“So encourage each other and build each other up…”  1Thessalonians 5:11

An idealist believes the short run doesn’t count.  A cynic believes the long run doesn’t matter.  A realist believes that what is done or left undone in the short run determines the long run.  -Sydney Harris

A year ago I observed two young men rushing across the compound, adult continuing education books in hand.  As they neared the library they were intercepted by the warden (this warden has since retired from the BOP).

From my vantage point I could see nothing wrong: they were in prison khaki, not running, and stood respectfully as the warden addressed them.  After poking his finger at them for a few minutes, the warden motioned to someone outside my field of vision.  The yard officer rode up in the golf cart from his station at the key.  The warden pointed at the inmates and then in the direction of the key/housing units.  The warden headed to the administration building while the rest moved out of my sight.  Ten minutes later the operations lieutenant escorted the two young men to the “hole;” the disciplinary housing unit.  A couple weeks went by before I had the opportunity to speak with one of the men.  He told me the warden considered them out of bounds even though the housing unit officer and two yard officers allowed them out of the unit and across the yard at the end of the hourly move to participate in re-entry programming.

This is where my pre-incarcerated faith in the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) shattered.  I assumed the dual purpose of incarceration was punishment and rehabilitation.  The odd report or news article laying out the failure of rehab did nothing to dispel the idea that it must be the inmate’s fault if the programming didn’t take.  It never crossed my mind that BOP leadership erects barriers to rehabilitation.

Friction, properly applied, is a wonderful thing.  It is the factor that allows our motivation to grip and propel us forward.  A corrections officer making a decision to encourage inmate participation in re-entry is one such example.  But place an icy patch on that highway to rehab, now a soul slides out of control.  Where will he regain traction?  What direction will he face when he suddenly shoots forward again?  Or will he simply slam on the brakes, shut down, scared to venture forth under his own locomotion, fearful of more ice patches.  Understand, there are a lot more inmates who choose not to prepare for re-entry than do.  Those who start in the right direction are rare individuals and need all the encouragement we can give.

I am afraid entire generations are lost to our society.  Little consideration is given to the long term consequences in the frenzy to lock up the bad guys.  Many questioned George Bush’s decision to go back into Iraq without a clear exit strategy.  Yet in our creep to mass incarceration we allowed those same politicians to mire us in a war against crime with no exit strategy.

A lot of the men I live with are incredibly ignorant but not stupid.  Many, though, were engaged in entrepreneurial activity acceptable in their peer group or neighborhood.  They were working within the limits of their knowledge and understanding, not letting ignorance hinder the desire to succeed.  Unacceptable as a social norm?  Sure.  Predictable?  Absolutely.

So now we (society) have locked up the bad (ignorant yet entrepreneurial) guys.  Where do we go from here?  Is it enough to stick them behind razor wire and cross our collective fingers as we hope they figure it out?  Unchecked incarceration is unsustainable as now thousands of unprepared men and women are poised for release.

My hope for our political leaders is a rethinking of mass incarceration.  In the meantime I implore the BOP leadership to consider the consequences of friction, properly applied.  Make it easy – rewarding even – to do the right things:  continuing education, spiritual awareness, financial planning, business opportunities.  Make it more difficult to access time wasters.  Propel men into productivity.  Return men to their community armed with the knowledge and skills for fruitful lives that contribute to society.

And you, dear reader, ask yourself, “are my actions providing traction for those around me?”  Are you encouraging advancement with thoughtful, considered words?  Or do you blurt out the first thing that comes to mind without regard to its long term effect because it is convenient or the way you were reared?

Use the precious time you have available to lift up those around you; friction, properly applied.


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