseling groups, individual sessions, family conferences, job training, school, and lots and lots of PT. The correctional staff that worked with them taught them how to move in their bodies, to stand straight, to walk. There was none of the usual gangsta swagger or jailhouse shuffle. They learned how to be at ease in their bodies instead of holding them like loaded guns ready to explode.

And when they left this greenhouse of recovery for the familiar and unchanged neighborhoods they came from, these young men and their families received intense follow-up services.

It was easy to see that this was not the “scream-in-your-face-you-piece-of-shit-tear-you-down-to-make-you-better” boot camp model I knew was used in rehab centers or in other jails, or had seen horrifyingly glorified in movies like Full Metal Jacket. Instead it was what I called the social work model, one based on compassion (as oxymoronic as that sounds) and not on the barely suppressed rage so many correctional institutions are fueled by.

Much to my surprise, when I returned to the jail I enlisted in the county boot camp which turned out to be a pretty close replica of what I had seen.

I don’t believe that kids should be locked up, not in large detention centers, and certainly not in adult prisons. But if they are going to be incarcerated (and I know they are) I think that every kid should be assigned to this type of humane “boot camp.”

Because every day that I taught there, I left the jail moved by what I saw: kids, no different from society’s young “thugs” locked up just down the hall in the regular jail blocks, struggling against the odds to become decent human beings.

“I won’t do it. I got a right to speak up when something is bullshit.”

Sunny didn’t have a problem firing those words across the principal’s desk when he demanded that she “come back and behave” after he had kicked her out of school (again). And it didn’t bother her that her father was sitting right there.

Sunny hated school. She always had. She felt dumb and out of place. Wise ass, a fighter from the beginning, she didn’t take anybody’s crap and was always in trouble.

So nobody who knew her from those days would be surprised to hear that she ended up in the San Francisco county lock up; that she’d been there for 20 years, and was still there.

But she didn’t get there the way you’d think.

She did it her way, the way she did everything.

Sunny Schwartz became a lawyer, and after doing a notable job working with inmates in the San Francisco Prisoner Legal Service Unit she was asked to head all prisoner programs in the San Francisco county jails. As top administrator, she would revamp a pretty moribund institution, change how things were done, and start new programs.

Dreams from the Monster Factory, Sunny’s book about her prison experiences, describes the successes and the (amazingly few) failures of that transformation and her own personal and professional journey.

Sunny hit one of those rare times in a penal system when a few administrators, in this case two men, are able to acknowledge the system’s breakdowns, and have a vision of how to fix and make it better.

It was a pretty heart-thumping vision at that, especially for those of us who have worked in jails: Change, any change there, is glacial. Nothing gets done, no matter who says they want it done. And even those officials who make modifications end up, in some perverse logic of corrections, sabotaging their own efforts.

But the vision was there in San Francisco in 1990 along with the will and determination to see it through.

“Pull the jail culture down…so it might actually help prisoners,” was the way the prison director put it to Sunny.

“We need someone with your courage to do this,” another corrections official said.

It was a daunting job, but they knew they had her. Only somebody as feisty as that teenager who spit those words across the principal’s desk would take on a challenge like that.

Sunny had always been an advocate for the underdog. But that didn’t make her an easy mark. Dreams From the Monster Factory is filled with stories of Sunny going toe to toe with the toughest thugs—thieves, wife beaters, gangbangers, murders; what she describes as the “scrap heap;” and what, in the jail where I worked, a warden called “human garbage.”

She confronted their behavior and demanded—that’s right, demanded—that they change, that they look at their actions, then take responsibility for them. And they did, because she gave them the message that they were capable of changing.

For some of these men, mean, hard-bitten and cynical, it was the first time anyone had shown that kind of faith in them. The jail culture didn’t believe that they could be any different. Society certainly didn’t. Their families and friends had long given up expecting anything good from them, if they ever had.

But Sunny and the rest of her staff didn’t just set out their demands. They gave inmates the tools they needed to meet them. During the day the TV was turned off (perhaps her most courageous act, considering that TV is the one drug inmates could still get—legitimately), and everybody was required to be in some sort of educational, vocational or therapeutic program. Over time jail life for both inmates and correctional staff improved.

But Sunny wasn’t satisfied. While she recognized that the men’s in-jail behavior had gotten better, she was disturbed by the violence of the inmates’ crimes. It was a violence that tore apart not only their victims’ lives, but also their own lives as well as the lives of the people they loved and the communities in which they lived.

In response to the vast net of suffering she saw, Sunny came up with her boldest plan of all: Put the most violent men in one dorm and start a violence prevention program. RSVP (Resolve to Stop the Violence Program) would be based on the tenets of restorative justice. Through a variety of groups, it would teach the men to forgive themselves for their crimes; to forgive others for the harm done to them (Sunny found that most of the men in RSVP had been victims of childhood trauma); and to seek forgiveness.

Dreams from the Monster Factory tells the heartbreaking, yet heartwarming struggles many of the men went through in RSVP.

One of the most affecting transformations was Ben, a tough, recalcitrant white supremacist/Neo-Nazi. He refused to participate in the program, to examine his hateful and violent behavior. Until finally, through the slow water-on-rock patience of the staff, the other inmates, and RSVP itself, he began to crack open and amend his ways. His final act of reconciliation, and it is a very moving one, came when he volunteered to speak about himself and the program to a synagogue congregation, some of whose members are Holocaust survivors.

What makes Dreams from the Monster Factory so engrossing, however, isn’t just watching a spirited reformer take on the criminal justice system. We are captivated by Sunny’s honesty. She doesn’t shy away from her own process of reconciliation and transformation. She’s right in there with the worst of the worst, grappling with her own monsters—inner and outer—as she learns to forgive herself and others. This combination of personal and public struggle is what gives this book its the strength and beauty.

Early in the book, teenaged Sunny warned that she didn’t put up with anybody’s bullshit—her own, the system’s or society’s. Dreams from the Monster Factory shows her true to her word.