Learning To Choose

“Behind the criminal records, the tattoos, the hostile demeanor, and the symbols of prison culture resides a choosing human, a decision maker, a potential citizen, friend, and comrade”

Raymond Roy is serving his 17th year of a life sentence at the Oregon State Penitentiary. Since he's been there, he has earned a BS in psychology and is now finishing graduate work in the humanities through the external degree program offered by California State University, Dominguez Hills. And, in his words, he works at “staying focused and remains ever thankful.” Raymond has a parole consideration date in 2004.

Three years ago, I was struck by something a fellow inmate shared during a class we were taking at the Oregon State Penitentiary. I still have it, jotted down on the inside cover of my workbook: “I've been in and out of the joint for nearly 40 years and I always just thought the way I thought was the way things was.” In a sense, he was right; the limits of our cognitive skills keep us confined to the world we make for ourselves. On that day, however, he was beginning to think about and see things differently.

The idea of holding an empathy class inside the Oregon State Penitentiary began five years ago when three lifers sitting in the prison yard struck up a conversation. They agreed that some kind of an empathy class was needed inside the walls. After several months of planning and assistance from a volunteer facilitator from the streets, they developed a six-session syllabus and received authorization to use a classroom one night per week. The facilitator began screening applicants, and in July 1997 the first Victim Empathy Class in the history of the Oregon State Penitentiary was under way.

Empathy students sit in a circle of desks facing each other while digging deep into their thoughts about how life works. They examine the beliefs that allowed them to distort the impact of their actions; they discuss ways they have justified and rationalized their destructive choices and minimized their effect; they look at how categorizing people into groups creates the “them and us” syndrome and reduces their own distinctiveness as individuals; they look at the connections between thoughts and feelings and what it means to be a victim and suffer a loss.

Participants move from one session to the next as a group, but only after each individual feels ready. A sense of community develops and strengthens as members share honest, insightful criticism. The first class, a group of 14, met weekly for 18 months before they completed the six sessions; five members from the first group continued as participants/co-facilitators in the second group.

As the distance between “them and us” narrows, new and deeper sensitivities develop and a sense of connectedness emerges. That sense of connectedness may mark the first time an individual has not felt alienated from others. An inevitable and healthy link between being an offender and being connected to others is an increasing sense of shame for having victimized another human being. It is easy to find men and women inside the walls who regret their actions, but nearly all of us arrive at the front door without a deep understanding of how we were able to make the choices that led to our crimes. That understanding is something we have to learn. We are discovering that improving our cognitive skills is a workable means towards that end, as well as a means of restructuring a debilitating disposition.

Writer and educator Stephen Duguid addressed prison educators in one of his works by saying that prison inmates are “individual human beings with biographies, feelings, aspirations, and weaknesses. They have choices, just as we all have choices, and it is that choosing individual — not the prisoner or the criminal role — that teachers must make contact with, because behind the criminal records, the tattoos, the hostile demeanor, the symbols of prison culture and the rest there resides a choosing human, a decision maker, a potential citizen, friend, and comrade.”


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