July 4, 2016 – The Freedom to Change

Making Choices

Last week on NPR on Sunday as I drove home from DC I heard a TED hour about choices we make. I am not sure that is what they called it but it hit me that way. The story was about a woman, let’s call her Mary, who had gone to a prison to help them hold some TED talks in the prison. She worked primarily with a man who was very bright and enthusiastic about the project. He and several others thought it would be a very good thing for the other prisoners to hear various talks.

They worked together for quite a while and the event was a huge success and they worked on a plan to bring the talks to other prisons. The woman never thought about what the man was in prison for. As Mary drove away with her friend the other woman decided to look up this fellow to find out why he was in prison. She told Mary with great shock that he was in prison because at age 18 he was high on drugs and raped and assaulted someone.

Mary was left in a dilemma, what was she going to do with this information and was she going to continue the project with this rapist. After contemplation she thought no, she would do the right thing and write to this fellow. They exchanged letters for a while about the subject and then she realized this man was not the same person he was at age 18. So the project lives on and she never wants to know the crime someone is incarcerated for.

The rest of the way home I got thinking about my experiences with ex-felons and how that question never entered my mind. Back when I worked in Detox as a counselor we would have counseling interns from colleges and because I was attending the college at night getting my masters degree if I worked with an intern I would get a course credit which helped with finances. So I had several interns. Two of my favorites were working on their degrees which they had started while in prison. They were both very nice people and cared deeply about helping others get sober.

One fellow in particular was just great to work with. He had a fabulous sense of humor and was smart as a whip. He did tell us that at one point in his life he owned a street corner where he sold drugs. No one would walk on his corner without his permission. We laughed hysterically as he described this young punk who was so full of himself. I don’t remember ever talking about his time in prison. It was obvious he had used his time well getting educated and getting his “stuff” together.

He graduated with his counseling certificate and eventually also became a credentialed substance abuse to you that he had spent time in prison. He was a deacon in his church, sang in the choir and was a positive role model for youth. This man was such an example of why locking up people and throwing away the key is a bad idea. Other modern countries do not send people away for as long as we do for various crimes. It does not make much sense to spend all that money when education, counseling and strong reentry programs will accomplish a lot more.

My favorite story about these two men was their reaction when I told them I had passed the exam to work in the prisons. They both started laughing and said “Mama, you do not belong working in a prison, They will eat you up and throw you out within a week”. Message received. I thought they might say , “Wow, you will be great working there!” Guess they knew me better than I knew myself. So I passed on all the requests for interviews.

I tend to judge people. I admit it. But I also have rules about it. Judge if you have proof. Forgive, forgive, & forgive. My kids think I am crazy for some of the people I have forgiven but it is better for my health to be forgiving than to hold on to anger. But there are people on a special list – those who have done damage to my loved ones. Never can be more than three ever on that list because then for sure my definition of harm is getting too broad. Pedophiles don’t come off the list until they die. There is one of those on my list. I thought he would die long ago but no such luck. I don’t know enough about him to forgive him and he never asked to be forgiven for his terrible behavior and he did not change. Those things would have brought about forgiveness for me.

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